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.

On the opening night of their 2004-05 NBA season, the Minnesota Timberwolves trotted out a starting five composed of the reigning league MVP (Kevin Garnett), three past or current all-stars (Latrell Sprewell, Wally Szczerbiak, and Sam Cassell), and the first player chosen in the 1998 draft (Michael Olowokandi). On the bench were a pair of starters whose defensive tenacity helped propel the Wolves to the Western Conference finals the previous year (Trenton Hassell and Ervin Johnson), the shooting star of the 2003 playoffs (Troy Hudson), and a couple of gritty, unselfish vets (Fred Hoiberg and Mark Madsen) who would be ideal 9th and 10th men on any NBA roster.

Conventional wisdom had the Wolves--seemingly loaded from top to bottom with a $70-million payroll that is among the top five in the league--returning to the conference finals. Picking them to go all the way and capture an NBA championship seemed bold but hardly outlandish.

Well, it seems outlandish now. As the Wolves hit the halfway point in their 82-game season early last week, they needed a 3-game winning streak to boost their record to 22-19, a mediocre mark that wouldn't have even put them among the 8 conference teams qualifying for the playoffs. ESPN analyst Greg Anthony, one of the pundits who picked Minnesota to win the championship, recently referred to them as the most disappointing team of the current decade. And while that seems prematurely harsh, there is no question that for the first time since the four pillars of the franchise (KG, owner Glen Taylor, coach Flip Saunders, VP of basketball operations Kevin McHale) came together nearly a decade ago, the Wolves can legitimately be called underachievers.

Diehard optimists have cause to claim that it is far too early to write off this season as an unqualified failure. The Wolves still have time to overtake a surprisingly successful Seattle club and win the Northwest Division, which would give them no less than a third seed in the playoffs. If that were to happen, they probably wouldn't have to face the dominant San Antonio Spurs until the conference finals. And the other likely playoff teams in the West either lack Minnesota's recent experience playing together in the postseason, or tend toward the sort of wide-open, offense-first style that historically has not been successful in May and June.

For the Wolves to rescue their season with a dramatically improved performance from now on is plausible, but not likely. It will require them to surmount some fundamental obstacles, both physical and psychological, that have plagued this club since opening night.

After Shaq and the Lakers finally vanquished the Wolves in the sixth game of last year's conference finals, a frustrated Latrell Sprewell turned to Kevin Garnett and said, "It doesn't mean anything if you don't win it all." The comment, while ridiculous on its face--it meant plenty to nearly everyone associated with the franchise that Minnesota finally advanced past the first round of the playoffs--bespoke the kind of hunger and determination that you want in a veteran leader. Coming into this season, it was reasonable to assume that this taste of success would only whet the appetite and sharpen the focus of players who could see they had a viable shot at an NBA crown. Likewise, it seemed to augur well that the players with the most at stake were Sprewell and Cassell, a pair of aging stars to whom the '04-'05 season represented perhaps their last, best hope for a championship as well as an opportunity to dramatize their value shortly before they negotiated what might be the final contracts of their careers.

But Spree and Sammy shirked their leadership roles. They disrupted the team's focus on winning a championship because they weren't willing to wait on negotiating new contracts. The friction began when Cassell failed to show up for the very first day of training camp as a means of highlighting his desire for a two-year extension at the maximum level allowed by the league's collective bargaining agreement. Sprewell quickly followed with a series of alternately silly and damaging grumblings stemming from his dismay over not getting a new deal on his terms. Their churlish ploys have proven counterproductive in more ways than one.

Let's begin with Cassell. Sammy rightfully believes that he is worth more than he is being paid, but for that he has only himself to blame. Nobody, least of all Wolves owner Glen Taylor, forced Cassell, who was then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, to put his signature on his current long-term contract. Under league rules, the best Taylor can do is extend the terms of that deal with a 15 percent raise.

Okay, so when was the last time 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 violated by promising Joe Smith more money than he was allowed. And after being penalized a series of draft picks, he turned around and paid Smith the legal maximum, which was 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 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.

A little more than three weeks ago, with Cassell out with a hamstring injury and the team plummeting below playoff eligibility, Saunders finally juggled the starting lineup to reestablish the defensive identity that fueled last season's success. Four players who put a priority on taut man-to-man coverage and deft defensive rotations (Hassell, point guard Anthony Carter, and first John Thomas and then Ervin Johnson at center) found themselves in the game at the opening tap. Szczerbiak grooved the transition by graciously offering to come off the bench despite the noticeable improvement in his defense, shot selection, and turnovers. And the Wolves won seven of their next nine games.

 

During his first full season as the Wolves' coach, Saunders gave me the most sensible definition of team chemistry that I've ever heard. Good chemistry, he said, occurs when a just and consensual pecking order is established. Last season, through a serendipitous combination of injuries and what were supposed to be merely bit-part acquisitions, a pecking order fell together that was both synergistic and indisputable. Questions about the gelling of a ballclub with an abundance of offensive-oriented talent and volatile egos were resolved when injuries felled a troika of players--Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson, and Michael Olowokandi--who all preferred to play with the ball in their hands. In their stead, defensive-oriented role players such as Ervin Johnson and Trenton Hassell ascended to the starting lineup, and journeyman veteran Fred Hoiberg, once considered to be just an outside shooting specialist, displayed surprising versatility coming off the bench. As the planet's best basketball player, KG was obviously going to be top dog. But the absence of Wally, T-Hud, and Kandi enabled proud stars like Sammy and Spree to remain focal points in the offense while willingly falling in behind Garnett as Alpha-2 and Alpha-2a. The complementary starters Hassell and EJ came next, followed by the great enablers, Hoiberg and Madsen. In view of the team's unprecedented success, the injured trio were compelled to keep a low profile so as not to disrupt the prevailing good vibes. Only Gary Trent was outwardly frustrated with his status, and he was shown the door at the end of the season.

It was always flawed reasoning to assume that the Wolves would automatically be better this season with a full complement of healthy players. Even before Cassell, Spree, and Wally executed their preseason snits, the potential for chemistry problems existed. Sure enough, this year's pecking order is not nearly so clear-cut. Saunders has always been a "player's coach" by nature, which, among other things, means keeping locker-room controversies to a minimum and respecting the collective will of his team. Although I just criticized him for it, I understand why he chooses to grease the squeaky wheels as much as possible, be it Spree, Wally, or Cassell. And in one respect, it has been a successful strategy: Despite the inherent strife that comes with the team's profound underachievement, the Wolves' locker-room relations remain remarkably devoid of infighting, at least from the media's outside perspective. The team's pecking order continues to be consensual. Whether it is still just, however, is less certain.

No one is bumping the MVP from top dog status. And although Saunders occasionally docked Cassell some crunch-time minutes to deter his willful disobedience a few times earlier in the season, his clutch shooting, veteran savvy, and superb stewardship of the offense more than compensate for his defensive liabilities; he still holds the Alpha-2 position in the pecking order. But when the question turns to Sprewell's place in the order of things, the matter suddenly become a lot more complicated.

Cutting Sprewell's minutes or otherwise diminishing his role is risky business. Cassell, not to mention Spree himself, would no doubt take it as a personal affront. Nor is KG likely to endorse it. As the MV3, Sammy, Spree, and Garnett shared national magazine covers, late-night talk show couches, and playoff series victories together within the past year. Sprewell has earned his reputation as a big-game performer who rises to the challenge of playing in hostile arenas when the chips are down. As recently as last Wednesday night, his 22-point eruption in the third quarter against Atlanta showed that he is capable of carrying a team nearly single-handedly.

But there are some cold-blooded realities that are not in Sprewell's favor. After 12-plus years and more than 34,000 minutes played in this league, he has lost a step of quickness and a level of consistency in his performance. Once renowned for his slashing drives to the basket, he now averages barely two free throws per game. The seasons when he could be called upon night after night to lock up an opponent's most prolific scorer have yielded to nights like the January 21 game versus Seattle, when sharpshooter Ray Allen hit just two of 17 shots while being guarded by Hassell but erupted for 13 points, on five-of-five shooting, during the four and a half minutes of the second quarter when Spree was the primary defender. Last year, the Wolves posted a 13-2 record when Sprewell led the team in scoring. But last Wednesday's outburst against Atlanta marked the first time this season that Spree's offensive dominance propelled the club to victory.

At the beginning of the year, Saunders spelled Szczerbiak with Hassell and Spree with Freddie Hoiberg off the bench. When the coach shored up his perimeter defense by installing Hassell as a starter and shifting Sprewell to small forward, Hoiberg's playing time was cut in deference to Wally and Spree. Szczerbiak earned the assurance that his minutes would not be severely curtailed. One of the few bright spots on this year's club, he has begun to dissolve his reputation as a ball hog, turnover machine, and befuddled defender, and displayed maturity by volunteering for the bench.

But Hoiberg, too, deserves consideration, even if he never asks for it. A persuasive case can be made for Freddie being the Wolves' second-most valuable player thus far this season. Despite ranking eighth on the team in minutes played, Hoiberg has generated the club's second-highest point differential during his time on the court. The issue of how many of Spree's minutes Hoiberg should be allotted highlights the friction between the "star system" that is a fact of life throughout the NBA, and frequent statements by Saunders and McHale that the "five guys who play together best" will be the ones who play.

The website 82games.com contains a variety of statistical formulae to determine a player's worth. As of January 25, one formula reveals that, in a normal 48-minute game, the Wolves outscore their opponents by 8.6 points when Hoiberg is in the game and get outscored by 0.6 points when he sits. By contrast, the Wolves outscore their opponents by 2 points per 48 minutes when Spree plays, but perform slightly better, raising their edge over their opponents to 2.4 points per 48 minutes, when Spree is on the bench. Hoiberg's statistical superiority to Sprewell in this calculation is even more remarkable when you consider that while Spree has benefited from playing alongside the starters for the vast majority of his minutes, Hoiberg is more often on the court with the backups. For example, through last Tuesday, Spree had played beside KG for 1,090 of his 1,182 minutes, while Hoiberg reaped the rewards of Garnett's presence for just 350 of his 587 minutes.

After Wednesday's win over Atlanta, assistant coach Randy Wittman (subbing as head coach for the flu-ridden Saunders) disclosed that the coaches had decided that "Freddie does too many good things not to give him minutes. Not just his shooting, but always being in the right spot and providing defensive help, coming up with all the little things. We don't have many guys who do that."

When Spree likewise was bitten by the flu a couple of weeks back, that extra time for Freddie came at Sprewell's expense. Over a 3-game span, Hoiberg played 58 total minutes to Spree's 52, outscoring him 35-9 in the process. In one sense, all this means is that a healthy Hoiberg can outperform an ailing Sprewell. But what can't be discounted is that the Wolves won all three games.

According to the Star Tribune, in the last of those three games, a Target Center tilt against Detroit, Spree was "especially peeved" about his lack of playing time and made it "clear to Saunders and fans near the team's bench that, once out in the second half, he had no interest in returning." That's the pecking-order problem Saunders must finesse if the Wolves are to have any hope of salvaging this season.

It is a problem further complicated by the fact that this will be Spree's last season in a Wolves uniform. We know this because when his name suddenly cropped up in a slew of trade rumors a few weeks ago, Taylor announced that he had no intention of trading him--not because of his value to the ballclub, but because Taylor wants the financial windfall of knocking his $14.6 million salary off the payroll at the end of the season. There is a distinct possibility that the $21-million deal Spree found insulting three months ago is no longer on the table. Barring a huge upgrade in his performance or an improbable championship run by his team, that would mean Sprewell would be forced to accept much less, with the Wolves or somebody else, if he wants to continue playing in the NBA.

If the Wolves' experience in February is as subpar as it was in January, the temptation will increase to point toward the future and allot more minutes not only to Hoiberg, but to Hassell and Szczerbiak, who are both signed for at least the next five years. And if that happens, it will be difficult for Cassell to maintain his cool. Taylor's decision not to negotiate with either Sammy or Spree until the end of the season can't have gone down well with the gifted point guard, who already feels slighted by the terms of his current deal.

One thing is certain; Cassell will not be a positive presence on the ballclub next year if his deal isn't extended. If Cassell believes Taylor has doubts about his future with the ballclub, Sammy inevitabley will make himself as much of a lame duck as Spree. And if that's the case, the Wolves should trade him sooner rather than later.

How likely is this ugly scenario? Nobody knows. What does seem clear is that the next few weeks will be a crucial time for both the near- and long-term course of this franchise. The happy resolution everyone connected with the team is hoping for is the return to glory of the MV3, fueling a gritty, off-the-mat comeback that earns them, at minimum, a return to the conference finals. Personally, I think that watching that happen would be worth the braying about "Nobody respected us," and "If you want to jump off the bandwagon, don't come trying to get back on" that would inevitably ensue from some of the players. Among the legion of Wolves fans, whose heart wasn't seduced by the unselfish synergy of talent and tenacity that made last season so potently magical? We can all hope that it happens again. But expecting it feels like a prelude to heartache, a delusion rebutted by three months of woeful underachievement.

 

A portion of this story orginally appeared in an online-only column from January 3, titled "MV3 Minus 2 Equals 1 Long Season." Britt Robson's Hang Time columns about the Timberwolves appear every Monday throughout the NBA season atcitypages.com.

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