The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Best Season: 2004

The Minnesota Timberwolves might just be the worst franchise in NBA history. They have just nine playoff appearances in 32 seasons. The best regular-season record they’ve ever put up was 58-24; they have, on the opposite end of the standings, put up 24 wins or fewer 12 times—if you throw out the last two seasons shortened due to COVID-19, you still get 10 failures to go even 25-57, which is one more complete disaster than the franchise has playoff appearances.

Since 2004, the team has been to the playoffs just once—they were the 8 seed in 2018, had to beat the Denver Nuggets in what was essentially a de facto play-in game on the last day of the regular season, and for their trouble got bounced by the Houston Rockets in five games in the first round.

Indeed, Minnesota has won just two playoff series in franchise history. They came in the same year, and it’s the one we’re discussing today—the 2004 Timberwolves, the team responsible for that 58-24 record that served as the magnetic north for a whole lot of seasons that went south.

Let’s examine the one—and perhaps only—moment Wolves fans have ever had to celebrate in 32 wretched years, as it’s not like the 2022 Wolves look anything like a contender.

The On-Court Record

Minnesota, coached by Flip Saunders, who coached eight straight playoff teams between 1997 and 2004 but coming into the 2003-04 season had never won a playoff series, got off to a rough start. They were just 9-8 on November 29, looking like nothing so much as another fringe playoff team and easy first-round out for the conference powerhouses like the Lakers or Spurs.

A funny thing happened on the way to obscurity, however. Minnesota won 17 of their next 20 to go to 26-11, then at the end of the season won nine in a row to power into the playoffs as the top seed, edging the Spurs, who went 57-25.

And they were a legit 58-win team. Fifth in Offensive Rating, sixth on defense, and fourth in Net Rating at plus-6.1, they certainly got the benefit of San Antonio underachieving (the Spurs’ Net Rating was plus-8.1 thanks to a historically great defense and they fell five wins short of their 62-win expectation), but the Wolves themselves only beat their expected record by one game.

The Wolves beat the Nuggets in 5 in round 1, essentially nailed the Kings’ contending window shut in the second round in a thrilling nail-biter of an 83-80 Game 7 win, and then finally fell short against Shaq, Kobe, and some old guys. That Lakers team featured Gary Payton and Karl Malone, age 35 and 40 respectively, trying to chase a ring, which they would lose out on against Detroit in the Finals.

As promising as Minnesota’s future may have looked, however, they missed the playoffs in 2005 at 44-38 and didn’t even post another winning record, never mind a trip to the playoffs, until that 47-35 record in 2018.

The Featured Players

It speaks volumes about just what a dumpster fire Minnesota is as a franchise that Kevin Garnett‘s legacy was defined more by what he did in Boston than by anything he did in Minnesota. Winning a title in 2008 and taking the Lakers to a Game 7 in the 2010 Finals will do that.

Garnett set career highs in 2004, scoring 24.2 points per game and leading the league in rebounds with 13.9 a contest. This is all the more impressive considering the Wolves were 21st in the league in pace in 2004; Garnett’s per-36-minute and per-100-possession stats are even more impressive.

The rest of Minnesota’s roster was…well, a collection of fringe All-Stars and guys of questionable character who just happened to play out of their minds for one glorious year.

Latrell Sprewell, best-known as “that guy who choked his coach”, averaged 16.8 points but shot the ball disastrously, making just 40.9 percent from the field and 33.1 percent from long range, for an eFG% of .448 that wasn’t even acceptable in the Dark Ages.

Sam Cassell, who would end his career alongside Garnett on the ’08 Celtics, was the legitimate second-best player on the Wolves, averaging 19.8 points and 7.3 assists in his only All-Star season.

Wally Szczerbiak was the only other player on that Minnesota team to average even double-digit points, scoring 10.2 per game, a career-low that stood until his final season in Cleveland in 2009, when he averaged 7.0 in limited minutes off the bench.

Only seven Timberwolves players played at least 1,000 minutes that year. Of those, only five—Garnett (10.0), Cassell (4.6), Fred Hoiberg (1.8), Sprewell (1.3), and Trenton Hassell (0.4) had a positive VORP.

And if you need the reason the Wolves were any good at all in ’04, Garnett and Cassell combining for 30.4 Win Shares and 14.6 VORP (good for an estimated 30.2 wins) were more or less the entire reason why. The rest of the team was basically replacement-level players.

The Coach

Flip Saunders was an always competent but never great or even very good coach. Managing the enormous egos and petulant children who made up most of Minnesota’s rosters during the Dark Ages was impressive enough—by all rights, that team should’ve imploded several times over with the likes of Sprewell, Rod Strickland, and Stephon Marbury on the team over the years Saunders was in charge. Indeed, Garnett himself had questionable character issues of his own in his early years in the league before he matured into the wise man he’s become first as a veteran player in Boston and later as a broadcaster on TNT, thanks in no small part to Marbury’s toxic influence on the locker room.

Another coach might’ve fallen flat on his face with so many troublesome players in the same place, but Saunders managed to whip the 2004 outfit into shape and get them to a conference final. Flip deserves credit just for winning anything at all.

Honorable Mentions

Haha. No, seriously, honorable mentions? The team was good for one year and only one year in 32 years of franchise history. They were never, before or since, a team to be taken seriously. They were always nothing more than a first-round out from 1997 to 2003 when they made the playoffs, the 2018 team won just 47 games and then only because Jimmy Butler deigned to grace them with his presence before—as so many others have—getting sick of being on the same team as Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins, meanwhile, completely squandered his goodwill he’d earned in Golden State by refusing the COVID vaccine and making himself ineligible for 41 home games, because Wiggins, really. Only a matter of time before he and Kyrie Irving end up in the same insane asylum.

Seriously. The Wolves are one of the worst franchises ever to disgrace the NBA with their presence—it’s between them, Charlotte, and New Orleans, really. Maybe if Donald Sterling hadn’t been caught making racist remarks on a hot mike, the Clippers would be in this conversation. But that’s it. At least the 2004 team salvaged Minnesota’s place in this little month-long retrospective.

NEXT: New Orleans Pelicans. Are they worse than the Wolves? Or did CP3 do enough to elevate them above that particular dishonor? Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!