A Season on the Brink

David Kern

When you ask Minnesota Timberwolves Coach Flip Saunders why his team has a legitimate chance to be crowned NBA champions at the end of the 2004-05 season--which opens tonight versus the Knicks at the Target Center--he barely pauses before rattling off an impressive, mostly accurate list of the ballclub's virtues. "We're a low turnover team, so we don't beat ourselves. We're a solid defensive team, probably one of the top five in the league. We have the ability to shoot the basketball extremely well. We're a good free-throw shooting team. We have depth. We have players who can make big plays at the end of games. And we have the MVP."

For the first time in franchise history, the Wolves also have a bit of a swagger in their collective attitude as they approach this season. Of course any puffed chests in previous years would have appeared particularly silly or boorish. Until last season, the team not only hadn't won a single playoff series--they had compiled an admirably tenacious and flat-pathetic string of seven straight first-round exits from the postseason. That albatross was decisively excised last spring, when Minnesota thrashed Denver in five games and outlasted Sacramento in seven. Although they eventually succumbed to Los Angeles in the Western Conference finals, most of the Wolves are convinced they also would have vanquished the mighty Lakers, had their all-star point guard Sam Cassell not been felled by a hip injury.

Last season's breakthrough success has created a boomlet of championship fever for 2004-05. The motto concocted by the club's marketing department for this season couldn't be plainer: Our Team. Our Time. Conventional wisdom among the motley crew of NBA prognosticators agrees, collectively judging the Wolves to be one of three clubs--along with San Antonio and Detroit--most likely to be fitted for rings at season's end.

The logic behind this optimism is certainly reasonable, if not entirely sound. Last year, the Wolves compiled the best regular season record in the brutally competitive Western Conference despite significant injuries to three players (Michael Olowokandi, Wally Szczerbiak, and Troy Hudson) who had figured to be among the team's top six or seven contributors. After splitting their first 16 games while the 9 new faces on the squad's 12-man roster got in sync with each other, the team reeled off 50 wins against just 16 defeats. The rosy scenario for the upcoming campaign is that last year's waylaid trio will be healthy enough to bolster the club's depth and versatility, and that minimal changes in the roster have removed the hindrance of an early-season adjustment period. It also doesn't hurt that Shaquille O'Neal will ply his steamroller style in the Eastern Conference rather than for the Lakers this season.

For longtime followers of the tragicomic Timberwolves, the very notion that a slogan like Our Team, Our Time can be attached to the boys in green and blue without prompting snickers and catcalls is a delirious prospect. It's a hoot now to recall the Gulag old days when pudgy Scott Roth was launching left-handed treys from 30 feet, Pooh Richardson was a franchise cornerstone, and Marlon Maxey fouled an opponent in the final seconds of a lopsided loss so the Wolves could get another possession and possibly score enough points to qualify fans for some free tacos. Here we are on the brink of a new season with a meaningful number of supposedly shrewd people, who make their living parsing pro hoops for the masses, believing that the current edition of the Wolves has a decent chance to be the best team on the planet. It's something to savor.

But I don't think it's going to happen.


As someone who once extolled the promise of Chris Smith and offered up earnest assessments of the likes of Shane Heal, Lance Blanks, and Stoyko Vrankovic, it pains me to say this, but I think the Wolves will be fortunate to get back to a sixth game in the Western Conference finals this season. To win an NBA championship requires a selflessly synergistic crew of talented teammates who make tireless defense their top priority. Because the Wolves mostly hewed to that formula last season, they exceeded expectations (a year ago, most of the "experts" now on the Wolves' bandwagon pegged them to finish fifth in the conference and extend their playoff drought) despite a relative lack of familiarity and a slew of injuries.

Or maybe it was because of the injuries. Remember, a year ago, the abiding question regarding the dramatically overhauled Wolves roster was whether there would be enough ball movement and enough touches to grease the rhythm and satiate the egotistical trigger fingers of the team's talented core players. Injuries not only solved that problem, they reshaped the club's identity to its advantage by allowing a fearsome defense to coalesce. To put it delicately, the troika of sidelined players--Hudson, Szczerbiak, and Olowokandi--all prefer to shoot rather than pass, and have exhibited an occasional tendency toward befuddlement or indifference on defensive rotations. The quartet of guys who replaced them--Trenton Hassell, Fred Hoiberg, Ervin Johnson, and Mark Madsen--take pleasure in enabling better shots for their teammates (by dint of smart passes or staunch picks) and, to a man (even Hoiberg), regard a rugged, help-oriented defensive effort as their primary role on the ballclub.  

The result last year was the most sustained and satisfying display of teamwork the Wolves have ever executed. On offense, the deference provided by whichever two role players were on the court allowed Minnesota's three genuine stars (Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell, and Sam Cassell) a comfortable abundance of scoring opportunities. With the "MV3" generating 64 percent of the Wolves' points (a higher proportion than that of any other trio in the league), Minnesota ranked second in both field goal percentage and fewest turnovers.

But the most dramatic upgrade was on defense. Signed as a free agent on the opening day of the season after being dumped by the dunderheaded Chicago Bulls, Hassell was a godsend, joining Garnett as one of the league's top 15 defenders and specializing in shutting down the other team's best small forward or shooting guard. Sprewell and Johnson remained well above average in both individual and team coverage schemes, and even Cassell showed steady improvement over the course of the season. Throw in the floor-burn-laden hustle of Madsen and Hoiberg, and you understand how the Wolves shaved a remarkable six points per game off their opponents' scoring total last year. They also finished fourth in the NBA in lowest field-goal percentage allowed, despite playing at a rapid pace that risks yielding easy baskets in transition.

So, with all these principals returning for another season with a year's experience playing together under their belts, what's not to like about the Wolves' championship prospects? Two things: a preseason of discontent that may yet disrupt team chemistry, and a renewal of the dilemma about how to incorporate Hudson, Szczerbiak, and Olowokandi into the club's rotation without eroding last year's synergy at both ends of the court.

Cassell, who has two years remaining on his contract at nearly $6 million per season, boycotted the Wolves' media day event and the first day of practice to dramatize his desire for a two-year extension. Sprewell, who is making $14.6 million this season in the final year of his deal, also wants an extension, and has told the daily papers he might ask to be traded if the situation isn't resolved soon. And two weeks ago, Szczerbiak popped off to Strib beat writer Steve Aschburner, expressing dissatisfaction over being bumped from the starting lineup last year and enduring constant criticism from the coaches.

Cassell's situation is the least problematic of the three. He underwent hip surgery in June and will turn 35 this November, but his style of play relies on guile more than quickness. Under league rules, if the Wolves extend his contract, they can only bump his wages 15 percent above the salary he'll make on the final year of his existing deal, which is below-market value for a player with his skills and leadership. Knowing this, the ever-voluble Cassell is lobbying hard for Spree's extension. Sources say the pair would like to go out together at the end of the 2007-08 season, when Sprewell will be 38 years old.

Last season, Sprewell maintained his reputation as one of the NBA's most noble competitors, capping a stellar year with a scintillating playoff performance that made it hard to say whether he or Garnett was the club's postseason MVP. The Wolves love his ability to push the pace, which opens up the floor on offense and provides Cassell with room to score from the perimeter while trailing on the fast break.

But unlike Cassell, Spree signed his current contract for the maximum amount allowed by the league at the time, a figure that probably overvalues his services in today's tighter market. Sprewell is also unlike Cassell in that hard-nosed athleticism is vital to his style of play, and he's approaching an age when even a rigorous fitness regimen isn't likely to compensate for the ravages of time. Precious few NBA players can endure the more than 32,000 minutes of full-court intensity Spree has already logged. One unfavorable gauge of Spree's potential future value is Gary Payton, a kindred warrior and former perennial all-star who is approximately two years ahead of Sprewell in both age and playing time. Last year, at the age Sprewell will be next year, Payton's capabilities were severely diminished for the first time in his career.  

When it comes to rewarding his marquee players, Taylor has proven to be a reliably soft touch. Even he likely won't countenance a pay increase for Spree, however. Ultimately the number of years and dollars that are structured into his offer, and the question of whether it includes performance incentives, could affect Sprewell's approach to the team this year.

The Wolves coaches don't think that will happen. "Sam and Spree are competitors. When they step across the line I know they'll concentrate on winning games," says assistant coach Jerry Sichting. "And number 21 isn't going to let anyone have an attitude."

"Guys are motivated by winning and maintaining a loyalty to their teammates," says Saunders when the issue of contract extensions is raised. "People need to take care of their family, sure, but I also don't think it's bad to have people stay on edge a little bit and not become complacent. It drives them a little bit."


Which brings us to Szczerbiak. Two and a half years ago, as the primary complement to Garnett in the team's offensive sets, the deadeye shooter was proficient enough to be chosen to the NBA All-Star Team. But shortly thereafter, a national magazine published a story hinting at a strained relationship between KG and Wally. The story also quoted esteemed elder statesmen such as Sam Mitchell and Terrell Brandon, who implied that Szczerbiak was a ball hog. Injury was added to insult when a chronic plantar fasciitis hobbled Szczerbiak for much of the next two years. By the time he was finally activated in February of last season, the Wolves had parlayed their MV3-centric offense and Hassell's superb defense into a 38-15 record.

To his credit, Szczerbiak worked hard to fit into the team's successful status quo, passing up a few of his precious jumpers for the sake of better ball movement and doggedly elevating his subpar defense into the realm of mediocrity. Although editing his shot selection reduced his accuracy to a career-low 45 percent, it was on balance a productive accommodation.

But this fall, Szczerbiak came out firing both shots and opinions. Making no secret of his desire to supplant Hassell in the starting lineup, he told the Strib, " I was forced into playing a role I wasn't comfortable with [last season] and I don't like to play." As for the barrage of criticism he receives from coaches, mostly concerning lapses in his defensive assignments, he added, "I'm not putting up with it anymore. When it gets to the point where it's constantly one guy and not others, I don't think that's right."

This is a player placing his own needs ahead of his team's well-being. When he settles into a shooting rhythm and catches fire, Szczerbiak is without question a prolific, occasionally unstoppable scorer. But the Wolves have a surfeit of shooters who are nearly as capable. Three different players, none of them Szczerbiak, racked up 30 points or more a total of 6 times during the 12 games it required the Wolves to vanquish Denver and Sacramento in the playoffs. But the lion's share of the credit for thwarting Carmelo Anthony and Peja Stojakovic in those series belongs to Hassell alone.

Defense wins championships, and Szczerbiak's inconsistency in that realm is what has made him the chief target of sideline criticism from the coaches. Ironically, Wally often seems to be busting his hump on D--usually because he's scrambling to get back into proper position. Sichting thinks he becomes too easily distracted by what happened on offense in a previous possession. Saunders has begun to suspect that he lacks anticipatory instinct, or what the coach calls "mental quickness." In any case, if Szczerbiak doesn't crack the starting lineup--a decision Saunders has said he'll make today, just before the season opener--that will be the reason.

If Szczerbiak's name does happen to be announced among the starters tonight, it won't be the only change from last year's customary lineup. Olowokandi, who, like Szczerbiak, has tested the coaches' patience with his inconsistency (the Wolves have seriously considered trading both players), is expected to start over Ervin Johnson at center. Given that Minnesota posted a gaudy 37-10 record when Johnson and Hassell started alongside the MV3 last season, this begs the question of why Saunders and company are trying to fix something that isn't broken. The answer is that some of the Wolves' key personnel did appear to "break," or at least become overtaxed, at crucial stages last season, and the team wants to use its depth to ensure that doesn't happen again.

For example, the hip injury to Cassell that sabotaged the Lakers series may have been rooted in his playing the second-most minutes of his 11-year career at the age of 34. As much as Sprewell can resemble the Energizer bunny, fatigue is the probable culprit behind the steady decline in his shooting percentage from the first through the fourth quarter: .458, .414, .409, and .314. Ervin Johnson may be the club's most reliable defender among the Wolves' centers, but at age 37, there's a limit to how many optimal minutes he can deliver.  

Unfortunately, if Saunders relies on the added depth supplied by the healthy return of Szczerbiak, Hudson, and Olowokandi, it becomes less likely that the Wolves will remain among the league's top five defensive teams. To compensate for any potential weak links, the coach says he will deploy more zone defensive schemes this season, particularly when he goes to the small backcourt tandem of Cassell and Hudson, or when he senses that his defenders need a breather.

The point is, for a team widely considered to be a serious championship contender, the near-term future of these Wolves is cloaked in more than a little uncertainty. Due to age, injuries, and heightened expectations, the true promise and potential pitfalls of last year's dramatically revamped roster have yet to be fully explored. Will Olowokandi remain an aggravating tease of long, nimble athleticism and head-slapping ineptitude, or, as Saunders contends, will he mature faster after participating in an entire team training camp? At the combined age of 69, with contract demands on the table, will the starting backcourt of Cassell and Sprewell be able to reprise the yeoman leadership and flashes of brilliance they exhibited last year? Can Szczerbiak and Hassell both be useful while sharing the small forward position? How much does Ervin Johnson have left in the tank? Is the extreme caution Hudson is showing toward his ankle injury a mere bout of jitters or the harbinger of a chronic setback? And can this team share the ball on offense and dedicate itself to defense as selflessly as it did a year ago?

One little thing that is not at all uncertain, however, is that Kevin Garnett is the most complete basketball player on the planet. Perhaps if I lived in San Antonio I'd feel differently, but it seems to me that KG is more fundamentally sound than Tim Duncan. Duncan is less durable, less athletic, and less versatile than Garnett; he misses more free throws and whines about more calls. Garnett, conversely, has a joyous personality and a charismatic style of play to boot. After a decade of extolling his virtues, I still find it difficult to do justice to his value. But consider that in addition to scoring more points than anyone in the NBA and again earning a spot on the league's All Defensive First Team, Garnett last year managed to register more than five assists per game for the fifth consecutive year and to snare 1,139 rebounds. That's better than 10 percent more than the 1,006 boards corralled by the league's second-place finisher, Ben Wallace. It is exactly 829 more rebounds than Minnesota's second-leading rebounder, Latrell Sprewell, collected.

Of the numerous reasons Flip Saunders cited to demonstrate why the Wolves should contend for a championship this year, this last one remains the most compelling.

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