By the time the end of the 2014 regular season rolled around, and with it the Timberwolves season altogether, it was clear that Kevin Love was on his way out. It wasn’t a matter of 'if,' but 'when' and 'for what.' The dominoes started to fall: David Blatt is named head coach of the Cavaliers, then Andrew Wiggins was drafted No. 1 overall by the Cavaliers, LeBron James followed by making his decision to return home, and then Kevin Love moved to Cleveland in exchange for Wiggins.
The Cavaliers story is well documented. David Blatt was brought in having an impressive non-North American resume, LeBron returned home, and the Cavaliers went from lottery chumps to Eastern Conference champs. They even pushed the irresistible Golden State Warriors to six games with a decimated roster.
There were arguments that some of those injuries or limitations - losing Kevin Love but having the hustle of Tristan Thompson, losing the score-first explosiveness of Kyrie Irving but having the head-first, dirt-under-the-fingernails irritant Matthew Dellavedova – should have put the Warriors in the position to sweep. The Cavaliers essentially overachieved, pushing a historically great team as far as anyone else had without two of their three best player available.
Then, this past Friday, Cleveland fired David Blatt. The news was supposedly shocking to members of the Cavaliers team – they thought that the news was going to be regarding a Love trade, not a Blatt firing. After all, when LeBron got healthy during the 2015 season and the team made some trades, the team went on a run. Blatt amassed 20 of his 40 career losses as an NBA coach in his first 39 games in charge, going 64-20 after that opening stretch.
Blatt is gone, rumors persist that maybe Love is next. The future of any team in the East that boasts the roster of Cleveland – even without Blatt and Love – would be bright. They currently sit at the top of the standings with a record of 30-11 heading into Saturday night’s showdown with Central Division rival Chicago. Regardless of moves made, or that may yet transpire, it is reasonable to say that this team will not be a favorite against either Golden State or the San Antonio Spurs.
But, something different is happening in Minnesota. Andrew Wiggins is scoring more and shooting better per 36 minutes, even with a decline in his three-point accuracy. He is also getting to the line more, finding a solid fit alongside mostly healthy Ricky Rubio and fellow young guns Shabazz Muhammad, Zach LaVine and leading Rookie of the Year candidate Karl-Anthony Towns.
Certainly, this isn’t their year. But, time is on the side of the Wolves. Minnesota has a good roster and some key pieces that need time to develop. And by the time they round into form, the Warriors and Spurs should be closer to the end of their runs at the top. Well, the Warriors might be. The sun never sets on the San Antonio Empire. The Clippers and Thunder might look completely different by that time as well.
While Wiggins and Towns are a lock for the Wolves, they have several other pieces they need to either develop, commit to, or move. Making that more difficult is the passing of the great Flip Saunders. The team appointed Sam Mitchell to the coaching position and still hasn’t firmly committed to any particular type of direction regarding their next GM or long-term coach.
So, what about Blatt? According to this ESPN piece from Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin:
“This set the stage for a traumatic tenure for Blatt. In fairness, this was not the team he had been hired to coach, as James had signed and the young player Blatt was primarily hired to develop, Andrew Wiggins, had been traded to acquire Kevin Love.”
Blatt has been documented as struggling in some mighty ways since joining the ranks of NBA head coaches. Certainly, it is no small task to find yourself placed among the NBA coaching elite, an entirely different animal than coaching in Israel or for the Russian National Team.
No one in the world knows what it is like to try to catch LeBron James or in the city of Cleveland unless they have done it. The number of coaches who could enter that situation and fulfill the expectations of the organization, garner the respect of LeBron and satiate the desperate need for a championship of the fans in Cleveland probably wouldn’t even need one full hand to count.
So if Blatt is a development coach and Mitchell is growing more and more unpopular with fans and media alike in Minnesota, might this make sense? It could be a reach, there are many things that have come to the surface on the internet over the past few days indicating Blatt had a real disconnect with players at the NBA level, coupled with some peculiarities like having LeBron as your inbounder on the last play of a playoff game or drawing up a play for someone not on the court.
However, the Mitchell era is growing increasingly unpopular by the day. His interaction with the media doesn’t do him any favors, continuing to propagate the old NBA mentality that those who didn’t play the game couldn’t possibly understand it. Certainly, it isn’t just his approach to the media that is “old school.” The Wolves well-documented lack of spacing and reluctance put a concerted effort into incorporating three-point shooting at something that more reflects NBA average may not fall entirely on the shoulders of Mitchell, but he hasn’t done a great deal to change either.
The Wolves are in a great position. The cornerstone pieces are in place – Wiggins and Towns – and with the selection of their next head coach, another pivotal piece will be in place. Blatt very well could be the wrong piece for Minnesota. Blatt might be wrong as the head coach for any NBA team, but with so few games to draw on it is not easy to discern what Blatt could do outside the shadow of James.
Wouldn’t it be something if the Wolves built their next contender from the rash decisions of Cleveland? Hiring Blatt without consulting James led to a minor disaster. They bowed their will to suit James by taking Minnesota’s unhappy star off their hands in exchange for a talented player with high upside. Now, they’ve jettisoned the coach that LeBron didn’t respect. Next, they may end up moving on from the same player that LeBron – I mean Gilbert and Griffin – wanted to acquire in a move to win now.
Minnesota did right by drafting Towns. They did right by bringing in Wiggins for Love. It will be interesting to see if they do right in making a decision on Mitchell and any potential coaching candidates. It will also be interesting to see if Blatt gets another chance, working with Wiggins as was his intended purpose when hired by Cleveland in the first place.