Out with the Old

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

But possessing the right skills and initiative doesn't
guarantee success in what amounts to an elaborate balancing act. The power relationships between Casey and KG, Casey and Wolves' owner Glen Taylor, Casey and iconic personnel director Kevin McHale are all open questions at the moment, as is the margin call between winning now and building for the future. Casey was hired because the team needed someone to make changes, but that doesn't mean the changes will be easy, or their outcomes predictable.

 

Is there a player on the Wolves roster who provides a glaring example of this balancing act?

 

Troy Hudson. Despite missing more than 50 games due to ankle injuries during the 2003-'04 season, Taylor signed Hudson to a six-year deal worth more than $34 million just before the 2004-'05 campaign. Hudson very belatedly proceeded to play his best basketball after McHale replaced Flip Saunders as coach last February, increasing his shooting percentage and assists-to-turnovers ratio under McHale's tutelage. But from the first day of training camp, Casey has pledged that during his tenure as coach, the Wolves will make stingy defense an abiding priority. And Troy Hudson is a monumentally horrible defender.

In recent years, pro basketball has been subjected to the kind of sophisticated statistical analysis that Bill James and his followers brought to major league baseball beginning in the 1970s. One of the leading exponents of this movement is economics professor Dan Rosenbaum, who recently measured the defensive prowess of individual NBA players by calibrating a team's plus/minus point totals according to when each player was on or off the court over the past three years. In an essay published by the website 82games.com, Rosenbaum states that Hudson "probably gets the award for being the worst defender in the league.... He is playing a game on the defensive end that is not remotely like anyone else's."

Providing T-Hud with even scant minutes off the bench seems problematic in light of the club's other options. Backup point guard Anthony Carter has had a magnificent preseason, abetting his always-disruptive defense with an up-tempo, synergistic offensive game, especially as part of a go-go trio with Szczerbiak and center Mark Madsen. And any minutes Hudson gets backing up Hassell at shooting guard will be at the expense of top draft pick Rashad McCants, who sports a giddy array of offensive skills that demand exposure. Yet just last week, Casey said he "considered Hudson like a starter," and implied he will include T-Hud among the top seven players in his rotation. That's the kind of political balancing act (or misjudgment of talent) that could tilt the Wolves' season right down the tubes.

 

Is McCants a future star or the second coming of J.R. Rider?

 

Both. People forget that Rider was a star, albeit briefly. One reason he flamed out was because there was no tone-setter like Garnett on board when he arrived. I suspect that McCants will never become a shut-down defender in this league. There's mischief among his package of skills, which is how someone with top-10 talent was still available with the 14th pick of the draft.

There is a lot to like about this situation. I like how McHale, anxious to remove the stench of Will Avery and Ndudi Ebi from his reputation as a draft scout, openly applauds the "edgy attitude" McCants brings; how McCants is arrogant enough to see himself and KG as being very similar in their approach to the game; and how Casey is talking tough about playing D but not penalizing the kid for his multiple lapses, even when they're induced by indifference. But most of all I like the athleticism and economy of movement that enables McCants, at least once or twice every game, to throw down a dunk or get off a jumper before even veteran NBA defenders expect it to happen. Every minute Hudson steals from McCants at the shooting guard position will penalize this franchise down the road.

 

Speaking of prolific scorers and indifferent defenders, is this a make-or-break year for Wally Szczerbiak?

 

Absolutely. A succession of stains and bruises have pockmarked Szczerbiak's progress ever since he landed in the 2002 NBA All Star game (and before then, actually, if you count his brief brawl with KG after practice one day). First a batch of influential teammates conspired to label him a ball hog in an influential ESPN The Magazine article. (The Wolves brass eventually blamed their decision not to re-sign Chauncey Billups, a.k.a. "Mr. Big Shot," in part on his ego rivalry with Szczerbiak.) Then a toe injury in the first preseason contest wiped out 30 games in 2002-'03. This was followed by the banner 2003-'04 campaign when the MV3 thrived while Wally hobbled around with plantar fascitis. Last year was another soap opera, trisected by Szczerbiak's selfish preseason demand to start, his subsequent midseason offer to come off the bench, and his postseason request to be traded.

Through it all, Szczerbiak has cultivated a pretty fair persecution complex, claiming that his ex-coach Flip Saunders picked on him too much and that he endured disproportionate scrutiny because he was a white guy in a predominantly black guys' league. The complaints were tacky, but not without merit. Adding to the intrigue, Szczerbiak seemed to play his best all-around basketball--passing, defending, blending in--two years ago, when his standing on the team was at its most tenuous.

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