It’s funny how expectations can change.
Wally Szczerbiak remembers when the Timberwolves’ bugaboo was that they couldn’t get past the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Fourteen years later, they’d just love to get back there. Not since Szczerbiak, Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell graced the Target Center court had the Timberwolves even threatened to make the playoffs again until this season.
Szczerbiak has played for three other teams, retired and started a second career in broadcasting since the Wolves played in the postseason.
“I think I have four more kids since they last made the playoffs,” said Szczerbiak, who’s currently a New York Knicks studio analyst for MSG. “It just goes to show you in the NBA nothing is guaranteed.”
The playoffs were just about a lock early in Szczerbiak’s career. The Wolves advanced to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons.
“I think that was the expectation,” he said. “We just didn’t make it past the first round those first four years. And that was the big hurdle that we needed to get over. We were always winning 50 games every year my first four years, but we just couldn’t get a break in the playoffs.”
Until that 2003-04 season, when Minnesota won 58 games and advanced all the way to the Western Conference finals, where it fell to the Lakers. That looked like it could be the start of a special run for Minnesota. But Szczerbiak said an ankle injury slowed Sprewell for much of the season, along with Cassell’s injury. Minnesota still won 44 games that season but missed the postseason.
That offseason, Minnesota couldn’t agree on a new contract with Sprewell and traded Cassell to the Los Angeles Clippers for Marko Jaric. Szczerbiak played on plenty of teams with expectations, which he preferred, “but it’s definitely interesting what moves sometimes are made when those expectations aren’t met.”
That was part of what seemed to get Szczerbiak shipped out of town. He was traded to Boston midway through the 2005-06 season after the Wolves got off to a 20-21 start.
“I think that window for KG and I as a core was kind of closing,” he said, “and that’s why (general manager) Kevin McHale made the move when he did.”
Minnesota hasn’t had a serious playoff contender since, until now.
“Glen Taylor is a great owner, Minnesota is a great franchise,” Szczerbiak said. “They’re trying to win, I think they’ve got the right pieces in place to win with Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Butler and a young nucleus and core. I think they have a really exciting, bright future, but it’s tough to win in the NBA nowadays.”
The Wolves’ last decade-plus has provided plenty of proof of that. Szczerbiak is hopeful this year’s team ends Minnesota’s playoff drought, if for no other reason than to reward the fan base.
“They’re some of the best fans. When I was there, I loved them, and they really embraced me at the start of my career and throughout my whole career,” he said. “I think they’ve been starving for a quality team to root for and cheer for and support in the playoffs. Hopefully this team pulls it off. I think this team has a really bright future ahead of them.”
Wolves center Cole Aldrich was selected as the recipient of the Flip Saunders Legacy award. The honor, bestowed on one Timberwolves player each season, is given to the player who “has demonstrated the greatest impact in the community, to honor the life of Flip Saunders and his commitment to community involvement.”
The winner is chosen by a vote among current rostered players.