Banged-up Wolves hit rock bottom with Sixers loss

MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—As a minority owner, team president and coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Flip Saunders holds as much power in one organization as any person in the NBA.

What sounds like the ideal situation for a person who is confident in his abilities to evaluate talent, build a roster and develop young players into difference-making professionals can have its downside, and Saunders hit that in the early morning hours on Thursday after his team allowed the Philadelphia 76ers snap a 17-game losing streak on Minnesota’s home court.

“I went to bed this morning at 5:30,” a heavy-eyed Saunders said after practice Thursday. “From 12 o’clock to 1:30, the owner says what the heck is the president doing getting these guys on the team? From 1:30 to 3, the president says what the hell is the coach doing not getting these guys to play harder? And then from 3:30 to 5:30 the coach is getting down on the players. So that was my night last night.”

More sleepless nights could be right around the corner.

The Timberwolves are 4-13, the worst record in the West, and face a gauntlet of conference opponents over the next week with Houston, San Antonio, Portland, Golden State and fully loaded Oklahoma City on the schedule. Those five teams started Thursday with a 61-28 record, which includes the Thunder’s 5-13 record amassed mostly without stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who are healthy now.

And the Wolves most certainly are not.

Starters Ricky Rubio (ankle), Nikola Pekovic (foot, wrist) and Kevin Martin (wrist) are all out for the long haul and point guard Mo Williams (back) and sixth man Shabazz Muhammad (ankle) are listed as questionable for the game against the Rockets on Friday night. Saunders said Rubio and Martin won’t be back before the new year and Pekovic and backup big man Ronny Turiaf (hip) won’t be able to suit up for at least another 10 days.

The injuries have left Saunders with a roster relying primarily on rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine and second-year men Gorgui Dieng and Anthony Bennett, and the results have been predictably bumpy. The Wolves have won just twice since Rubio went down in the first half of a game against Orlando on Nov. 7.

And they hit rock bottom in an 85-77 loss to the Sixers (1-17), who would have tied the record for worst start to an NBA season had the Wolves not shot 36 percent and turned the ball over 19 times against a team seemingly built to lose games.

“We’re not a very good team right now,” Saunders lamented after the game. “We’ve all got to get better. Everybody. We’ve got to work with our guys more to get them to do what we need to do.”

Even after the Wolves traded All-Star Kevin Love to Cleveland in the summer, there was a belief internally that they had the right mix of reliable veterans and dynamic youngsters to be competitive this season. It looked that way early, with close losses to the Grizzlies and Bulls and victories over Brooklyn and Detroit in the first four games.

Then the injuries started piling up, and suddenly Saunders was forced to play that young players far bigger minutes and rely on them for more of the scoring load than he ever believed he would have to so early. It’s also reduced his ability to hold players accountable by taking away playing time because he simply doesn’t have the bodies to take that approach.

“It might get uglier before it gets better because we’re so undermanned that some guys have to play,” Saunders said. “And they’re playing and they’re making mistakes.”

As the game against the Sixers slipped away, Saunders could see his young team tightening up, not wanting to become the answer to a trivia question.

“It’s tough,” Wiggins said after the game. “That’s going to be on everyone’s mind, on the whole team, for a long time now. No team wanted to be that team.”

The Wolves are that team. And no one is coming to save them.

“It can be frustrating for fans and it can be frustrating for the coach and everyone else,” Saunders said. “But I do understand what we are trying to do. And I do believe this: We’ll have a pretty good understanding when this season is done on what players are going to be here that we can move forward with and what players we can’t move forward with.”


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Updated Dec 4, 6:44 pm EST