What Happened?

Everybody thought the Wolves would contend for an NBA crown this year, and some picked them to win it. Not anymore: how egos and contracts turned one of the league's highest-paid teams into middle-of-the-pack underachievers.

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 to stay healthy enough to earn the money.

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 has always played. Instead, throughout the preseason, Cassell vented his displeasure over a situation of his own making by loudly advocating on behalf of a new contract for Sprewell.

Over the last 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 the league's maximum permissible rate. 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 hard-nosed career.

Unlike many others, I had no problems with Spree's infamous remark that he needed all these millions in order to feed his family. Obviously, it was an awkward way of saying he wanted to set his family up for life, not ensure that they didn't starve, and I don't begrudge him that impulse. Nor do I care that he told an unruly fan in Los Angeles to suck his dick, a remark caught and aired on television, resulting in a one-game suspension in early December. I've heard the way some jerks on the sidelines berate the players and am not certain I wouldn't respond in a similar fashion.

But there were other things Sprewell reportedly said that not only brought discredit to him, but may have deterred the Wolves' drive for a championship this year. He claimed he was insulted by Taylor's offer, and ratcheted up the pressure by adding that if he didn't get his contract extension before the start of the season, he would not re-sign with the Wolves when his current deal expires at the end of this season. If we take him at his word, that makes him a lame duck who has divorced his personal long-term goals and interests from those of the team he's playing for this year.

More bluntly, Spree also asked why, in the absence of an extension, he should try to help the Wolves win a title this year. The obvious implication was that, unless Taylor acceded to his terms, he shouldn't try. Leaving aside that there are 14.6 million good reasons for Spree to bust his ass this season, the remark invited people to wonder if any deterioration in his play might be deliberate or spiteful. And that's a potentially toxic notion to have wafting around a team widely expected to vie for a championship.

As if that weren't enough static, Wally Szczerbiak let it be known during the preseason that he would be unhappy coming off the bench, and that he didn't appreciate ongoing criticism from coaches on the sidelines when he was in the game. Given his team's lackluster play in the first half of the season, it's appropriate to second guess coach Flip Saunders's response to all these preseason shenanigans.

Last season, Cassell and Sprewell joined the team with a lot of baggage and plenty to prove. Both players had a history of headstrong behavior that created acrimonious relations with their former clubs. Perhaps as a way to rebut their reputations, both readily acceded to Saunders's demand that they fully participate in preseason practices and learn the details of his complex offense. This was an especially significant concession for Cassell, who notoriously doesn't like to practice and is the floor general for Flip's complicated sets. In response, Saunders rewarded Cassell by wisely allowing him unprecedented latitude to call his own plays and otherwise freelance on offense. The benefits of this compromise got the Wolves to the conference finals.

In the wake of Spree's preseason remarks, the coach remained adamantly in his corner, saying after the Wolves' season opener, "How I feel about Spree hasn't changed. He's a great teammate and a great person to coach." He also acceded to Szczerbiak's demand to start, justifying the move by saying, dubiously, that Wally had outplayed Hassell in the preseason.

From the first game on, the Wolves' most glaring weakness this season has been deterring perimeter shooters from nailing long-range three-pointers and penetrating to the hoop. In large part this is due to their 69-year-old backcourt. (Making the clueless Olowokandi responsible for patrolling the paint and warding off pick-and-rolls certainly didn't help matters.) Cassell is 35 and coming off hip surgery; his ability to contain his man off dribble penetration or the pick-and-roll is below last year's barely adequate standard. And it quickly became apparent that Sprewell's solid D last season came from playing the small forward position and ceding the role of shutdown perimeter defender to Hassell. With Szczerbiak in the starting lineup, the 34-year-old Spree was stuck at the off-guard spot attempting to cover generally quicker opponents. Cassell sought to minimize the team's sluggish start by saying November games didn't matter and he was working himself into game shape, but that alibi lost its luster as the problem persisted into December and January.

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