Real talk: Expansion teams–across any sport–are not supposed to be competitive in their inaugural seasons.
It’s not hard to see why, given the sheer number of challenges facing a new organization out of the gate. Consider the fact that these teams enter the playing field with rosters containing players who were NOT protected or retained by existing teams during an expansion draft. Consider also that new teams must cultivate a winning culture and compete against teams that have already done so for longer periods of time. That’s tough sledding.
Amongst the five major traditional sports (NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL and MLS), only 3 teams ever made it to a Championship series in their first season: The 2018 Vegas Golden Knights and 1968 St. Louis Blues in the NHL, and the 1998 Chicago Fire in the MLS.
The 2019 NBA 2K League season has thus given the community–and sports fans at large–something rare to marvel at: A T-Wolves Gaming championship. One of four expansion teams to enter the League for Season 2, T-Wolves Gaming epitomized a first-year organization to a “T” with their sluggish, tumultuous start. Yet, as the season drew to a close, they embodied something much different.
Let’s look back on the historical first season that was for T-Wolves Gaming.
Opening the Season
T-Wolves Gaming entered the Season 2 Expansion Draft on September 26th, 2018 by making an immediate splash, trading their 3rd pick to Cavs Legion GC for Hood, one of the best scorers in the League. FEAST was chosen 6th overall (taken from 76ers GC).
Veteran 2K player and community figure Shawn Vilvens was soon after chosen to fill the General Manager and head Coach role. Optimism was high in the fall of 2018. “With two supremely talented players already on the roster in Brandon and Mihad, we are going to continue to build a team through the draft of players who are equally talented and committed to setting the bar competitively and professionally for the 2K League as it continues to grow and expand in to new markets,” Vilvens was quoted as saying about the team upon his hire.
T-Wolves Gaming rode that roster-building momentum to the Draft in March 2019, where they snagged BearDaBeast during the first round at pick 11. Bear didn’t make the 2K League Season 1 eligibility cutoff and had something to prove going into the Season 2 draft. Some thought he fell to No. 11, others felt he was overrated. His performance this season put those debates to rest.
From draft hopeful to champion in the span of 5 months. 👀@BearDaBeast23 wrote quite an ending to his SZN 2 fairy tale at the #NBA2KLeagueFinals. We remember it all starting right here. 👇 pic.twitter.com/RslNFeIoWm
— NBA 2K League (@NBA2KLeague) August 5, 2019
TURNUPDEFENSE (Rd. 2, #32), JoJo (Rd. 3, #45) and NachoTraynor (Rd. 4, #66) rounded out the draft. With a solid, if not unproven roster assembled, it was time to hit the grind.
First Half Challenges
It was a grind for T-Wolves Gaming to open up the year. The squad went 1-1 during their first week of play. After losing to Bucks Gaming, BeardaBeast (19 PTS, 11 AST double-double) and Feast (12 PTS, 16 REB double-double) led the charge to help T-Wolves earn their first-ever victory against Lakers Gaming.
After dropping the next two games during Week 3, Vilvens found himself out of a job and Justin Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx vice president of technology, was inserted as the interim head coach. In May, the team also committed to a personnel change and traded Hood away to Heat Check Gaming in exchange for JMoneyRep817. The moves were aimed at sparking an on-the-court performance spark and chemistry boost. At 3-6 on May 31st, the team had nothing to lose.
From a performance standpoint, the team wasn’t far behind the competition they were losing to. T-Wolves Gaming shot better than their opponents (57.9% compared to their opponents’ 55.69%). They were also only outscored by 3 PPG during this stretch (60.3 PPG vs. 63 PPG). They came close to beating the then-undefeated Mavs Gaming, and had Cavs Legion GC beat in Week 7 until the Cavs went on an unprecedented late-4Q scoring streak to secure a historic come-from-behind victory.
“Whenever you’re 3-6, you have a choice. You can either lay down or you can fight, and we chose to fight,” a proud JoJo was quoted as saying after T-Wolves Gaming clinched a playoff spot during the final week of the regular season.
SPOILER ALERT! The 3-6 T-Wolves did indeed make the playoffs this season (and much more!), but it took an unprecedented 7-game winning streak over the second half of the season to accomplish the rare feat. Only Mavs Gaming (10-game winning streak to open Season 2) and Blazer5 Gaming (14-game winning streak across Season 2) earned longer streaks. In the playoffs, they easily swept Kings Guard Gaming and Warriors Gaming Squad and cemented a spot in the Season 2 Finals.
— NBA 2K League (@NBA2KLeague) July 17, 2019
Just how did this first-year team buck the historical trend to finish the regular season with a No. 4 seed at 10-6? Winning 11 games in a row is nothing to sneeze at, and improved performance was to thank.
BearDaBeast was the hottest player in the league in July. He shot 62.8% from the floor from July through the playoffs, and he averaged 12 APG as well, which ranked 2nd in the entire league. He played like an elite point guard and put T-Wolves Gaming on his back.
TURNUPDEFENSE averaged a full 4 points-per-game higher in the playoffs than his regular-season average. He also held BP and CB13 in the playoffs to 9.5 ppg, which is simply defensive mastery.
During their 11-game win streak, the T-Wolves had the best defense in the entire league. They held teams to 52 ppg while shooting under 50%. It was the best turnaround for any single unit in the entire league.
Justin Butler deserves credit for the turnaround, as he brought fantastic game-planning and even better in-game adjustments. His structure against Warriors Gaming Squad in the playoffs was one of the big reasons why they were held under 50 ppg, which no other team came close to defensively.
T-Wolves Gaming had evolved from a typical first-year expansion team to a championship-caliber outfit right before our eyes in the span of a mere two months.
The Season 2 NBA 2K League Finals went 5 games, but saw the familiar second-half-of-the-season T-Wolves Gaming trends continue to propel the team’s performance.
They shot 55.7% from the floor against a dominant 76ers GC team, and BearDaBeast picked up an impressive MVP win in the process.
— NBA 2K League (@NBA2KLeague) August 4, 2019
Bear was animated after the series concluded, knowing that this could be the start of something special that Minnesota can enjoy for years to come.
— NBA 2K League (@NBA2KLeague) August 4, 2019
A dominant starting 5? A Finals MVP point guard? The Finals gave us a T-Wolves team that was truly the opposite of a first-year expansion team. Where can they go from here, in year 2 of their existence. With a roster like theirs, the sky is the limit.