A Tough Act To Follow

Time for Wolves management to be bold--again

"It doesn't mean anything if you don't win it all." Those were the words Latrell Sprewell reportedly uttered to Kevin Garnett in the wake of the Timberwolves' season-ending loss to the Lakers in Game Six of the Western Conference Finals. And they are hogwash.

If NBA fans really agreed with Spree's sentiment, 90 percent of the arenas would be empty during regular season games. Glen Taylor's $74 million payroll this year, more than $13 million of it doled out to Spree, would be a colossal waste of money. And the headline for the 2003-04 season would be that the Wolves failed to win a championship for the 15th year in a row.

I prefer to savor the memories of KG's MVP performance, and the team's poise and hard work in surmounting injuries and accommodating new personnel en route to the best regular season record in the most competitive conference in NBA history. The Wolves achieved a near-optimum return on their investments and battled right to the end, denying the dominance of Shaq and Kobe to the point where an unheralded role player named Kareem Rush had to step up and beat them with a half-dozen treys in the elimination game. (Compare that to the Lakers, who obviously pissed away two games in the conference finals and, whether or not they beat Detroit and capture this year's crown, have besmirched their legacy with two straight seasons of bickering underachievement.)

All the same, Wolves fans had better not expect an automatic reprise of this year's glory in the 2004-05 campaign.

Without question the Wolves have some formidable assets heading into next season, most obviously a superstar in the prime of his career and an owner willing to spend whatever is necessary. But there is a limit to how much KG can continue to improve at this point, and owner Glen Taylor is restrained by the salary cap and other league rules. Meanwhile, nobody should expect Sam Cassell--who will turn 35 early next season and henceforth has to be ever mindful of hip and back ailments--to duplicate his career-best performance this year. And after pacing himself during the regular season to enable that extra gear during the playoffs this year, is it realistic to think Spree won't lose a step? The only NBA perimeter-defending starter who has logged more minutes than Spree is Gary Payton, and we all saw the precipitous decline in his game this season.

There are a host of question marks that remain to be sorted out. Here's how the Wolves should address some of them.

 

Retain Trenton Hassell and Fred Hoiberg if possible, and kiss Troy Hudson goodbye.

Every Wolves fan knows how valuable Hassell and Hoiberg were to the team this year. Even if it means curbing the club's prerogatives in chasing other free agents, retaining these two should be the priority. Hoiberg, an unrestricted free agent, can probably be secured with the $1.5 million salary cap exception (or less, if he's amenable). Hassell is another story. Without getting into the fine print of restricted free agency, the Wolves can match any offer for him up to the mid-level cap exception (expected to be $5.2 million next year), or keep him without salary cap damage if no team offers him more than a 25 percent raise over the $600,000 he made this year. One way for Minnesota to improve next year is to better utilize Hassell's underrated shooting to keep defenses honest. That means he has to be more than a defensive role player. It also means Hassell should shoot a thousand jumpers a day during the off-season, and mentally chalk up some of his crunch-time misses in this past postseason to the learning curve.

As for Hudson, what the Wolves really need is a pure point guard of sufficient quality to provide Cassell with ample rest without hurting the flow next year, and T-Hud is not that guy. This season the Wolves were most excited about teaming Hudson with Cassell in the backcourt instead of spelling him at the point. That's because Hudson has always been more a scorer than a choreographer of offenses. (There's a reason Saunders has always felt compelled to keep KG in the game during Hudson's minutes.) But if the Wolves are going to reduce Sammy's minutes next year, they will also want to have KG on the floor beside him as much as possible; they're a deadly pick-and-roll combo. Because T-Hud declared for free agency last week, bringing him back would likely eat most or all of the $5.2 million exception money. Those dollars should go toward retaining Hassell or adding a quality free agent. In the end, Hudson is a mediocre defender and a me-first shooter on a roster that already boasts plenty of guys who can score from outside.

If the Wolves have the cap room and want to invest heavily in a backup to Cassell, they should go after players who can dish and defend, like one of Utah's tandem of Carlos Arroyo and Raul Lopez, the veteran Brevin Knight, or Miami's Rafer Alston. They could get creative and contact Seattle's Brent Barry, or inquire into the health of Chicago's Jay Williams. All of these players are free agents, along with theoretically cheaper role players like Damon Jones, Charlie Ward, and Anthony Carter.

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