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Exits: Sooner is relative
Author Hanif Abdurraqib on what the Minnesota Timberwolves lose as they attempt to repurpose their identity, again and again.
Let’s say you are like me. I pray you are not – for a multitude of reasons and for both our sakes – bur for the purposes of navigating this specific route of anguish, let’s say you are like me. Which means that in the midst of an otherwise pleasant or at least neutral day, you might want to visit a low-grade ache upon yourself, as a refusal to lose touch with the buffet of emotional brutalities, always open and hovering, waiting for you to stumble in. And so, on a Friday or Saturday night, perhaps in bed earlier than you’d like to be, you find yourself scrolling through the Instragram of an ex-anything (romance/friend/steady and consistent barista.) You find yourself eager to be a tourist in a world recently remodeled without you, scrolling gently, as to not accidentally like a weeks or months old photo. No good can come from this, but you don’t necessarily do it for good. It’s more of an exercise in confirmation, in either direction. Life is either better on the other side, or it isn’t.
This thinking, or at least an extension of it, is how I know all of Walker Kessler’s advanced statistics, despite not being a person who seeks out advanced statistics often. I know his offensive rebound percentage is higher than 97% of all other NBA players. I know his net rating, his true shooting percentages, all of it. I watched Utah this season the same way I’d scroll through an ex-girlfriend’s social media: tentatively, but curiously, prepared to be potentially wounded. And yet, I couldn’t stop. I was fascinated, specifically by Kessler, a Minnesota Timberwolf for all of two weeks. Kessler, who, in January, had one of the best revenge games I’ve ever seen from a rookie, coming into Target Center and putting up a 20 point, 20 rebound effort in a Jazz win, then going on Instagram and posting a series of photos from the game with the caption “hindsight is 20/20” (it was one of those moments where one could see the caption arriving the second the game’s final buzzer went off, though that didn’t dim its potency.)
Kessler’s season represented a sort of microcosm of The Minnesota Timberwolves Problem over the past several seasons. There isn’t just a single problem, to be clear. But one central problem is that the team attempts to repurpose its identity too quickly, giving up on incremental progress in the name of temporary big swings that end up not working out, pulling the organization further apart, and putting them in a position where they, again, have to restart. I’ve been a Timberwolves fan since almost the beginning of the franchise’s time in the league, which means that my formative years as a fan were during the team’s most consistent era. An era of varied success, to be sure, but there was a franchise cornerstone, and a plan for how to get the most out of that cornerstone’s time in Minnesota.
I would like to say, here and now, that I am maybe one of the few remaining Timberwolves fans who has some real grace for Karl-Anthony Towns. He can be a frustrating player to watch, he can also be a thrilling player to watch, sometimes within the same possession (take him clumsily barreling to the basket with five fouls on him before flipping up a perfect, clutch floater against Atlanta, for example.) It is impossible to extract this version of KAT from the personal tragedies he’s endured, but even from a basketball standpoint, he’s had to deal with a level of inconsistency that few other players of his caliber have had to endure. Endless shuffling of the front office personnel, coaches (all with vastly different styles and at least one who was pretty much all vibes and nothing else,) and teammates have left him in a constant state of adjustment, and have also – due to his being the most consistent tenured visible person in the organization – led to him being a scapegoat for organizational failures.
And yet, sports is a place where one can lie to themselves in low-grade, harmless ways. When the Gobert trade was announced at the start of July, I was in broad agreement with everyone who suggested it seemed like a nightmare, but I quickly pivoted to lying about myself, to quietly and shamefully archiving the tweets and group chat missives where I’d made jokes about the glaring limitations of Rudy Gobert over the years. It’ll be like a slightly lesser Duncan/Robinson kinda thing, I would tell myself, during the most egregious heights of my self-deception. I’d told myself the future picks wouldn’t matter, the dismantling of a core that brought the team a rare successful season wouldn’t matter, in July, no one knew what Kessler was or wasn’t going to be, so it didn’t matter. The Timberwolves sold it as a “win-now” move, with a small window, and even with what I know about basketball, just as a fan of the game, I know in my heart that a “win-now” move does not involve forcing one of your team’s best players (coming off of maybe his best season) into a position he has never played and is not equipped to play.
But I refuse to detach from the fantasy of it all. Fantasy is probably a better word to describe what I’m reaching for. It is childlike to believe that everything will work out in your favor, to hope for it even though reality suggests otherwise, and I believe sports is a place to sink into a childlike exuberance, held together by obvious falsehoods, but still fun to cling to, even as they unravel. I still thought the Timberwolves could take the Nuggets to seven games, even as Denver took Minnesota’s best shot, and seemed entirely unmoved. No matter what happens in the offseason (which, on Minnesota’s end, seems like it’ll be very little,) I’ll be there in September, still insisting that I see a finish near the top of the West for my beloved Wolves, a team that hasn’t finished within the top three of the Western Conference in two decades, finishing in the bottom three thirteen times in the same span.
When the season came to its inevitable end, Anthony Edwards missing a three in the dwindling moments of a game six where Minnesota fought hard, but simply didn’t have enough to combat Denver’s depth and brilliance, I felt somewhat freed from the burden’s of this season’s reality, freed to spin back towards an offseason of dreaming, until the reality strips away at the dreaming slowly, 82 games at a time.
Near the ending of the sprawling, stunning Ross Gay poem “Catalog Of Unabashed Gratitude” we read:
Soon it will be over,
which is precisely what the child in my dream said,
holding my hand, pointing at the roiling sea and the sky
hurtling our way like so many buffalo,
who said it’s much worse than we think,
So, what I mean to say is, in the end, only one team wins. For everyone else, it’s all a little something like that. “Sooner” is relative. It always is.
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