By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
KEVIN MCHALE HAS never been here before. From Hibbing High to the University of Minnesota and then out east with the Boston Celtics, McHale was a valiant figure on a winning team, a role he wore with the folksy insouciance of someone who knew no worse. It is difficult to remember that just over a year ago, shortly before he was named vice president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, McHale would jokingly deride the quality of play he was watching as the television commentator at Wolves games. Now, after a year's worth of tough talk, optimistic predictions, and decisive action that has seen him replace two-thirds of the players and the team's head coach, McHale has only marginally improved the club's record and finds himself in unfamiliar territory as the architect of a loser, a role he does not bear lightly.
As the February 23 trading deadline draws near, what's clear is that McHale has proven to be an impatient man who overestimated the potential of the team he assembled. On the day he fired coach Bill Blair and replaced him with his longtime friend Flip Saunders (whom he had previously appointed as the team's general manager), McHale said that he had anticipated the club winning about 35 to 40 games this season. Yet despite career-best performances thus far this year from Christian Laettner and J.R. Rider, and the remarkably rapid development of top draft choice Kevin Garnett, the Wolves aren't even on a 25-win pace, for reasons that were apparent before the season began. If McHale does decide to make a deal, he needs to address one or more of the team's three glaring needs: a quality point guard to guide the offense; a shot-blocking big man to shore up the defense; and a star-caliber player who can provide leadership and synergy at both ends of the court.
These needs are interrelated, of course, and can sound overly simplistic--who doesn't need a star-caliber player with leadership capabilities? The point here is that the current talent on the Wolves' roster is deceptively inadequate, in that at least three players--Laettner, Rider, and Tom Gugliotta--are good enough to be the second- or third-best player on a winning team; yet none of them rates as the sort of clear-cut star that a team automatically relies on in clutch situations. That kind of go-to guy not only enhances a team's confidence, but helps to circumscribe and define everyone else's role. Because the Wolves have a trio of players who are almost that good, and no legitimate star to keep them in line, all three have a tendency to try and play beyond their roles and capabilities in crucial situations, which obviously sabotages teamwork.
The only star currently rumored to be on the trading block is Charles Barkley of Phoenix. But given the pathetic history and frigid location of this franchise, nobody of his stature will agree to play here--the Wolves have to grow their own, with Garnett as the most likely candidate. The Wolves' only short-term hope in this regard would be to deal one of their big three for a player who may be on the verge of stardom. More likely, the Wolves will have to get lucky in the draft lottery or wait for Garnett.
ON A MORE practical level, the Wolves need a point guard and a shot blocker, in that order. Saunders has gone out of his way to establish Darrick Martin at the point since the Wolves reacquired him from Vancouver a month ago. But after a marvelous debut and a solid first week with the team, Martin has increasingly demonstrated why he was a third-string afterthought for the Grizzlies, a team with the worst record in the league. As a shooter, Martin's accuracy is suspect, his judgment dubious; opponents know he can't hit the outside jump shot with any consistency, so they back off and dare him to fire away, which he does with alarming frequency. Even more often, he attempts to penetrate against a cluster of defenders down near the hoop. Saunders likes to cite Martin's lack of turnovers, but the only difference between a bad pass stolen by an opponent and a bad shot rebounded by an opponent is on the stat sheet, and less than 35 percent of Martin's shots are currently going in the hoop. Mean-while, his defense is mediocre at best.
The woeful deficiency at point guard suggests one area where where McHale's impatience may pay off in a beneficial trade. Of all the rumors surrounding the Wolves in recent weeks, the most enticing involved trading Doug West to Indiana for point guard Haywoode Workman, who has played plenty of minutes for very successful Indiana teams the past few years but may soon fall to third-string behind starter Mark Jackson and Indiana's first-round draft pick Travis Best. Nevertheless, his no-frills passing prowess, modest ego, capable jump shot, and alert defense seem like an ideal complement for the Wolves' present personnel. West remains a dogged defender but appears to have lost confidence in his jump shot, Minnesota's bread-and-butter offensive weapon just three years ago. With Reggie Miller, Eddie Johnson, and Ricky Pierce, Indiana has more than enough great shooters in the backcourt; coach Larry Brown might appreciate being able to deploy an unselfish defensive stopper in the playoffs.