Selling tickets is not the only bottom-line priority for the Timberwolves this season. The NBA team also hopes fans will buy into a sales pitch for patience. With no all-stars on a remodeled roster, a new coaching staff and significant changes in management, the Wolves are offering a marginal but realistic projection for their 21st season.
In "two to three years," president of Basketball operations David Kahn believes the Wolves can be a playoff contender in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, have fun at Target Center and don't get caught up too much with the scoreboard.
"The worst thing we could do is set expectations too high," said Kahn, who was hired in May to help take the team into a new era. "If we try to persuade people that we're ready to make the playoffs right now, that will blow up in our face. We're too young at this point."
The early assessment that the Wolves are not playoff material puts the organization in a challenging position of marketing a team that will struggle to win games. Besides reshaping the roster -- only five players return from last season's 24-58 team -- Kahn had a busy offseason speaking to groups and organizations around Minnesota. He emphasized to fans that the franchise is committed to building a playoff contender.
Kahn, a former sportswriter who covered the NBA for the Oregonian in the 1980s, wrote a 2 1/2-page letter to fans after the draft in June to ask for patience and understanding.
The pitch has had moderate results leading up to Wednesday night's season opener against New Jersey at Target Center. Ted Johnson, the Wolves'chief marketing officer, said the club has sold approximately 1,000 fewer season-ticket packages than at this time last year. A week before the start of last season, the Wolves had sold 7,000 season packages. Johnson said the club currently is at 6,000.
Kahn and owner Glen Taylor are counting on new coach Kurt Rambis and his Lakers legacy to help generate interest while the team rebuilds.
The critical stage of the rebuilding won't come until next summer, when several of the NBA's elite players will be eligible for free agency. That list includes LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady and Amare Stoudemire.
Wolves fans should forget about a quick fix this season. Kahn stressed it's unlikely he will make a major trade that could affect the Wolves' salary-cap position with such a quality free-agent market on the horizon.
Kahn projects the Wolves to be $15 million to $20 million under the NBA salary cap next summer after unloading Mike Miller, Randy Foye, Mark Madsen, Sebastian Telfair and Craig Smith in offseason trades. The league's current cap is $57.7 million. Whether or not the cap stays the same for 2010-11, Kahn said the Wolves will have money to spend.
"We will be a big-time player in free agency next summer," he said. "We have plenty of flexibility right now to be a major player. We're among the top three or four teams in the league with cap room."
Kahn has put himself in position to reshape the team after former head of Basketball operations Kevin McHale failed to improve the Wolves after the 2003-04 season -- the team's last playoff appearance that resulted in a trip to the Western Conference finals. McHale, however, didn't have as much wherewithal to dip into the free-agent market.
Kevin Garnett's contract, which topped out at $26 million in 2006-07 -- his final season with the club -- was a key reason the Wolves could not pursue top-level free agents. Long-term deals for Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson and Trenton Hassell also limited the Wolves.
This is the first year in Taylor's 14-year stretch as the Wolves' majority owner that the club is committing to a major push in free agency.
A key question remains, however: Is the club attractive enough to lure a quality free agent?
The Wolves haven't had a winning season since 2004-05. For many years, Garnett's presence was considered their best marketing tool to attract free agents.
Kahn still believes the timing is good for the Wolves to take advantage of a quality free-agent market. Since coming to the Twin Cities, he has seen the excitement surrounding the Twins and Vikings and how fans have embraced the teams' star players -- particularly the Vikings.
"Two of the NFL's biggest stars are playing in Minnesota -- Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson," Kahn said. "You've got a hall of fame quarterback who came out of retirement to play in Minnesota. It takes away (negative) perceptions about playing in the Twin Cities. What's important to players is the culture, the opportunity to win and the opportunity to make money."
The possibility of landing one of the league's marquee free agents has Wolves center Al Jefferson thinking that the "two- to three-year plan" should be reduced. Jefferson also knows that he and his teammates have a lot to do with the timetable.
"Everyone is saying two or three years, but I don't believe that," he said. "It's all about us going out there and playing the way we should. Next summer is a big market for players. I believe we can make a mark this year and maybe make the playoffs next year."
Jefferson and forward Kevin Love are the Wolves' top players, but Love will miss the first two months with a broken hand and Jefferson is trying to get in shape after major knee surgery in February. Jefferson also is dealing with Achilles' tendinitis, which kept him out of the final three exhibition games.
Injury concerns for Love and Jefferson have put more responsibility on rookie point guard Jonny Flynn, whom Rambis has entrusted to run the team. Johnson said the personable Flynn will become a fan favorite, but the Wolves were hoping for an additional marketing boost from Spanish phenom Ricky Rubio, the fifth overall pick in the draft.
Rubio, 19, who starred for Spain in the 2008 Summer Olympics, decided to play two more years of professional ball in his native country before considering the NBA. Barring a trade, the Wolves will own Rubio's draft rights in two years, but his future with the club is unclear. Two years from now, Flynn could have a significant jump on Rubio in being the Wolves' backcourt leader, and it will be Rubio's choice whether to join the team.
"We picked Ricky for the future, not where his skill level is today," Kahn said. "He's only (19). People thought he could have transformed us right away. I'm not sure that would have happened."
Rubio's decision to stay home contributed to a shift in the Wolves' marketing approach, a preference for promoting a "team concept" instead of a single player. That was the trend for much of Garnett's 12-year career with the Wolves when he was the face of the franchise.
"We're developing a strategy that acknowledges the team," Johnson said. "It's a lot different than how we used to market, but it gives us a chance to reintroduce ourselves to fans. We want to give fans a sense of hope for the future, and that's important for us right now."
2010 NBA FREE AGENTS
PLAYER AGE MONEY OWED IN 2010-11 IF HE CHOOSES NOT TO OPT OUT
LeBron James, G-F, Cleveland 24 $17.2 million
Dwyane Wade, G, Miami 27 $17.0 million
Chris Bosh, F, Toronto 25 $17.0 million
Amare Stoudemire, F, Phoenix 27 $17.7 million
Dirk Nowitzki, F, Dallas 31 $21.5 million
Paul Pierce, G, Boston 32 $21.5 million
Michael Redd, G, Milwaukee 30 $18.3 million
Tyson Chandler, F, New Orleans 27 $12.8 million
AUTOMATIC FREE AGENTS AFTER THE SEASON
Joe Johnson, G, Atlanta 28
Ray Allen, G, Boston 34
Manu Ginobili, G, San Antonio 32
Tracy McGrady, G-F, Houston 30
Marcus Camby, F, Denver 35
Brad Miller, C, Chicago 33
Shaquille O'Neal, C, Cleveland 37
Jermaine O'Neal, F-C, Toronto 31
EIGHT IS GREAT
Timberwolves management is talking improvement over the next two to three years. Here's a look at the number of wins needed to earn the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot over the past five years:
Year Team Record
2008-09 Utah Jazz 48-34
2007-08 Denver Nuggets 50-32
2006-07 Golden State Warriors 42-40
2005-06 Sacramento Kings 44-38
2004-05 Memphis Grizzlies 45-37
Average wins to make the playoffs: 44.6
Timberwolves' past five seasons
Average wins past five seasons: 31