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Last year, the Wolves won 51 games and finished with the fifth best record in the NBA with a starting backcourt of Troy Hudson at the point and either Peeler or Kendall Gill at the off-guard. This year, they will take the court with Cassell at the point, Sprewell at off-guard, and Hudson, an easily tired streak shooter who was born to be a sixth man, coming off the bench. Although personnel director Kevin McHale also engineered a series of free agent signings that provide the club with better depth and versatility, the feisty tandem in the backcourt best symbolizes the new paradigm under which the Wolves are operating. For years, McHale preached the gospel of continuity, of rearing young players together so their familiarity fosters a more synergistic, organic team sensibility. That philosophy has been tossed away. Cassell and Sprewell are both 33 years old. Sprewell's contract expires at the end of next season, and Cassell's the year after that. The Wolves' current payroll tops $70 million, the fourth highest in the NBA. The future is now.
Before the refashioned Timberwolves can pop any champagne corks, they must prove that McHale wasn't right in the first place. How long will it take, if it happens at all, before this team gels into something greater than the sum of its talented parts?
"November is going to be a very interesting month," says Wolves assistant coach Jerry Sichting. "I remember the year Bill Walton and I joined the Celtics. It took us until January before we really knew our roles and the coaches knew when and how to play us--and that was just the two of us. We have three new probable starters and eight new faces in all. This isn't something where you roll the ball out on the floor and we are automatically better. Guys have to accept new roles and challenges from the coaches. On paper we have a lot of talent, but you stay around the NBA long enough and you see talented teams put together that don't work. We have high expectations, and we'll make it work, but it just doesn't happen automatically."
The most prominent potential melodrama is the relationship between Saunders and Cassell. A former point guard himself, Saunders has traditionally exerted a heavy hand in coaching that position, for good reason. It is the point guard who initiates the various sets in Saunders's notoriously fat playbook, and coordinates the crisp, smooth passing game that has placed the Wolves at or near the top of the league in assists, shooting percentage, and paucity of turnovers since Saunders took over. Throughout his tenure, Saunders has worked with point guards who were willing to be molded, be it Stephon Marbury fresh out of college, converted shooting guards like Chauncey Billups and Troy Hudson, or the eminently coachable Brandon.
Cassell's game is entirely different. During his 10-year career, he has earned a reputation for dominating the ball, often utilizing his superb post-up skills by backing his man down near the basket, or dribbling out on the perimeter while surveying the court. For four years in a row, his assist total has dropped while his three-point shooting percentage has risen. Fueled by an arrogance that makes him fearless and especially adept in clutch situations, he is widely known for speaking his mind nonstop, mixing trash talk, lawyerly eloquence, and mischievous wit into a motormouth cocktail that charms and aggravates simultaneously, which may be one reason the Wolves are his sixth NBA team. Also, he doesn't like to practice.
Because they are such a portentous pairing, the best news to emerge from the Wolves' first two weeks of practice is that Saunders and Cassell have at least temporarily formed a mutual admiration society. The relationship could easily have become rocky after Saunders proclaimed that Cassell would have to earn the starting point guard position in competition with Hudson. The remark made sense only as a gesture of support for Hudson, who labored to learn the nuances of the point, had a fabulous playoff series against the Lakers last year, and can opt out of his contract at the end of the season. But Cassell, who bristled last year when Milwaukee asked him to slide over to shooting guard to accommodate their acquisition of superstar point guard Gary Payton, refused to take the bait. "If I were Flip, I would have said the same thing--nobody's position is guaranteed but Kevin's." Then, with an impish smile, he added, "But I don't think they brought me over here to come off the bench."
Indeed, Cassell has already ratified Marbury's unforgettable remark--"point guards are born, not made...point guards are sent from God"--by choreographing the Wolves' offense via a virtuoso display of instinct, timing, vision, and judgment that is beyond Hudson's grasp. "He might be more intelligent than any point guard I've worked with, in terms of his understanding of the game and his ability to run plays," Saunders says. "Because of that, it's been very easy to communicate in basketball terms what I want to accomplish."
For the first time in his career, Cassell participated in every one of his team's two-a-day preseason practices. "But there'll be some days when my body isn't able to take practice," he warns. Replies Saunders, "I understand that, at 33, Sam is going to need some rest [from practice] from time to time. I did the same thing with Terry Porter and Sam Mitchell."
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