A Season on the Brink

Will a healthy Wolves roster take the team forward or backward?

When you ask Minnesota Timberwolves Coach Flip Saunders why his team has a legitimate chance to be crowned NBA champions at the end of the 2004-05 season--which opens tonight versus the Knicks at the Target Center--he barely pauses before rattling off an impressive, mostly accurate list of the ballclub's virtues. "We're a low turnover team, so we don't beat ourselves. We're a solid defensive team, probably one of the top five in the league. We have the ability to shoot the basketball extremely well. We're a good free-throw shooting team. We have depth. We have players who can make big plays at the end of games. And we have the MVP."

For the first time in franchise history, the Wolves also have a bit of a swagger in their collective attitude as they approach this season. Of course any puffed chests in previous years would have appeared particularly silly or boorish. Until last season, the team not only hadn't won a single playoff series--they had compiled an admirably tenacious and flat-pathetic string of seven straight first-round exits from the postseason. That albatross was decisively excised last spring, when Minnesota thrashed Denver in five games and outlasted Sacramento in seven. Although they eventually succumbed to Los Angeles in the Western Conference finals, most of the Wolves are convinced they also would have vanquished the mighty Lakers, had their all-star point guard Sam Cassell not been felled by a hip injury.

Last season's breakthrough success has created a boomlet of championship fever for 2004-05. The motto concocted by the club's marketing department for this season couldn't be plainer: Our Team. Our Time. Conventional wisdom among the motley crew of NBA prognosticators agrees, collectively judging the Wolves to be one of three clubs--along with San Antonio and Detroit--most likely to be fitted for rings at season's end.

David Kern

The logic behind this optimism is certainly reasonable, if not entirely sound. Last year, the Wolves compiled the best regular season record in the brutally competitive Western Conference despite significant injuries to three players (Michael Olowokandi, Wally Szczerbiak, and Troy Hudson) who had figured to be among the team's top six or seven contributors. After splitting their first 16 games while the 9 new faces on the squad's 12-man roster got in sync with each other, the team reeled off 50 wins against just 16 defeats. The rosy scenario for the upcoming campaign is that last year's waylaid trio will be healthy enough to bolster the club's depth and versatility, and that minimal changes in the roster have removed the hindrance of an early-season adjustment period. It also doesn't hurt that Shaquille O'Neal will ply his steamroller style in the Eastern Conference rather than for the Lakers this season.

For longtime followers of the tragicomic Timberwolves, the very notion that a slogan like Our Team, Our Time can be attached to the boys in green and blue without prompting snickers and catcalls is a delirious prospect. It's a hoot now to recall the Gulag old days when pudgy Scott Roth was launching left-handed treys from 30 feet, Pooh Richardson was a franchise cornerstone, and Marlon Maxey fouled an opponent in the final seconds of a lopsided loss so the Wolves could get another possession and possibly score enough points to qualify fans for some free tacos. Here we are on the brink of a new season with a meaningful number of supposedly shrewd people, who make their living parsing pro hoops for the masses, believing that the current edition of the Wolves has a decent chance to be the best team on the planet. It's something to savor.

But I don't think it's going to happen.


As someone who once extolled the promise of Chris Smith and offered up earnest assessments of the likes of Shane Heal, Lance Blanks, and Stoyko Vrankovic, it pains me to say this, but I think the Wolves will be fortunate to get back to a sixth game in the Western Conference finals this season. To win an NBA championship requires a selflessly synergistic crew of talented teammates who make tireless defense their top priority. Because the Wolves mostly hewed to that formula last season, they exceeded expectations (a year ago, most of the "experts" now on the Wolves' bandwagon pegged them to finish fifth in the conference and extend their playoff drought) despite a relative lack of familiarity and a slew of injuries.

Or maybe it was because of the injuries. Remember, a year ago, the abiding question regarding the dramatically overhauled Wolves roster was whether there would be enough ball movement and enough touches to grease the rhythm and satiate the egotistical trigger fingers of the team's talented core players. Injuries not only solved that problem, they reshaped the club's identity to its advantage by allowing a fearsome defense to coalesce. To put it delicately, the troika of sidelined players--Hudson, Szczerbiak, and Olowokandi--all prefer to shoot rather than pass, and have exhibited an occasional tendency toward befuddlement or indifference on defensive rotations. The quartet of guys who replaced them--Trenton Hassell, Fred Hoiberg, Ervin Johnson, and Mark Madsen--take pleasure in enabling better shots for their teammates (by dint of smart passes or staunch picks) and, to a man (even Hoiberg), regard a rugged, help-oriented defensive effort as their primary role on the ballclub.

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