By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Not now, not after six years of heroically tenacious mediocrity in which the Minnesota Timberwolves battled injury, death, and the departure of key players to make the playoffs every season. Not when last year's team tied a franchise record with 50 wins, when their resident superstar is entering the prime of his career, when two youthful members of his supporting cast appear to be growing by leaps and bounds. But the hard fact is this: The 2002-03 Wolves stand at an ominous crossroads.
The winsome team spirit they have displayed at the start of every season won't cut it anymore, and everybody connected to this ballclub--fans, players, coaches, administrators--knows it. When you are the perennial Miss Congeniality of the playoff pageant, you lose your taste for sunny pronouncements and start gagging on consolation prizes. In previous years, Wolves players and coaches have set intrepid goals for the team during its preseason training camp. At first the aim was simply to make the playoffs, then to finish high enough in the standings to secure home court advantage and actually win a series or two. This year, though, no one is willing to risk being the boy who cried Timberwolf. "There's no point in saying anything unless we go out and do it," says head coach and general manager Flip Saunders. Even the theme of the team's 2002 marketing campaign is humble and grim: We Go to Work.
That doesn't mean they're going to enjoy their work. After commanding league-wide respect by racing out to a 30-10 record during the first half of the season, the team abruptly became a bruised and bickering disappointment in the second half, losing more games than it won. And they saved the worst for last: a first-round sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks that was pathetic even by the Wolves' sorry standard.
Attempts to upgrade the roster during the off-season proved to be yet another study in futility. Free-agent forward Rodney Rogers signed with the New Jersey Nets for less money than the Wolves had offered. The Cleveland Cavaliers sniffed at Minnesota's offer of Wally Szczerbiak for point guard Andre Miller, eventually trading him to the Clippers instead. (The Cavs also trumped the Wolves' bid to sign restricted free-agent guard Ricky Davis by matching Minnesota's offer.) Meanwhile, point guard Terrell Brandon may never fully recover from a leg injury that precipitated last year's second-half swoon, and his main backup, Chauncey Billups, signed a long-term deal with the Detroit Pistons this summer.
Desperate for a serviceable point guard, the Wolves belatedly signed free agent Troy Hudson, a bit player who was passed over in the 1997 NBA draft; in five NBA seasons, Hudson has converted less than 40 percent of his field goal attempts. For depth and at least short-term stability, the team belatedly signed 36-year-old Rod Strickland at the end of training camp. The only other notable new face is free-agent guard Kendall Gill, a 12-year veteran signed as much for his leadership in the locker room as his play on the court. It could have been worse: At one point the club actually considered bringing back J.R. Rider.
The most significant change in this year's team is not a player but a scheme. After stealing a few wins early last season with an innovative matchup zone defense, Saunders again hopes to ambush opponents by installing a motion-oriented offense that features lots of freelance reactions and cuts toward the basket. It's a logical and potentially effective strategy, but one designed more to shore up the club's weaknesses--the lack of a savvy decision-maker at point guard and the absence of a reliable scorer in crunch time--than to bolster its strengths. It won't be enough to close the talent gap between the Wolves and the four elite teams in the Western Conference.
And so, barring a monumental setback to one of the West's elite, the Wolves once again will have to defeat either the Lakers, Sacramento, San Antonio, or Dallas on the road in order to end the long, lamentable streak of first-round failures in the playoffs. Fat chance. If you go by the textbook definition of hope--"A desire accompanied by confident expectation"--then the Wolves are about to embark upon their most hopeless season since Saunders and vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale assumed control over personnel more than seven years ago.
Situations like this are dreadful for sports franchises because they cost money and cause heads to roll. At the end of last year, before nearly all of the team's off-season attempts to upgrade came to nothing, the Target Center natives were already restless. Another early playoff exit (or a failure to make the postseason at all, which is not out of the question) would likely prompt drastic changes. Not coincidentally, owner Glen Taylor allowed center Rasho Nesterovic to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year, and waited for guard Wally Szczerbiak to reduce his contract demands by nearly $20 million before signing him to a six-year pact last week.
Then, too, Kevin Garnett's landmark six-year, $126 million deal is due to expire at the end of next season. Deciding whether to break another bank to re-sign him, or trade him for $25 million worth of talent from another team, or let him walk away without compensation (but freeing up plenty of dough with which to sign free agents) will be Taylor's most important decision.