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As it looks from here, less than a month into the NBA schedule, Dwane Casey seems destined for a long, hard season. Well, hard for sure—and long if he's lucky. Owner Glen Taylor and the rest of the Wolves front office expect him to take the Wolves to the playoffs. But the general consensus among pundits, scouts, and other NBA aficionados is that Minnesota is again among the bottom third of the league's 30 teams.
A year ago at this time, the whispers were about the fate of Wolves VP of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale, followed later in the season by the buzz over Kevin Garnett's possible departure. This season, both Kevins are still here, along with a veteran roster top-heavy on swingmen. The Wolves still owe a pair of first-round draft picks to other clubs. And the pressure to produce a winner sooner instead of later is as pervasive as it is implausible. If it doesn't happen, Casey is the most likely fall guy. Just last week, a measly seven games into the season—barely long enough to compile their first four-game losing streak—ESPN.com columnist Chris Sheridan rated Casey as the third most-likely NBA coach to be canned.
Part of this is due to the handy replacement perched at Casey's left elbow on the Wolves' bench during every game: assistant coach Randy Wittman. At the end of the 2004-05 season, Wittman was the leading in-house candidate to succeed the fired Flip Saunders after McHale's turn as interim coach. But Taylor eventually opted for Casey. The rookie head coach's first year was not one to inspire confidence, as Minnesota stumbled home at 33-49 after roaring out of the gate 12-6. The fallout from the multiplayer trade with Boston at mid-season was often cited as cause for the fade, but benching Kevin Garnett the final two weeks and purposely trying to lose the final game in order to secure a better draft pick likewise didn't help matters.
But if circumstances have conspired against Casey to an extent, there are some statistics from the 2005-06 season that do not reflect well on his coaching:
· The Wolves blew a league-high 23 fourth-quarter leads last season while mounting just eight fourth-quarter comebacks, tied for second-lowest in the NBA.
· When it came to generating points on plays coming out of a timeout, Minnesota's ratio of 98.5 points per 100 plays was the worst in the league by a whopping five points.
· Conversely, when opponents had the ball coming out of a timeout, Minnesota ranked 23rd of 30 teams on the points it prevented per 100 plays.
Decisions made during crunch time and timeouts are generally regarded as barometers (albeit imperfect ones) of a coach's capability. When the Wolves announced this summer that Wittman would be returning to the team after taking a year to lick his wounds as an assistant coach down in Orlando, nearly everyone assumed he was the heir apparent. But Wittman, whose family has remained in Minnesota so his two children could continue at the same high school, took pains to disabuse people of that notion. In my interview with Taylor last month, the owner told me Wittman called him personally and said he wasn't coming if the preordained plan was to slide him in for Casey at some point in the season.
Prior to the first day of training camp this season, Casey said, "I tried to hire Randy last year too, but he had already committed to Orlando." Asked if he anticipated a year's worth of speculation that Wittman was here to replace him, Casey didn't flinch: "It doesn't matter. If I don't win, somebody else is going to be coaching this team anyway."
Which brings us to the current squad, sitting with a record of 3-6 as of Monday. On the bright side, Garnett is clearly more enthusiastic and comfortable this season, and has gone out of his way to praise Casey's ability to get him into favorable matchups on the court. In addition, Casey pledged that the Wolves would be a defense-oriented team, and through last week, they ranked seventh in the NBA in fewest points allowed and ninth in lowest field goal percentage allowed.
At the same time, some of the flaws in Casey's coaching style clearly were not erased in the offseason. A disinclination to pare his rotation down to eight or nine players, which would clarify roles on the team and foster better rhythm and cohesion, again is besetting the current squad. Back before training camp, Casey preached about the importance of setting his core rotation. But against Portland last week, he deployed 11 players in the first quarter alone. Meanwhile, bit players such as Troy Hudson and Eddie Griffin have already griped about limited playing time. Another problem: offensive flow. Despite having a boatload of swingmen on the roster, Minnesota totaled a paltry 65 fast-break points in its first seven games.
Who knows how much of this is really under Casey's control? Kevin McHale is a big fan of Ricky Davis, the most talented player acquired in the swap with Boston, but Davis's refusal to play hard on defense is a glaring weakness that Casey has refused to address by cutting Davis's minutes. The substitution patterns on everyone but Davis and Garnett seem to possess little consistency. Will guard Randy Foye, who is a much more polished quantity than last year's top rookie, Rashad McCants, be brought along as slowly as McCants was? Does the return to health of Mark Madsen mean even fewer minutes for Griffin, or a larger pool of centers and power forwards mucking up the rotation?