Rolling the Dice

The Wolves, with little to lose, may go for broke

When the Timberwolves hired Dwane Casey as their new coach last month, owner Glen Taylor, after pointedly noting that Casey had no prior experience as a head coach, stressed that he hadn't wanted to make a safe decision and instead opted for a "high risk, high reward" person for the job. Okay, except that Casey was a veteran assistant coach widely regarded as a capable bench tactician and player motivator who was overdue to become the top dog somewhere around the league. It felt like Taylor was overselling the boldness of his hiring.

By contrast, selecting North Carolina shooting guard Rashad McCants as their first pick in the last week's NBA draft is a genuinely bold, high-risk, high-reward undertaking for this franchise. Wolves VP of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale describes McCants as a "phenomenal athlete" who is equally adept at nailing the long-range jumper or drawing fouls while finishing layups on drives to the hoop. The Wolves had him rated as the best shooting guard in the entire draft. So why was he still available with the 14th overall pick? Mucho baggage. A reputation for being, among other things, an indifferent defender, an uncharitable teammate, and a pouting narcissist.

If you want the genesis and the details behind this negative chatter, Google Rashad McCants. The beat writers covering the Wolves for the dailies seemed to like his tattoos ("Dying to be Loved" on one arm; "Born to be hated" on the other) to portray the drama of his arrival, while tastefully omitting anecdotes such as the time his first college coach ambushed McCants by arranging for him to meet with a psychiatrist.

As someone who only watches college basketball during the NCAA tournament, I don't have enough direct knowledge of McCants's game, let alone the vicissitudes of his personality, to make a credible judgment about how successful he will be with the Wolves. But I'm excited about the pick, for a couple of reasons.

First, it signals that this is Casey's team. Rashad McCants is not a good prototype for Flip Saunders' system of crisp passes and mid-range jumpers; nor is he a smooth fit for the defense-oriented, paint-centric, smash-mouth style of play championed by McHale during his interim stint as coach of the Wolves. But both McCants and second-round pick Bracey Wright are ideal for the run-and-gun offense that Casey helped install in Seattle last year, which spread the floor for outside treys and inside penetration. (On the downside, Casey seems more proud of Seattle's defensive performance last year than the numbers would warrant, and the drafting of McCants hints that the coach's talk of emphasizing defense may be mostly talk.) Bottom line, Casey isn't afraid to make a decidedly unsafe, high-risk decision to steer this franchise in the direction he wants to take it. Maybe Taylor was right, and his hiring was a bold move after all.

Drafting McCants is also a welcome (albeit tacit) acknowledgment that, contrary to pronouncements by Taylor and the rest of the Wolves' braintrust, this team needs more than a few "tweaks" to become serious contenders in the Western Conference. Outside of superstar Kevin Garnett, there isn't the sort of solid, talented nucleus that fuels crunch-time victories over quality opponents. MV3 is dead, and I mean to be objective, not pejorative, when I say "good riddance." Consider Sam Cassell in the last year of a contract he hates, or Latrell Sprewell accepting pennies on the dollar of a deal he already disparaged. Imagine them in the locker room alongside McCants, who by all accounts is a marvelous talent and a combustible presence on the roster.

You don't draft somebody like McCants and then let him languish, physically or psychologically. He is here to fill a glaring weakness: Trenton Hassell was the Wolves' most effective slasher to the hoop last year! If McCants is not a significant contributor to the identity of this squad next season--rising to second or third place in the pecking order of the offense--the fallout will be damaging to the short- and long-term health of the ballclub. At the very least, McCants should fulfill the instant-offense role in Minnesota that rookie Ben Gordon assumed in Chicago last year.

Nor should the Wolves stop at McCants in rebuilding the squad at warp speed. The new collective bargaining agreement enables teams to waive expensive players, paying them salaries but not having it count against the salary cap. That will create an interesting pool of talent, perhaps on the cheap. Or maybe there are some other extremely high-risk, high-reward gambits out there. What about trading Wally Szczerbiak for Ron Artest? How about getting Washington to sign problem child Kwame Brown to a $5 million per year contract and then trading Michael Olowokandi for him?

I have no idea if Indiana or Washington would be interested in those deals, or the dozen others we all could cook up in our heads. But the abiding point is that Garnett will turn 30 during next year's playoffs. Merely tweaking the roster will only test his patience and loyalty by returning to the rut of first-round playoff series defeats. Why not go for broke and see what happens? For better or worse, Rashad McCants is a step in that direction.

 
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