Timberwolves’ offseason questions: Ownership fight, Tim Connelly and a looming bill

MINNEAPOLIS — Anthony Edwards sat down at a podium days before a Minnesota Timberwolves season filled with more swagger and sizzle than any season that had come before it came to a humbling conclusion.

Edwards was sure the Timberwolves were championship-ready, no matter how deep the hole they were in during the Western Conference finals. They had climbed a mountain to defeat Denver in the conference semifinals, twice staving off elimination to dethrone the defending champions, so a 3-1 deficit to the Dallas Mavericks with Game 5 at home was just as doable for the precocious 22-year-old star.

Then Luka Dončić gave Edwards a lesson in how far away the Wolves truly are. The Slovenian has walked in Edwards’ shoes. He tasted defeat as a 23-year-old in the 2022 conference finals, and now it was his turn to dish it out. Dončić scored 20 of his 36 points in the first quarter Thursday night, knocking out Edwards and the Wolves well before halftime of the Mavs’ series-clinching win.

As he tried to process it all afterward, the season, the loss, their rise and fall, Edwards was certain of one thing: this was only the beginning.

“It’s a lot of our guys’ first time being in this light, especially me,” Edwards said. “It’s my first time. But we’ll be ready, man. We’ll be all right. First time. Took a loss. Congratulations to the Mavericks. But we’ll be back.”

If only it could be that easy. Before the Wolves can look to build on the considerable success they enjoyed this season, they have some existential questions to answer.

President of basketball operations Tim Connelly can opt out of his contract and become a free agent in the coming days. Team governor Glen Taylor is battling with Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez to see who will own the team. And whoever wins the fight for ownership is about to have a gigantic luxury tax bill, which will factor into whether the team runs it back next season with the same core or trades pieces to reconfigure the roster.

That is a lot for a team with so much young talent and so much promise to have to figure out.

“You can’t skip any steps,” coach Chris Finch said. “The West is going to be a monster next year, as it continues to be every year. There were a lot of things we did well this year. I’m super proud of our guys. Just building another layer of foundation to try to get where we want to go.”

By any measure, this Timberwolves season was an unmitigated, and unexpected, success. They were coming off an underwhelming first season with Rudy Gobert and hearing a legion of skeptics on his pairing with Karl-Anthony Towns in the frontcourt. The response was emphatic.

Their 56 wins in the regular season were the second-most in franchise history. They advanced in the playoffs for just the second time in Minnesota’s 35 seasons in the NBA, beating the defending champion Nuggets on the road in Game 7 to advance to the franchise’s first conference finals in 20 years. They were the No. 1 defense in the league this season, 2.2 points per 100 possessions better than second-place Boston.

Edwards became a household name. Gobert won his fourth NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. Towns was named to his fourth All-Star team. Naz Reid won NBA Sixth Man of the Year, Jaden McDaniels was All-Defense second team and the Timberwolves enjoyed a level of popularity within their market not seen in decades, if ever.

They sold every ticket available for all 41 regular-season home games for the first time since Target Center opened in 1990. Season tickets sold jumped from 3,200 to 11,000. Local television ratings were up 150 percent from two years ago. Thousands of fans flooded the streets of downtown Minneapolis for a block party during Games 2 and 5 against Dallas. Wolves gear was omnipresent in the community.

“The way the city has gotten behind the team, it’s been special,” Finch said. “We’ve alway said from the time we got here we want to put out a team that people are proud to root for, and play the right way. We feel like we do that. Now we’ve just got to keep fine tuning everything.”

It will take more than fine tuning to set the direction going forward.

It starts with ownership. A three-year plan to have Lore and Rodriguez succeed Taylor as majority owners of the Wolves and the WNBA’s Lynx was detonated this spring, with Taylor abruptly pronouncing that the teams are “no longer for sale” because he said Lore and Rodriguez could not come up with the money to complete the transaction in time to meet the deadline in the purchase agreement.

Lore and Rodriguez vehemently disputed the characterization, saying that they secured the funding and filed paperwork with the league a week before the deadline and were eligible for a 90-day extension to secure league approval, per the contract.

The two sides are now locked in a bitter dispute over who owns the franchise. A three-person arbitration panel has been selected, league sources told The Athletic, and both sides have filed briefs to be reviewed to start the process. It is unclear how long it will take to complete, but it could last all summer, which complicates the path forward from a team-building aspect.

Efforts to find a compromise have gone nowhere, including at a mediation session in early May. Both sides are dug in on their positions. The hard feelings are only getting harder.

On multiple occasions earlier in these playoffs, Taylor tried to approach Lore and Rodriguez to greet them either before or during games, team and arena sources who witnessed the interactions told The Athletic. Taylor even tried to give Rodriguez a hug at one point, only to be rebuffed, team sources said.

Lore and Rodriguez remain deeply angered by Taylor’s decision to call off their agreement. When Taylor made the initial announcement, Lore said it was “like a nuclear bomb” went off. He and Rodriguez have vowed to fight for the team for as long as it takes, arguing that Taylor acted in bad faith by calling the deal off at the last minute.

Connelly will have to make his decision before the dispute is resolved. Now that the season is over, he has a window that allows him to opt out of the five-year contract he signed in 2022. The clause was put into the contract to give Connelly flexibility if the ownership situation was not settled, but he also could use it as leverage for a new contract given the team’s historic success this season.

Connelly left the Denver Nuggets, where he assembled the core of the team that won the title last season, to take over the Wolves at a time the ownership of the team was in transition. Lore and Rodriguez led the recruitment process. Taylor met with the Connelly family at his home and approved the significant expenditure to lure him away. At the time, Connelly was told that Taylor would retain control for two more seasons before handing things over to Lore and Rodriguez. But the dissolution of the partnership between the two sides has left people throughout the organization unsure of who will run the team long term.

The Timberwolves were very concerned about the Detroit Pistons potentially swooping in to make Connelly a lucrative offer, team sources told The Athletic, but those fears were allayed last week when the Pistons hired Trajan Langdon to run their basketball operations.

There are no other teams with an immediate front-office opening for Connelly, but should he exercise the option after helping build the Nuggets into champions and the Timberwolves into contenders, another team could change course to go after him.

While the ownership dispute plays out, Taylor remains in full control. He intends to meet with Connelly to discuss his future now that the season is over, team sources said.

If Connelly stays and completes next season with Finch as the head coach, it would be the first time the Wolves had the same lead executive and head coach for three consecutive seasons since the end of the 2003-04 season.

Meanwhile, there is unlikely to be any real progress on the ownership front before the Wolves enter the draft at the end of June or free agency in July. The uncertainty has put a strain on the entire Wolves operation, from the business and marketing sides to the basketball operations department.

“We’re all caught in the middle,” one Wolves employee said on condition of anonymity because employees are not authorized to speak publicly on the situation.

That makes mapping out the future of this team more complicated than it normally would be, especially for a roster that is about to get expensive.

Edwards’ salary will jump from $13.5 million this season to more than $42 million next year, thanks to his All-NBA fourth season. Towns will make about $49 million next season in the first year of his max contract extension and Gobert is due almost $44 million. That is $135 million tied up in their three top players. Add in McDaniels’ extension kicking in to the tune of $22.5 million, Reid is set to make $14 million and Mike Conley $10 million, which puts the Wolves at roughly $181.5 million for six players.

The luxury tax line is projected to be $172 million for next season with the punitive second apron tier at around $190 million. Spending over that amount can restrict a team’s ability to trade future draft picks, sign and trade players and use the salary cap exceptions to sign free agents.

Taylor has indicated internally a willingness to pay the luxury tax to keep the team competitive, team sources said. Lore and Rodriguez have said they would do the same should they prevail in their fight to buy the team.

If either side decided to cut payroll, Towns’ max salary and a frontcourt that also has Gobert and Reid as bigs would get trade machine aficionados cracking their knuckles. Towns has spent all nine of his seasons in Minnesota and said he wants to come back for a 10th.

“I’m confident I’ll be able to be here with my brothers and continue what I love to do here at home,” Towns said. “So that’s the plan, nothing’s changed on my side. I love this organization. I love this city. It’s given me my life, me and my family.”

The battle for ownership is fierce because there is so much to be excited about.

Edwards rocketed into stardom in his fourth season, using his experience with Team USA at the FIBA World Cup as a springboard into the conversation of future faces of the league. He made his second All-Star team, was voted All-NBA second team and gained valuable experience by playing deep into the playoffs at just 22. He will represent Team USA at the Paris Olympics this summer and return next season as a box office draw and the kind of player the Wolves believe will ensure competitiveness for the foreseeable future.

The 4-1 loss in the conference finals was disappointing for a team that looked fully capable of winning a championship after beating the Nuggets, but this is all part of the learning curve for young stars climbing the league’s ladder.

Michael Jordan lost in the conference finals twice before breaking through to win a title in his seventh season. Kobe Bryant was swept by Utah in his first conference finals. Dwyane Wade and Dončić lost their first appearances as well.

“I’ve never played this deep into a basketball season,” Edwards said. “So now I know, like, OK, in order for me to be dominant in the third round and if we get past this and finally go to the Finals, I’ve got to train like I’m going to go to the playoffs. So I can’t be missing training days, I can’t take days off. … I’ve got to be ready.”

Edwards was surrounded by a tight-knit team, one with such strong chemistry that it decided as a group that no player would appear on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” postgame show after their victory in Game 4 in Dallas, team sources told The Athletic. The decision was a sign of support for Gobert and Towns, who were the subject of derisive and seemingly personal criticism from panelist and Golden State forward Draymond Green.

“We’ve been through a lot of adversity as a group over the last two years, individually, collectively, and that never broke us,” Gobert said. “That made us better. I don’t think we plan on giving up now. It’s been some amazing progress. And we gotta keep going through that.”

That togetherness fueled this Wolves team. It led to a bounce-back season from Towns, who was integral in the playoff wins over Phoenix and Denver. It led to one of Gobert’s best individual seasons, featuring more versatility on defense and more involvement on offense than most seasons in his career.

McDaniels is 23, Reid is 24 and valuable reserve Nickeil Alexander-Walker is 25, giving them a core of exciting, young talent that should have some staying power.

Finch coached the Western Conference All-Star team, further establishing himself as one of the better coaches in the league. He has led the Wolves to playoff appearances in all three of his full seasons and has engendered broad support within the locker room for his approach.

Despite the disappointment of the series loss to the Mavericks, the Wolves can look back at their epic series against Denver with pride. They won three times in Denver and twice staved off elimination after the Nuggets took a 3-2 series lead. The Wolves responded with a 45-point victory in Game 6 before recording the biggest comeback in a Game 7 in NBA history when they roared back from 20 down in the third quarter on the Nuggets’ home floor.

The days of the Timberwolves being ignored by the league’s television partners — they were scheduled for just five games on ESPN or TNT at the start of the season — appear to be over. Edwards’ drawing power and the team’s success give them a foundation to build upon going forward.

Before the playoffs began, 36-year-old point guard Mike Conley, the team’s elder statesman with a doctorate in NBA humanities, had a message for his young teammates. Enjoy this moment, and the championship opportunity that he believed was presented, because nothing is promised going forward. Conley was a 25-year-old just coming into his prime with an up-and-coming Memphis Grizzlies team that made a stirring run to the Western Conference finals in 2013. Conley figured at the time that he would be back right away and that an NBA Finals appearance was the logical next step.

It took him 11 years and three teams to get back to the conference finals. He is still looking for that first chance to play for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. When the Wolves lost the first three games by a combined 13 points, it all but sealed their fate in a series they started as favorites.

“I feel like we were right there,” Conley said. “I feel like early in the series we had a couple games that we let slip that could have really turned this series and we could be looking at things a lot differently, so it’s really frustrating, but these things don’t happen by chance. It’s part of the journey for a lot of us.”

As long as they have Edwards as the face, the Wolves have a chance. After missing the playoffs as a rookie, playing in empty arenas due to COVID-19, Edwards has been in the playoffs in three consecutive seasons.

When he told TNT’s Charles Barkley to “Bring ya ass” to Minnesota for the Western Conference finals, it served as a rallying cry for a Wolves fan base that was soaking up the sun after so many years of being left out in the cold.

The Naz Reid beach towel became a must-have item. A tattoo artist doled out $20 Naz Reid tattoos by the hundreds.

“I think that’s what makes this so disappointing,” said Towns, who went 1 of 6 from 3-point range in Game 5 and struggled with his shot all series. “The fans deserved a chance to see the finals. Of course we feel we put the work in, but these fans all these years, they’ve given so much this playoff season, it hurts that we let them down. It’s tough.”

McDaniels was in foul trouble for nearly the entirety of Game 5, Edwards did not get going until the second half, Reid went 2 of 10 and Gobert had an ineffective nine points and five rebounds in a game the Wolves trailed by 36 points.

“I think we had a great season,” Reid said. “But I just wish we didn’t go out like that.”

When Wolves fans look back on this season, they will remember the dunks and blocks from Edwards, the revival of Gobert, the playoff sweep of Phoenix and that Game 7 triumph in Denver.

What remains to be seen is if, years down the road, this team will join Minnesota’s 2003-04 Western Conference finals team as a rare, memorable Wolves success story in the middle of an otherwise forgettable existence. Or will it be thought of as the team that galvanized a community, christened a new star and forever changed the way people think about this organization?

“We have to believe that this isn’t our ceiling,” Conley said. “This is steps towards our goal. Ultimate goal is to be a championship team. We made strides. We did.”

(Top photo: C. Morgan Engel / Getty Images)


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