Casey at the Hoop

How can a coach promise high hopes and low expectations at the same time?

Like first dates, introductory press conferences for a team's head coach or top draft pick are too fraught with anticipation to provide reliable gauges of character and personality. Nevertheless, the 25 minutes new Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey spent with the local media last Friday afternoon seemed to show a man with few illusions about how much talent he has to work with and how far he can inspire it.

Ever since former Wolves coach Flip Saunders was fired in February, owner Glen Taylor and (to a lesser extent) VP of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale have clung to the fiction that their squad is skillful enough to make a splash in the playoffs. Taylor flatly let it be known that coaching candidates who didn't share that view needn't apply for the job. It's an understandable, if regrettable, default position for the brain trust to take. After all, if the McTaylor duo doesn't believe that Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson, and Trenton Hassell are, at worst, top-notch role players to put on the court alongside Kevin Garnett, then why did they sign that motley crew to high-priced, long-term deals amounting to $90 million over the next four seasons? And why did they scapegoat the well-respected Saunders for not winning with them?

As a longtime assistant who more than once has been eked out in his bid to occupy one of the musical chairs on the head-coaches carousel, Casey is keenly aware that to get and keep this gig, he must somehow finesse the gap between his bosses' denial and basketball reality. Very early in his opening comments, he proclaimed that "the Timberwolves are not broken. They had a hiccup last season. It is not a team that is down. It is a team that needs tweaking."

Eyes wide open: Dwane Casey has few illusions
Allen Beaulieu
Eyes wide open: Dwane Casey has few illusions

But the Wolves faithful will be reassured to note that Casey's more specific responses demonstrate that he himself isn't drinking the "Wolves are talented enough" Kool-Aid. "The playoffs are our goal. I know that's a scary thing for coaches to talk about. But for this organization and team, that is a realistic hope," he said.

Yes, it is, but Taylor doesn't want to hear a simple playoff berth being categorized as a hopeful, scary-bold concept. What's truly frightening is that the franchise will return to its rut of first-round playoff exits while testing the patience of its superstar as he passes through the prime of his career. Right now, that's the most likely scenario. Asked what it would take for the Wolves to compete for a championship, Casey wisecracked, only half in jest, "Maybe Shaq. And Kobe."

The new coach waxed eloquent about the value of teamwork and trust, confidence and accountability. These virtues can make a mediocre team good, and even a little dangerous, but they can't alone transform it into a viable contender. Again to his credit, Casey properly identified two interrelated aspects of the current team that are in dire need of "tweaking": athletic quickness and perimeter defense. But he lapsed into full finesse mode when he declared that the Wolves sorely required "a player that can break the defense down in one-on-one situations," then two sentences later pirouetted into calling Hudson "an unsung hero...who is a very, very valuable breakdown-type player." Well, that's one inventive way of describing a 40-percent shooter (last season) with chronic ankle woes.

If you're looking for silver linings, Casey's emphasis on Hudson (who was mentioned more than any other Timberwolf besides KG) means that the Wolves probably won't blow up the chemistry lab by relying on sharp-tongued, slow-footed Sam Cassell in the last year of his relatively modest contract. Tall three-point shooters like Szczerbiak and Eddie Griffin might thrive in a run-and-gun offense similar to the one Casey helped engineer in Seattle last season. And verbally coveting speed and athleticism was a shrewd prelude to next Tuesday's draft, which is at least as important to the Wolves' future as the Casey hire.

Finally, despite McHale's fit of pique over the rumors that Garnett squelched the hiring of San Antonio assistant P.J. Carlesimo, the more involvement KG had in this process, the better. Everywhere you look--from the concession stands to the locker room to the basketball court--Garnett is the dominant presence in this franchise. Despite his almost belligerent vows of loyalty, the specter of him wanting to leave is never far from the minds of most diehard Wolves fans. Engaging his influence in the operation of the team when- and wherever possible is one way of battening down the escape hatches the superstar says he'll never use.

 
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