Aaron Stanley, Bureau Manager, The Financial Times

Aaron Stanley, Bureau Manager, The Financial Times

A View From the Stands

By Aaron Stanley

If you enjoy watching talented Minnesota sports teams underachieve and fail to live up to expectations, this winter has been a banner season for you.

Should you fail to appreciate the value of continual losing even when a team clearly has the talent to be competitive, and you must find someone to blame, look no further than the head coach.

Both the Wild and Timberwolves have managed to assemble talented rosters chock full of young studs, potential superstars and core building blocks that should hypothetically result in not only these teams winning now but also being elite over the long haul.

In theory, the sky is the only limit for both of these franchises. In reality, ineffective coaching has emerged as a more tangible, earthy hindrance.

The Wild entered the 2015-16 season as a borderline elite Western Conference contender after finishing 2014-15 as the league’s hottest, most dangerous team after the Devan Dubnyk trade. Its remarkable run was derailed by the Chicago Blackhawks in the conference semifinals.

While the 2015-16 campaign started off on a positive note, the Wild’s weaknesses have been exposed during the ongoing implosion that has seen the team lose 13 of its last 14 games and its head coach, Mike Yeo, fired over the weekend. Barring another late season miracle, a fourth consecutive playoff appearance has a Hail Mary shot at best.

The firing of Yeo is unfortunate because he has done a commendable job over the past few years of injecting life into what had been largely a lackluster and painfully average franchise since its conception in the early 2000s. 

But the fruit of three consecutive playoff trips is that simply making it to the second round is no longer acceptable. And finishing the season with a .500 record and missing the playoffs entirely is a complete disaster.

After initially stating that he would not fire Yeo, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher eventually grew tired of his star players Ryan Suter and Zach Parise wasting away in mediocrity while the young, supposedly up-and-coming core of Mikael Granlund and Nino Neiderreiter failed to improve.

The writing on the wall came when even former Wild players began tweeting on the #YeohastoGo hashtag and lamenting how the head coach has failed to release the action potential buried on the roster.

What does firing Yeo actually accomplish at this point? According to a controversial facet of organizational psychology and management theory, firing somebody who has done a relatively good job can be an effective way of improving overall performance by motivating everybody else to stop resting on their laurels and play better.

But in this instance, with the season already lost, it appears Fletcher’s motive for sacking Yeo was more about saving his own job — though a coaching change certainly will not hurt at this point.

The Timberwolves have also failed up to expectations this season, though that’s difficult to quantify because no knowledgeable Minnesota sports fan actually expects the team to win with any consistency.

Since 2003-04, when I was graduating from high school, the definition of a “successful season” for the T-Wolves has been one in which the team lost a sufficient number of games to earn a top draft lottery pick.

So coming off a league worst 16-66 record in 2014-15, a season which they clearly tanked in order to land Karl-Anthony Towns in the draft, nobody was predicting that the team would become a contender overnight, especially after the sudden passing of Flip Saunders at the onset of the season.

But despite the sheer amount of young talent atop this roster, notably Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, the squad — under head coach Sam Mitchell — has managed to find itself sporting the fifth worst record in the league.

In the standings, it is ahead of only the lowly Phoenix Suns, the confused L.A. Lakers, a Brooklyn Nets franchise that is doomed to futility after mortgaging its future on a 37 year-old Paul Pierce and 35 year-old Kevin Garnett in 2013 and the Philadelphia 76ers, who have become the NBA’s Chicago Cubs-esque lovable losers.

This T-Wolves core is clearly elite caliber, and their performances over the NBA All-Star weekend are enough to remove any questions over natural talent and ability.

What’s missing is a head coach that is able to harness and release this untapped potential. It’s true that Sam Mitchell was never supposed to be manning the helm, but that hasn’t stopped T-Wolves loyalists from salivating more and more each day in anticipation of what this team could do if and when it is properly coached.

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