All Jumbled Up

The Wolves muff a golden opportunity for a fast start

Yes, there have been some bumps and bruises, not to mention back-to-back overtime games on the road. (Both of them losses, to the Seattle Supersonics and the L.A. Clippers.) But can anyone figure out what new Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey is up to in terms of his player rotation? I understand, and endorse, Troy Hudson sitting for the entire season opener, but then why bench Anthony Carter the entire game, including overtime, in a loss to Seattle? Why give rookie Rashad McCants a scant seven-plus minutes (out of a possible 106 minutes) in the two overtime defeats, especially when you are instead deploying a three point-guard set of Marko Jaric, Hudson, and Carter in the second half against the Clippers? Why does the role of the pivot man in crunch time go to Michael Olowokandi versus Seattle one night and Eddie Griffin versus the Clippers the very next night?

There are plausible answers to all of those questions, of course. Casey obviously believes Jaric and Trenton Hassell get priority time in the backcourt and wants to foster a competition among the others for whatever minutes remain. McCants isn't ready to defend people at the NBA level, and will immediately sit if he shoots first, last, and always, and forgets to play D besides. And after watching Kandi blow a lay-up (or slam) opportunity at crunch time versus Seattle, Casey learned his lesson and went with Eddie G. when it mattered against the Clips.

More plausible still, however, is that Casey is figuring out what he has on the roster and what roles everyone will play. That's all fine and dandy, except that after three very winnable games against mediocre opposition, Minnesota's record is 1-2. Again, that would be tolerable if Casey's vision was obviously long-term. But it isn't. Some of his moves seem to be taken with eye toward the future, and some with the idea of bagging victories now. And it all jumbles together.

Wally Szczerbiak isn't getting it done as the team's number-two option on offense.
Minnesota Timberwolves
Wally Szczerbiak isn't getting it done as the team's number-two option on offense.

The turnover in personnel among coaches and players on this team requires that fans, and Hang Time columnists, be patient. But a little hint of consistency would be helpful in fostering that wait-and-see attitude. Does Casey, let alone any of us, even begin to have a clue about how large of a role the likes of Richie Frahm, Ronald Dupree, McCants, Carter, Hudson, and Kandi will be playing next month, or in January or February?

None of this indecision is fatal, and a few admirable qualities about this year's Wolves are already apparent. They are scrappy, surging from behind to force overtime in both of last weekend's road games. Notoriously lax defenders such as Hudson and Wally Szczerbiak have already drawn multiple charging fouls on opponents penetrating toward the hoop, just one of many signs that the team has bought into Casey's emphasis on a taut D. They are going to the hoop more aggressively, registering many more free throws than the Flip Saunders editions of the team. And any lingering doubts about Kevin Garnett's ongoing majesty and commitment have evaporated.

But most or all of these positives were to be expected. And now that we've got a trio of games under our belts, here are some quibbles and causes for alarm.

Whither Wally? This is Szczerbiak's year to establish himself as the clear number-two in the pecking order behind KG. But against Seattle, Wally blew a slew of open jumpers, especially down the stretch of a heartbreaking defeat. The next night against the Clips, he simply disappeared, hitting just one of six attempts in 36 minutes of play. Casey and the team spun it that he was being guarded by a quicker opponent and the Wolves' couldn't get him the ball.

Okay, the guy guarding him was Quinton Ross, who is listed as being an inch shorter and 51 pounds lighter than Wally. So how does Ross outrebound Szczerbiak 8 to 1 and outscore him 10-4? If Quinton Ross is going to outplay Wally Szczerbiak, the Wolves have zero chance of winning on the road.

By the way, Szczerbiak has been his usually reliable self shooting from inside the three-point arc thus far this year, at 54 percent (15-28). But he hasn't converted a single trey in nine attempts. Whether that is the result of sore feet and ankles, less energy left after trying to play defense at the other end of the court, or simply a three-game anomaly magnified because it starts the season, is impossible to say at this point. But one way or another, Szczerbiak needs to find a way to regain his status as an efficient offensive force.

Nervous in the clutch. Marko Jaric nearly pissed away the opener against Portland with a few turnovers in the fourth quarter. Coming to L.A. to face his old team, one might have expected Jaric to feast upon the woeful defense of Sam Cassell and prove to the Clippers management that they had made a mistake in letting him go. Instead, Jaric joined Szczerbiak among the mysteriously missing in action Saturday night, playing perhaps the worst floor game anyone with eight assists and one turnover has ever delivered. Why wasn't Jaric attacking Cassell and Cuttino Mobley off the dribble and drawing fouls on Elton Brand and Chris Kamen in the paint? Frankly, he looked rattled. That can't continue if the Wolves hope to become a contender over the next five years (or is it six?) remaining on Marko's contract.

Ditto the Kandi Man, except that he is blissfully gone at the end of this season. Is anybody surprised that Olowokandi didn't convert a game-deciding bunny against the Sonics? Perhaps Casey's biggest mistake has been his resolve that Kandi become a high-priority low-post option in the Wolves' offense. Kandi's career shooting percentage is abysmal for a seven-footer--.435. Thus far this year, surprise surprise, he's shooting .429. And the highest free-throw percentage of his seven-year career was last season, when he made merely two-out-of-three (66.7%).

By contrast, Eddie G. has once again been a crunch-time titan for the Wolves this year, making a couple of key blocks against Portland and helping key a second-half surge against the Clippers. It is only a little simplistic to suggest that the Wolves lost in Seattle because Carter and Griffin were left on the bench and then lost in L.A. because Wally and Jaric failed to take advantage of favorable matchups.

The Rookie Needs A Clue Rashad McCants has been almost comically inept thus far this season. It didn't take scouts long to notice that he can be exploited on defense—Seattle and the Clippers both went right at him when he entered the game—and the oohs and aahs he can generate by his spectacular, athletic misses have already grown tiresome. If for just a minute or two he could let the game come to him, rather than acting like an 8-year kid living out his bedroom fantasy with balled up socks and a wastebasket, maybe all that talent might be put to good use, and Casey could allow him another double-digits' worth of playing time. Until that happens, he belongs beside Troy Hudson as a "what the hell" option when the Wolves are way ahead or behind.

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