Oops

This year's Wolves: I screwed up--I trusted them

"Even if this team is serious about rebuilding, they will win more often than they will lose, and contend for the playoffs." Some moron writing under this byline composed those words back in early November to conclude his 2005-'06 Timberwolves season preview. And some editor made matters worse by packaging it all under an assurance that this crew would be "better than you think."

With 15 meaningless games left in this sorry campaign, it's apparent that I rolled craps as a prognosticator. This year's edition of the Wolves will incur more losses than wins for the first time since Kevin Garnett was a rookie a decade ago. Even optimists saw their hopes for playoff contention evaporate before Valentine's Day. And if this motley basketball team has performed better than you thought they would, you were anticipating a return to the Dark Ages, when dinosaurs like Randy Breuer and Scott Roth roamed the hardwood and coach Bill Musselman gnawed his nails down to the knuckles as he watched.

It wasn't as if I was drinking the Kool Aid proffered by the team. When first-year coach Dwane Casey proclaimed that center Michael Olowokandi was poised for "a breakthrough season," I'd already seen enough of Kandi's laconic ineptitude on the court to know that my favorite memories of his time in Minnesota would be from his locker room stylin', specifically the occasions when he'd be rocking those modified dreads and a Che Guevara T-shirt while deploying a formidable vocabulary in an immaculate English accent to rationalize his latest lousy game. When Casey had visions of guard Troy Hudson being an invaluable Sixth Man off the bench, I'd already sussed out that either T-Hud's ankles are as brittle as balsa wood, or his desire to play through pain is on a par with my desire to hear his next hip-hop single.

That kind of jaded, snarky attitude served me well covering the Wolves back in the pre-KG days, when the franchise was justifiably regarded as a gulag on the Midwestern tundra. It would have come in handy tempering my enthusiasm for three newcomers to this year's squad, who stand as Exhibits A, B, and C in my overestimation of the team.

Begin with Dwane Casey. "If he fails, it won't be because he's inexperienced or overmatched," I wrote back in November, praising his blend of command and approachability while discounting the fact that he'd never been a head coach before. But Casey's on-the-job training has proven to be much more arduous than anticipated.

His preseason pledge that the team's identity would be forged through a tenacious defense has been severely compromised since the late-January trade that brought four players from Boston, including three new starters who collectively and individually are not as solid on defense as the people they supplanted. The coach also waited until February to establish a reliable substitution pattern. While the influx of talent from the Boston trade is a mitigating factor, it does not completely explain the wild and stark fluctuations in minutes that some players have been forced to endure. Finally, Casey merits second-guessing for his team's in-game decision-making and execution. Over the previous nine seasons, Minnesota had the NBA's second-best record in games decided by three points or less: 64-40. Under Casey, the record is 1-9. Molding a team's identity, setting player rotations, and managing games are fundamental aspects of coaching. Casey now seems to be improving, but the pace has been too slow and too unsure.

Among the players, guard Marko Jaric has turned in the most disappointing performance, but with 20-20 hindsight, it isn't Jaric's fault. Timberwolves VP of basketball operations Kevin McHale overvalued Jaric to an absurd degree, and I bought the hype. Why? I can't speak for McHale, but I embraced Jaric because he offered such a profound contrast to last year's starting point guard, the hobbled and disgruntled Sam Cassell. Sammy personified the two glaring weaknesses--perimeter defense and locker room chemistry--that fueled last season's collapse, giving the Jaric-for-Cassell trade the extra allure of creating addition by subtraction.

But McHale executed much more than a straight swap. He threw in a first-round draft pick (that will be sacrificed this year if the Wolves finish above 10 of the other 29 NBA teams) and negotiated a deal where the Clippers signed Jaric to a huge, six-year, $38-million contract that the Wolves are now obliged to honor. Jaric appears to be worth about half that much, and never mind the misbegotten surrender of a draft pick. Yes, at six-foot-seven-inches he's large and rangy for a point guard, with great hands, decent court vision, and an unselfish attitude. He improves the perimeter defense most of the time, but not against particularly quick, darting opponents. Of most concern is his fragile psyche, demonstrated both in his poor clutch performance and his tendency to make slumps worse by getting down on himself.

But whatever you say, you can't say he had an off year. Jaric's numbers this season are remarkably similar to his career averages. His points per game (8.5) and turnovers per game (1.82) this year are exactly the same as his career marks, and in every other statistical category--except personal fouls and blocked shots, both down this year--is within 10 percent of what he has typically done. Yet three months into Jaric's six-year tenure with the Wolves, McHale essentially proclaimed the "Jaric as point guard" move a bust by sacrificing another future first-round draft pick in a trade that brought another point guard, Marcus Banks, to Minnesota. Despite spending $12 million a year on Jaric and Hudson through 2010, the Wolves' "braintrust" says they'd like Banks to be their point guard of the future. Here's the kicker: They'll have to bid for Banks on the free agent market at the end of this season.

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