The Minnesota Timberwolves are not good.
Not yet. At 7-18, the Wolves' winning percentage is third-worst in the entire NBA.
But everyone from local fanboys to national experts thinks this team, with its young core of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, is built for the future. Maybe the very near future: Recall comedian (and St. Paul native) Joe Mande's license plate frame, with its "Minnesota Timberwolves, 2019 NBA Champions" message.
But Minnesota's been here before. Recall early 2012, when the T-Wolves had Kevin Love -- the fourth-best scorer and second-best rebounder in the league -- and Ricky Rubio, already a dazzling ball handler and passer as a rookie. Both were under 25 years old.
Though Minnesota's record that lockout-shortened season wasn't great, fans had similar high hopes about seasons to come. Say, right about now. But things went awry. Ego and money got in the way. Well, ego, money, and the nuances of the league's collective bargaining agreement.
Love signed a four-year, $61 million contract in January 2012. Not shabby, but not what he'd wanted. Love was looking for the five-year, $80 million maximum allowed under the league's new labor deal. That extension would've made him the Wolves' so-called "designated player," the one guy on the squad getting a five-year "max extension" on his rookie contract.
Minnesota's front office balked, with some speculating they wanted to save the "designated" label for young Rubio. So significant was this choice that basketball insiders labeled the "designated player" clause the "Kevin Love Rule."
Clearly annoyed he was thought less valuable than the mop-topped rookie, Love negotiated an out that allowed him to become a free agent after three years; that threat helped Love force the trade deal that took him to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where Love has now played in two straight NBA Finals and posed naked for a magazine cover.
This week, the NBA and its players union signed another collective bargaining deal (no lockout necessary this time). The "Kevin Love" rule is gone, and suitably, Minnesota -- again banking on young talents still under their rookie contracts -- might stand to benefit more than any other team in the league.
As ESPN basketball writer Brian Windhorst explains, the new contract lets teams claim two "designated players" instead of just one, "a change aimed at keeping teams from having to choose if they have multiple young stars." That means Minnesota could offer a "max extension" to both Wiggins and Towns, thus keeping the dynamic duo together through at least 2022.
That is, if money's what turns out to be important to them. On his way out the door, Love also cited his frustration with Minnesota's inability to make the NBA playoffs. Now he's got a championship ring.
Will Minnesota be shaping up like a contender by the time Wiggins (whose contract expires in 2017) or Towns (2018) is deciding his future? One safe bet: If the Timberwolves still suck, it won't be the fault of either of those guys.