Monday, July 10, 2017
Buzzed on Expectation
From a sports perspective, nothing appears to compare to wandering through the despair of postseason deficiency. For players, organization executives, and fan bases, a playoff drought might be akin to putting in a month's work with no payoff. The results and effort are there, but the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of that labor aren't. Now, I know this example is a stretch, and an exaggerated one at that. However, for most involved with (and supportive of) these franchises, you would hope to have some sort of feeling of achievement. In sports, that comes with postseason berths.
This appears to be more the case in professional basketball and hockey, where more teams make the playoffs than miss them. In the NBA and NHL, to have an extended drought on your organization's resume speaks directly to your dysfunction. The inability to draft good talent, the inability to keep any good talent, and the revolving door and coaches/management appear to be the hallmarks of such chaos. And that appears to currently be the case across the Association.
Going into next season, eight teams will be working to end postseason droughts of four seasons or more. Five of those franchises are suffering through the longest such situations in their respective histories (including the historic Lakers). Now, to be frank, most of these teams are expected to keep this trend going by next April (including the historic Lakers). But there is a glimmer of hope for a couple of these cases.
There is a hint of buzz around Denver. The Nuggets didn't duck out of the playoff race until the last couple of weeks of the regular season. Their young core was getting healthier, and some were intrigued by how center Nikola Jokic could help the team advance to a higher plateau. Now, with the sign-and-trade of star forward Danilo Gallinari, you have to wonder if any wind has been taken out of the sails of the Nuggets' potential upward mobility.
There's also quite a bit of buzz surrounding Philadelphia. After years of "The Process" working its magic, quite a few believe that the 76ers have a nucleus of talent that can scare the middle of the Eastern Conference. It's not a secret that the East has slid back on the superstar-talent scale. The issue in Philly, though, may be the reliance on all of the young stars that have been drafted recently.
Ben Simmons didn't play a minute of his rookie season (due to injury). Joel Embiid finally got on the court after missing his first two years of pro eligibility, and then was shut down after 31 games of action (due to injury in both cases). This year's Number One overall pick, Markelle Fultz, hopes to not miss too much time after suffering a high ankle sprain in Summer League action (due to ... well, that one's kind of obvious). And, aside from the injury front, will Jahlil Okafor stay on this roster? The Sixers have a lot of "if"s to overcome before making a postseason push.
The most buzz surrounding a woe-be-gone franchise, though, is sitting right on top of me. If you didn't know, I currently live in the Twin Cities. When it comes to the Minnesota Timberwolves, I can tell you first-hand that there's been every deflated emotion you can imagine. From malaise to heartbreak to hand-wringing anger, this franchise has provided its share of all those and between for a decade-plus. But that might have al changed a couple of weeks ago. On draft night, the Wolves finally got word of a trade that was rumored as early as last year ... one that brought Bulls' star wing player Jimmy Butler to town.
This move alone (due to the fact the organization only had one pick that night) had most folks claiming that the Wolves were the winners of the entire draft. And this move alone has led to other deals. Veteran point guard Ricky Rubio ended up being shipped out to Utah, making room for veteran point guard Jeff Teague. Another former Bull, Taj Gibson, signed to rejoin his former coach, Tom Thibodeau. Now, three-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford (as of me typing this) is reportedly going to sign with the organization.
Even for a team that garnered 31 wins last season, adding all of the personnel above to a roster that sports Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns makes believers out of this city, as well as many beyond the metro loop. Now, I don't want to be a wet blanket, but there was buzz last year. When Thibodeau took over in his dual role, expectations were high for improvement. In a season that saw disappointing defensive efforts and several second-half collapses, the Wolves saw their victory total rise only two over the previous season's efforts. But the hope has definitely returned to the area, with belief that a building block was set for the rise of a new contender.
It's the desperate hope of an organization that has the longest postseason drought in the league (13 seasons). It's the desperate hope of a roster that doesn't want to be a part of the NBA's longest-ever postseason drought (currently at 15 seasons for the Clippers franchise, from 1976-1977 to 1990-1991). It's the desperate hope of a fanbase that has space in its neighborhoods, homes, and own hearts for those that haven't shared championship glory for a major pro team since 1991. It's desperate, but it's hope all the same.
I've been around this type of buzz a couple of different times. I was living here when the Minnesota Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter on the Fourth of July (2012). I was visiting Washington, D.C. the night of May 18, 2010 (the night that the Wizards won the NBA Draft Lottery). In each of those instances, the hope to turn around struggling franchises was so tangible that you had to wade through it. That's the hop running through Minneapolis-St. Paul at the moment. In each of those previous cases, those previous franchises have found postseason life, despite a lack of great postseason success. And the Wolves would like to, at least, find themselves in that kind of situation.
All in all, you can find lightning in a bottle. The Chicago Blackhawks, San Francisco Giants, Golden State Warriors, Chicago Cubs, and Seattle Seahawks are just some of the names that emerged from seemingly nowhere to become champions. But the spark to that lightning only exists from a postseason berth. And the ignition to that spark only comes from hope for the better. I'm curious to see what the Wolves can turn hope into.