The Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of the kind of road trip NBA teams rarely take at any point during the season -- let alone the preseason. After completing their media day responsibilities on Sept. 22 in Minneapolis, coach Tom Thibodeau's team boarded a charter to San Diego for training camp, played an exhibition game against the Los Angeles Lakers in Anaheim and now heads to Shenzhen, China for the first of two preseason contests against the Golden State Warriors.
In the end, it will mark 18 straight days away from home for a team made up of young and old that is trying to earn a playoff berth for the first time in 13 seasons. While some teams may not enjoy so much time away from home, the Timberwolves seem to be embracing the challenge and opportunity of trying to come together at various points around the world.
When the topic of training camp globetrotting recently came up, All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler didn't even wait for the question to finish before blurting out his answer.
"I love that," he said.
For a team trying to build camaraderie on the fly, Butler speaks for many within the organization who believe this trip will be a great team-building experience.
"Yeah, I think so," Butler said. "Why not go out to California for a little bit and see some sunshine, some nice weather? Then head over to China and play in front of those fans. It's going to be fun. Like it or not, we're going to have to spend a lot of time with one another.
If we don't like it we'll get over it fairly quickly because we're still going to have to spend a lot of time with one another. And when we get to China we're still going to have to spend a lot of time with one another. So I think we'll love spending a lot of time with one another."
That is music to the ears of veteran coach Tom Thibodeau. He's seen first-hand what a trip out of the country can do for a team trying to find its footing in the preseason. As an assistant with the Boston Celtics, Thibodeau saw a group led by Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen come together during an NBA Europe journey prior to the 2007-08 season, planting the seeds that would eventually lead to an NBA championship later that season.
"I think it's very helpful," Thibodeau said. "And obviously I've been part of that with my experience in Boston we went away every season and we did the same in Houston and in New York. It's an opportunity for a number of new players to spend time together. With camp being shortened, with the season being earlier for us going to San Diego, being able to play against the Lakers and the chance to go to China from there, to be able to play against Golden State twice will be good for us to maximize our time."
There isn't a coach in the league who loves putting in more work than the 59-year-old basketball lifer. He'll make sure his group makes the most of its time in the gym and in the film room, no matter where it is. Chicago Bulls' officials still chuckle at the thought of the hard-charging Thibodeau making sure players and coaches were getting their work in during a 2013 preseason trip to Rio. Exotic distractions be damned when there is still tape to watch. Without the distractions that can come in any home environment, Thibodeau knows he will have his team's full attention as they embark on a new basketball journey in a foreign land.
"It's going to do a lot," Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns said of the trip. "I know this first hand from being with Kentucky, being able to go to the Bahamas and play against people but also that quality time, non-interrupted, no cell phones no anything. Just really quality time with each other, it really makes a difference. You feel that unity, that communication without speaking on the court, it's like telepathically we're talking, it's going to be such a big trip for us. I'm so happy that with a year that we're trying to have this year and so many new pieces that we're having this trip to get that clarity with each other it's going to be something truly special. I can't wait to have this time with my teammates and grow as a team."
Part of the growth that Thibodeau wants to accomplish during their time in China is to make his group understand it can compete with anybody, anywhere. It's one of the lessons he instilled in Butler as young player in Chicago and it's one of the benchmarks that Butler now believes he can pass down to players like Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
"The goal that we should have in mind whether it's realistic or not should be to win a championship," Butler said. "That's why we play.
You don't play to make the playoffs. Every year I play this game my goal is to win a championship. That has to be our goal right now, tomorrow, the day after that, all the way til the end. If it happens, it happens, if not it will be our same goal next year."
As the Timberwolves try to earn their place amongst the best in the league, a smiling Towns is trying to come to grips with the fact that he is becoming extremely popular with fans all over the world. This trip isn't just helping the players come together, it's also reminding them how big they can become on a global stage.
"I spent the summer in Denmark and who would've thought in Denmark that I'd have a great amount of fans," Towns said. "That's just a humbling experience, to be around the world and be recognized for the craft and the work you put in, it's something unreal when you think about all of us just those same little kids playing basketball the same way just hoping to have a dream not even making it to the NBA, just hoping to make it to college and all of a sudden we're in the NBA and people look up to us. It's a blessing, it's a huge honor, we also realize as NBA players we have a platform that we can use for good and to improve society."