Playoffs loom as big question for Timberwolves as camp opens

MINNEAPOLIS-It was at the moment he learned of Kevin Garnett's retirement last week that Shabazz Muhammad found himself mimicking Garnett's actions.Or at least words."I'm like 'It's time for us to step up. It's time for us to start winning some g...
Ricky Rubio makes sure his hair looks good during a photo shoot during the Minnesota Timberwolves' Media Day in Minneapolis, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)
Ricky Rubio makes sure his hair looks good during a photo shoot during the Minnesota Timberwolves' Media Day in Minneapolis, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

MINNEAPOLIS-It was at the moment he learned of Kevin Garnett's retirement last week that Shabazz Muhammad found himself mimicking Garnett's actions.

Or at least words.

"I'm like 'It's time for us to step up. It's time for us to start winning some games,'" Muhammad said. "That's the same thing KG would say."

Timberwolves media day was Monday. New coach Tom Thibodeau's first day of training camp is Tuesday. The question for many is obvious - can this team make the playoffs?

"We know we have to look at where we are, commit to improvement and then close the gap," Thibodeau said. "If we're doing that right things, we'll improve and the results will take care of themselves."

There are obvious factors working against Minnesota in its playoff pursuit. The Timberwolves won just 29 games last season, they were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, they have a new coaching staff, they just lost their veteran leader and they feature a roster that's talented but young.

That last part, the one about the young talent, has been featured in Timberwolves season previews for the past decade. It's still true. The three oldest players with guaranteed contracts on the roster - Brandon Rush (31), Jordan Hill (29) and Cole Aldrich (27) - were all free agent signings this offseason. But...

"The young thing is getting kind of old for us," Muhammad said.

Age is a tired excuse in this area.

"We've got to stop saying we're young, even though third, fourth year we're still 21, 22 years old, which is crazy," Zach LaVine said. "But we're getting our experience in the NBA. We've got games under our belt and we should definitely be turning that corner."

The Timberwolves have missed the playoffs 12 straight seasons, a number fans, and even the young players, are painfully aware of.

Karl-Anthony Towns said the streak "annoys" and "bothers" him, and he's been here for one season.

"A lot of guys on this team have never been to the playoffs, and they've been here for a long time," forward Andrew Wiggins said. "They haven't seen it. And now we finally have the pieces, the perfect pieces to get there and the perfect opportunity to get there. We're very confident, we're overly excited and we just want to work hard to get there."

The optimism is widespread among the players on the eve of camp. Ricky Rubio was asked if he still wanted to be traded, in reference to an interview with a Spanish radio station this summer in which he said he'd have to start thinking about teams that can advance to the playoffs and even the NBA Finals.

"I want to play with a winner, but I think we have the right mentality," Rubio said Monday. "It's changing."

How so?

"I see a lot of hard work," Rubio said. "We're setting the tone. We put ourselves in a good position to finally make our goal, which is win and make the playoffs. But I think we're got to go step by step. We have the right pieces, and we have to put it all together now."

Putting it all together in one season is a challenge, particularly with a new coaching staff and a lineup that's still largely reliant on players with five years or less of NBA experience. But don't tell the players that.

"We know it's a big gap we're going for, but we wouldn't be in this game if we weren't trying to do stuff like that," LaVine said. "That's in our competitive nature to go out there and go for stuff like that."

Towns admitted the Wolves are still young but added that everything is going in the right direction. He said the Wolves have made "leaps and bounds" this offseason, and it's time to show that on the court.

The time for patience has passed, even for a bunch of kids in their 20s.

"I've been patient my whole life," Towns said. "This is the moment that I've been waiting for. This exact year, this exact moment, this exact team. I feel more comfortable going into this year than I did any year earlier in my career feeling that success is imminent."