Out with the Old

They might not be giants, but the 2005-'06 Timberwolves will be better than you think: An opening night FAQ

In terms of talent, it seems like the Minnesota Timberwolves are suddenly back to the bad old days of Kevin Garnett and the 11 dwarves. How long will it be before KG finally punches his own "big ticket" out of town in search of a realistic chance at an NBA championship?

 

It's hard to imagine the Wolves without Garnett, isn't it? The franchise has never won more than 29 games in a season without him, and wouldn't reach that many victories in the '05-'06 campaign if KG were felled by an injury.

Last year, while folks throughout the organization were bitching, whimpering, back-stabbing, or just lying down like dogs, Garnett threw up an average of 22.2 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game, once again playing all 82 contests despite an assortment of injuries. Wilt Chamberlain is the only player in NBA history to beat each of those points-rebounds-assists averages in a single season. Wilt the Stilt did it twice, in fact, in 1967 and 1968, and was named the league's MVP both times. But due to the dysfunction around KG, his gaudy stats didn't even land him a place on the All-NBA First Team last year. Who would blame him for wanting to jump off a squad in which Wally Szczerbiak is generally regarded as the team's next-best player?

The marvelous, screwy answer is that KG would blame himself, for disloyalty and insufficient strength of character. Since the day he arrived in Minnesota, he's about the only person who hasn't openly speculated about when he'd leave. On the contrary, near the end of last year's shit storm, he got angry when I asked him if he was reconsidering his previous vows of fidelity to the Wolves, calling it a "stupid, ridiculous" question.

The lone occasion when his resolve seemed to waver was a couple of years back, when his first huge contract extension was coming to a close. KG venerates the traditions and history of the game, and was stung when Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson idiotically called him out for not being more selfish with the ball during yet another Wolves first-round playoff loss. But then the Wolves got Sammy and Spree, and Garnett permanently quieted his crunch-time critics with a dominant Game 7 versus Sacramento.

As the Wolves were adjusting to a new coach and a revamped roster this preseason, Garnett continued to flex his now-legendary leadership skills, renting out an entire movie theater so the team could get acquainted with a night out together, and taking obscure newcomers like Nikoloz Tskitishvili under his wing on the court. As Garnett prepares for his 11th season in Minnesota, it is high time we shelve our paranoia, bless our good fortune, and take him at his word when he says he is a "Timberwolf for life." To help us along, the team's marketing department has made "True Blue" the motto of the franchise this season.

 

Okay, KG is here now and forever more. But the rest of the MV3 is kaput. Who will the Wolves miss more, Cassell or Sprewell?

 

Fred Hoiberg. Cherish the two-year-old memories of Sammy and Spree if you wish, but last season their presence on the team was like a double dose of the clap. Sharing bad wheels, bruised egos, and blue language, their geriatric-outsider solidarity was toxic to team chemistry and, for poetic justice, their own future paychecks. Hoiberg, on the other hand, was pure money from beyond the three-point arc and inside the locker room. It was a shock to discover that the Wolves' second-best player last year will be forced to sit out this season, and perhaps retire for good, due to an enlarged aortic root that required surgery and a pacemaker.

 

In Hoiberg, the Wolves will be missing an invaluable role player from a team that couldn't even make the playoffs last year. Why should fans be optimistic this season?

 

The team should see a huge upgrade in perimeter defense--its most chronic, debilitating flaw last year. Remember, the old starting backcourt was Sammy and Spree, a combined 69 years of once-vintage wine that had soured. The Wolves unloaded Cassell to the Clippers in exchange for Marko Jaric, a point guard who is quicker, much more rugged, and, at 6' 7", four inches taller than Sammy. Jaric will start alongside Trenton Hassell, the Wolves' second-best man-to-man defender after KG. It took Hassell most of the year to adjust to the NBA's stricter enforcement of hand-checking rules last season, but he showed up at training camp in shape and secure in the knowledge that he won't be unfairly bumped to the bench in favor of inferior defenders like Spree and Wally Szczerbiak, as happened last year. Another positive sign is that new coach Dwane Casey vows that the character and identity of the team will be established at the defensive end of the court this season.

 

So was the hiring of Casey--
who has never run his own team during his 27-year coaching
career--a shrewd choice?

 

If he fails, it won't be because he's inexperienced or overmatched. Even as head coaches, some guys have the mien of career assistants--
Sid Lowe and Jimmy Rodgers exemplified as much in the team's pre-Flip days. Casey
carries himself with the self-possession of a credible head coach, projecting an appealing blend of command and approachability. By all accounts, he is purposeful, well organ-ized, and works his ass off.

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