By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
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But quite suddenly, he's a 28-year-old veteran entering his prime with momentum on his side. All his real and imagined adversaries--Billups, Terrell Brandon, Cassell, Spree, Saunders-- have moved on. In their stead is Casey, who as an assistant coach in Seattle watched Wally rack up a plethora of 20-point games over the years, and sees Szczerbiak as the clear-cut second option to KG. Instead of carping on Wally's miscues, he's figuring out ways to assist him on defense, feed him on offense, and let him run and freelance more when the opportunity beckons.
The new starting point guard, Jaric, will shoot less and dish more than any of his Timberwolf predecessors, and when Anthony Carter subs in, he and Wally will turn on the jets and cavort with the same telepathy that made them such a joyous tandem last season. Even Szczerbiak's on-court relationship with KG has relaxed into a relatively positive rhythm, fostered by their mutual desire to forget the dolor of last season. If he can keep the injuries and controversies at bay, and his turnover-prone drives off the dribble to a minimum in the half-court sets, we should see all the upsides of Szczerbiak showcased this season. And if we don't, he risks relinquishing his spot in the pecking order to McCants.
Will Kandi really laugh last, all the way to the bank?
Even more so than with Szczerbiak, Casey has gone out on a limb declaring his faith in Michael Olowokandi, the much-maligned, underachieving pivot man entering the final year of his contract. When the MV3, Wally, T-Hud, and the crew were all jacking up jumpers the past two seasons, Kandi was relegated to patrolling the paint for rebounds and blocks. He provided just enough offense to prevent opponents from double-teaming KG with another big man. Most of the time, even that limited role made Olowokandi visibly ill at ease--tense, bewildered, and hamstrung by doubt.
But Casey waxes steadfast in the face of this checkered history. "I really, truly believe that Michael is going to have a breakout year," the coach says firmly. To that end, Kandi has been instructed to look for his shot whenever he catches the ball in the low post. Minor injuries to KG have further increased Kandi's scoring opportunities in the past few preseason games. The rote head and ball fakes and the exaggerated footwork are all just as stiff and unconvincing as in his first two years with the Wolves, but that little turnaround bunny-toss is finding its path through the hoop with beguiling regularity.
Kandi has teased up and then let down expectations before, of course, and the games haven't even started to count yet this year. But it is also obvious that Casey wants to generate more points in the paint, that Kandi should be motivated by his push for a new contract, and that even with his sclerotic movements and putrid 43.5 percent shooting accuracy, Kandi's maneuvers in the low post are more refined than anything the team's other two centers, Eddie Griffin and Mark Madsen, could muster. All this faint praise is a reminder that the Wolves' default strategy may be KG-or-bust down near the hoop. But if Kandi really can chip in 10-12 points per game, it will open things up for everyone else on the court.
We'll see. Call me jaded, but I think the Wolves are better off relying on Griffin's long-range shooting prowess to draw opposing big men away from KG underneath. Or putting a go-go unit of Carter, Madsen, Szczerbiak, Griffin, and McCants in to foster layups and short, easy jumpers in transition. And we haven't even talked about Kandi's inconsistent defense against the pick and roll at the other end of the court. It's lucky for him that Griffin, if anything, is even more clueless.
Should the Wolves be rebuilding for the future, or gunning for the playoffs?
Rebuilding, of course. Otherwise they just reenter the rut of first-round playoff losses that plagued them through most of Saunders's tenure. When Casey was hired this summer, Taylor made a point of emphasizing that any suitors for Flip's old job had to bring a "win now" philosophy or be eliminated from consideration. Since then, Taylor has moderated his ardor for instant results, which indicates to me that Casey is a shrewd judge of talent and an effective communicator.
Acquiring Spree and Sammy two years ago was not, as Taylor characterized it, a "failed experiment," because the MV3 broke the playoff rut and vindicated KG's status as a formidable leader when provided with a decent supporting cast. The experience gave Garnett an idea of the firepower necessary to mount a serious championship challenge. He, Casey, Taylor, and McHale are all smart enough to survey the current roster and conclude that this is the time to sow the seeds for that eventual challenge. Time is of the essence--KG turns 30 in May--but that makes it even more imperative to realize that a savvy three-year plan will ultimately bring the team closer to the brass ring than three straight years of going for broke. That's why drafting an enormously talented, potential problem child like McCants is an acceptable risk, and why I'd like to see Eddie Griffin in the lineup more often than Kandi this year. It's also why the Wolves should cut their losses with Troy Hudson.