By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Minnesota Timberwolves VP of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale looked smart five or six different ways during Monday night's 25-point thrashing of the Boston Celtics, but the play of new point guard Marcus Banks was the largest eye-opener. When McHale's suddenly omnipresent sidekick, scout Rex Chapman, referred to Banks as "the key" to the seven-player, three draft-pick swap between the Wolves and the Celts last week, it seemed like primping, if not pimping.
More than two years (180 games) into his career, Banks is shooting a doleful 40.4% from the field, and his assist to turnover ratio is a fairly wretched 2-to-1.26. Yeah, the rep was that his defense was strong, but that made him sound like a younger version of Wolves' backup Anthony Carter. Why was Banks the Celts 3rd string point guard anyway? For that matter, why were the Wolves adding a 4th point guard to their roster? When the post-trade rumor mill had Banks merely pivoting in Minnesota and heading to Seattle for another swap, involving Reggie Evans and/or Flip Murray, it made sense.
But in a scant 21:21 of playing time Monday, Banks capsized any pat assumptions people had for his future. Credit McHale and Chapman for admiring and then acquiring his jitterbug quickness, but not even the guy's biggest boosters could have anticipated him going off for 20 points on only eight shots from the field (he added 7-9 from the free throw line), and six assists. At once cool and jubilant, he tromped on the throttle with zipped downcourt shovel passes off the dribble that would have been called for two-line offsides in hockey. And once in the half-court, he had his defenders bobble-heading their entire bodies in response to his deft hesitation dribbles, downshifts presaging his peeled rubber toward the hoop or his sudden, and on this night deadly, rise up for a jumper. Hell, defense was the worst part of his game.
We'll know in the next three weeks (trading deadline is February 23) whether the Wolves really do regard Banks as a keeper or bait for bigger fish. When I asked coach Dwane Casey after the game about the glut in the backcourt (nine of the 15 players on the current roster are listed as guards), he acknowledged that it was "out of balance." As of last night if not before, Banks and his relatively puny ($1.7 million) salary, which expires this year, was the most tradeable among Minnesota's quartet at the point--and he matches up with Evans and Murray (a combined $2 million, also expiring this year).
On the basis of one game, the idea of trading Banks is idiotic...almost as idiotic as making the decision based on one game. Now that Michael Olowokandi has taken his tortured rationalizations for underachievement to another town, Troy Hudson is the presiding albatross on the roster, and if McHale can coax another squad into eating the $25 million or so that Huddy is still owed between now and 2010, the Big Gopher's Lazarus-like renaissance will trend toward the miraculous. Marko Jaric is more intriguing all the way around--even at $33 million through 2011, his unique skill set makes it so perhaps he could be moved. But Banks needs another handful of quality outings before such a notion should be seriously entertained.
Bottom line, Banks had fans and media alike buzzing on Monday. In the locker, after it was noted how Ricky Davis and Mark Blount complement his game and relieve some of the pressure on his multi-tasking, Kevin Garnett himself cited Banks as another positive, and commented on his "explosiveness" saying that the ability of his point guard to "drive and drop it off [imagine that] makes me a lot more fresh" at the end of games. Here's hoping that the squat (no way he's 6-2; try 6-1 or six feet even), muscular kid out of UNLV is indeed the steal of this deal.
I honestly don't begrudge McHale a single endorphin of the satisfaction he must feel from rebutting people like me, who called him a Lame Duck a couple weeks ago, or Sid Hartman, who railed against swapping his beloved Wally Szczerbiak for "four ordinary players" and dubbed the Boston deal the worst trade in history.
Because even if this deal turns sour in a hurry, and even if it was set up with a couple of nasty kickers on the back end--Blount's contract, which costs about $30 million between now and 2010, when Blount will be 34; and the apparently ritual sacrifice of another first-round draft pick--the players the Wolves acquired have already demonstrated why McHale liked them in the first place.
Calling Ricky Davis a good defensive player was one of the few false bills of goods McHale peddled when justifying this swap, but almost everything else about Davis thus far makes him a better fit, if not exactly or always a better player, than Szczerbiak for this ballclub. The ability to create his own shot even against a quality defender is the most obvious upgrade, but what has pleased me most is Davis's court instincts and vision. Given his fairly gaudy scoring average (a hair under 20 points per game) and his misguided lust for a triple-double a few years back (he tried to rig a rebound off his own shot at his own basket, a classless dabble in infamy), I figured the guy would be just a bit of a ball hog. But where Szczerbiak's assists were as deliberately rendered as a schoolboy learning penmanship, Davis seems intuitively aware of the flow and pitch of the game, and heeds that physical intelligence when dishing the ball. Against the Celts on Monday, he had three assists that were so smooth and subtle that Hudson should have been taking notes. He's a gamer--getting 26 points last Friday, about 24 hours after the trade, and playing through a nasty forearm from ex-teammate Kendrick Perkins on Monday are exhibits A and B of that. He wants to be here. And whatever baggage he carries (the triple-double embarrassment is probably the worst of it) is a tote bag compared to the overblown KG-versus-Wally soap opera generated by one scuffle and one ESPN the Magazine article that a lazy national media neglected to update.