By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
It is not uncommon for Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell to be long gone--already showered, dressed, and behind the wheels of their luxury cars--by the time the media invades the Timberwolves locker room after a game at the Target Center. Contrast that to a year ago, when more often than not journalists would encounter Spree buttoning up his shirt in front of his corner stall just inside the entryway. He’d offer a few pithy, no-nonsense comments before leaving the premises in dovetailed time to Cassell holding forth with colorful quips and chiding asides while sprawled on a seat in front of his locker.
We don’t see Sammy and Spree on the court so much anymore either. Cassell’s playing time has been cut from 35 to 29-and-a-half minutes per game, while Sprewell’s average minutes have dropped from 37.8 to 30.5. It would be reassuringly convenient if this “resting” of the team’s two demi-stars could be cited as the cause of the Wolves’ underachievement thus far this season. But the reality is that their inconsistency has too often been at the root of Minnesota’s lackluster performance.
Last season, the pair arrived with a fair amount of baggage and something to prove, having been dumped by their respective teams for less than fair-market value after an acrimonious campaign. To land them both, the Wolves merely had to part with three journeymen (Joe Smith, Anthony Peeler, and Mark Jackson), some permanently damaged goods (Terrell Brandon), and a boatload of Glen Taylor’s dough to meet what became the league’s fourth-highest payroll. The question wasn’t whether or not the Wolves would be more talented with two veteran stars on board, but whether Sammy and Spree could blend their egos and feisty temperaments in a manner that would galvanize a ballclub built around an unselfish superstar in Kevin Garnett and a disciplined, ball-movement oriented offense devised by coach Flip Saunders.
They could and they did. With admirable professionalism, Sprewell accepted the role of third wheel in the team’s high-powered attack, became a linchpin of the best defensive squad in franchise history, and demonstrated that leadership is always greater than the sum of one’s statistics. For his part, Cassell achieved a seamless and respectful compromise with Saunders, guiding an offense that moved the ball and maximized Garnett’s talents while adding the enormous bonuses of Sammy’s freelance acumen and cold-blooded crunch-time shooting. Before the season was over, Cassell, Sprewell, and KG had graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, sat on the late-night couch of talk-show host Craig Kilborn, and propelled the Wolves into the Western Conference finals.
So there is no mistake, let me repeat: Sprewell and Cassell deserved every fawning headline and accolade for fostering the most successful, satisfying season the Wolves have ever produced. But this season, in word and in deed, they have betrayed that high standard of teamwork and are dashing the lofty expectations that accompany a championship contender.
It began in training camp. Cassell failed to show up for the first day, as a means of leveraging an extension in his contract. It was a needlessly inflammatory gesture. When was the last time Wolves owner Glen Taylor failed to offer a key player on his team at least as much as he was worth? This is a guy whose willingness to pay Garnett a king’s ransom prompted his fellow owners to institute a new collective bargaining agreement, the terms of which he then illegally flouted by promising Joe Smith more money than he was allowed to. And after being penalized a series of draft picks, he turned around and paid Smith the legal maximum, far more than Smith deserved.
Nor has Taylor shown any sign of changing his ways. During this past off season, he wisely ponied up $27 million to match Portland’s contract offer to Trenton Hassell, and foolishly doled out another $37 million to keep Troy Hudson around for six years, ultimately caving on incentive provisions that would have required Hudson be healthy enough to earn the money. Now, after getting their guaranteed deal, Hudson and his agent have the gall to bitch that the Wolves should be more tolerant of T-Hud’s recent lapses because he is still recovering from last year’s injuries.
Under league rules, the most Taylor can pay Cassell is just a little more per year than what he has just committed to Hudson, who obviously lacks Cassell’s proven abilities. In other words, all Sammy had to do to get what he wanted was tone down the melodramatics and continue to play the way he always has played. Instead, during the preseason, Cassell upped the ante by loudly advocating on behalf of a new contract for Sprewell. During this past off-season, Spree had the option of taking $14.6 million of Taylor’s money to play for the Wolves this year or declaring himself a free agent and finding out if any other owner would pay him more. Not surprisingly, he opted to remain in Minnesota. But he also demanded a contract extension at a similarly exorbitant rate, which happens to be the maximum allowed by the league. Taylor reportedly counter-offered $21 million spread over the next three years. In other words, Taylor was willing to give Spree $7 million to play the 2007-08 season, at which time Sprewell will be 37 years old and will have logged approximately 40,000 minutes of defending the perimeter and slashing to the basket during his hardnosed career.