The Last Worthless Season

The Timberwolves--for years the lowliest franchise in professional sports--may see their way out of the wilderness at last. But not this year.

THE MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES are the worst pro sports franchise of the 1990s. This is not an opinion: The Wolves' winning percentage of .255 is lower than any other professional team that has competed in a major sport over the past five years. Worse than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the San Diego Padres, the Hartford Wailers, the Los Angeles Clippers; worse than anybody. Obviously, the thousands and thousands of people who still come to the Target Center 41 times per season to see the Wolves play are the opposite of fair-weather fans. They deserve not to have their intelligence insulted by yet another dose of false optimism. Beneath that patina--and despite an easier schedule that includes six games against brand-new teams from Toronto and Vancouver--this season's edition of the Wolves will be hard-pressed to do much better than the 21 wins and 61 losses they notched last year.

In fact, the most hopeful development for the team this year is that management did not panic and squander lots of money on a mediocre crop of free agents, wisely preferring to stay well under the league's salary cap so they can spring a blockbuster contract proposal on a bona fide star or an invaluable role player before the 1996-97 season, when nearly a third of the league's players could be free agents. Add a quality free agent and another lottery pick from the college draft to the Wolves' current nucleus of players and you've got a team that could win as often as it loses and contend for the playoffs. "Wait till next year!" is usually a loser's cry; in view of how horrendously this franchise has been managed over its six-year history, the sentiment could be considered a sign of progress.

Yet there are more than a few wishful thinkers in and around the Wolves who offer reasons why the team stands to add at least five to 10 wins to last year's total. Mostly they cite the leadership of local hero and new Vice President of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale; the arrival of high-school phenomenon Kevin Garnett via the draft; the return of point guard Micheal Williams from a foot injury; and the likelihood of better team chemistry due in part to the signing of free agent (and ex-Timberwolf) Sam Mitchell. But McHale and Garnett are at best long-term assets, Williams is overrated, and, Mitchell notwithstanding, a compelling case can be made that abrasive chemistry will continue to dog the Wolves.

Let's get specific, beginning with McHale. As a player with the University of Minnesota and the Boston Celtics, his talent, savvy, and desire were unimpeachable; in his brief tenure in the front office since then, his relations with coaches, players, and the media have been candid and charming. But the charms have always worked both ways in McHale's career. He's invariably been in the right place at the right time for success--until now. At the end of last season, McHale made the right noises about being disgusted and embarrassed by the Wolves' play and implied that there would be vast, fundamental changes on the team, probably through a major trade involving J.R. Rider or Christian Laettner, or by acquiring one of the few significant free agents on the market.

But McHale underestimated Minnesota's status as the gulag of the National Basketball Association, a cold, obscure place with a perennially miserable team of underachievers. With Rider and Laettner both toting problematic reputations and players disinclined to come here, player agents and personnel directors on other teams knew the Wolves were operating from a weak position and demanded exorbitant salary or trade terms.

Of the two prominent free agents McHale was able to add, Mitchell has roots here and scored a very nice contract for himself, while guard Terry Porter is past his prime and coming off an injury that limited him to under 800 minutes played last year. The bottom line is that McHale has not been able to translate the respect he personally commands throughout the league into substantial gains for his team. His predecessor, Jack McCloskey, was also highly respected (he'd won two championships in Detroit) before adding to the Wolves' sorry legacy with a lethal assortment of bonehead moves born of equal parts arrogance and impatience. McCloskey's emphasis on raw talent over coachable character was a culture shift away from the philosophy of Bob Stein and Billy McKinney when they ran the team during the Wolves' first two seasons. Now McHale is trying to shift the culture back to the gritty, underdog mindset of those early years; hence the return of Mitchell. Granting McHale his considerable talents, his ability to manage personnel and endure failure are two crucial aspects of his duties that remain largely unknown. How patient he will be and should be with this team are the central questions facing the future of this franchise.

McHale's biggest move to date--drafting teen-ager Kevin Garnett right out of high school--is a bold gamble that stresses both talent and patience. Since he turned pro, Garnett has been besieged by the media asking him in a thousand different ways essentially the same loaded question: Are you mature enough to handle all this hoopla? Before very long the natural response, whether you're 19 or 90 years old, would be, "Get the fuck away from me." But since that would get Garnett branded as a spoiled, ungrateful punk quickly corrupted by big money, he says things like, "When you know something is coming at you, you can dodge it. But I can't do anything yet because I don't know which direction people are coming at me from right now."

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