Don't Wait Until Next Year

Waiting in the wings: Ndudi Ebi
Minnesota Timberwolves

Does anybody seriously believe the Timberwolves have a chance of vanquishing either Phoenix or San Antonio in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs? Or, put another way, how much of a long shot is it that Minnesota will experience enough postseason success to propel them to a place that is one step behind their appearance in the conference finals a year ago?

The 2004-05 season has been a disaster from the start, a comeuppance for the arrogant and a pathetic pratfall for a theoretical championship contender. However you choose to describe it, nothing that happens in the next two or three weeks is going to change it. You don't flip a switch and transform an aging, chronically mediocre squad into a unit that can topple the team with the best record from the strongest conference over a seven-game series. And even that's assuming the Wolves can somehow overcome their two-and-half game deficit to Denver over the next eleven contests and snag the very last playoff spot.

So spare us the ersatz bravado, the ill-conceived "never say die" attitude that not only means too little and comes too late, but actually hinders the team's ability to avoid similar underachievement next year. How ironic that point guard Sam Cassell should now step to the fore, telling the team's daily beat writers before the trip to New Jersey to play the Nets, "I don't think our guys know how intense this game is going to be. I have 18, 19 hours to let them know how intense this will be." On the court, Sammy has been the same way recently, barking out orders and hoisting up accurate jumpers at an increased pace.

But this is the same guy who was allowed to set his own practice and rehab regimen during the preseason, and seemed to spend as much time bitching about a contract extension as he did strengthening his hip and hammies. The guy who justified his petulant, ineffective play during the first month of the regular season by saying November games didn't matter. The guy who castigated the coaches for not putting him back in the lineup sooner following his hamstring pull, only to reaggravate it, at least twice, once the coaches acceded to his wishes. The guy whose inability to deter dribble-penetration or the pick-and-roll is now widely known and seized upon by opponents around the league. The guy who now proclaims that the cavalry has arrived and he's ready to show his teammates how to bear down and beat a 32-37 club with no inside game and the second-worst shooting percentage in the league.

Ever since Cassell arrived in Minnesota, I have consistently stated that he is by far the club's most effective option at point guard (even with his porous defense) and deserving of the number-two place in the team's pecking order, behind Kevin Garnett. And if the Wolves are to have any hope of catching Denver, Cassell must continue to resurrect memories of last season, and the four-game West Coast road trip in early December, when he ignited the team's offense and shouldered the go-to guy role at crunch time.

But then what? Let's say Sammy reverts to all-star form over the final eleven games, and elevates his play enough to approach parity against either San Antonio's Tony Parker or Phoenix's Steve Nash in the playoffs. Does that merit a two-year contract extension (which is what Cassell is asking for) for a point guard who already has a year left on his current deal, has been waylaid nearly half this season with assorted injuries, and will be 36 next year?

If not, do the Wolves really think that if Cassell keys a late-season spurt that he will be less likely to complain about the lack of an extension next season? Perhaps they think he will improve his value enough for the team to unload him, as they tried so frantically and unsuccessfully to do around the February trading deadline.

It is long past time to stop this charade and look ahead to evaluating and developing next year's ballclub. Wally Szczerbiak has made great strides this season in shoring up his defense and reducing his proclivity for turnovers while fitting himself more seamlessly into a team concept. But there apparently aren't enough touches in the world for Szczerbiak and Cassell to coexist peacefully, creating an on-court tension that is common knowledge around the league though still somehow off-limits for our two local dailies. Szczerbiak is one of the very few non-centers in the league who has converted more than half of his shots over the course of his career. He again ranks among the NBA's most accurate shooters this year. The Wolves have won ten of the 15 games this season when Wally has attempted at least 15 shots. Yet in the three games that have marked Cassell latest return to health, Szczerbiak has 18 shot attempts in 85 minutes of play, as compared to Cassell's 38 attempts in 73 minutes.

Cassell has, at best, one more year in a Wolves uniform; Wally's deal expires in 2009. So does KG's contract. Cassell's heir apparent at the point, Troy Hudson, has five years left after this season; ditto Trenton Hassell. One of the few bright spots throughout this season is how well Szczerbiak and KG have meshed on the court. In recent weeks, we've begun to see T-Hud pass a little more, and Hassell look for his shot more often. Hassell is one of the few Wolves who can get to the basket off the dribble, a crucial virtue in this no-hand check era. This quartet--KG, Wally, Hassell, and Hudson--represent a third of the roster for the next four years. Meanwhile, Cassell and Latrell Sprewell are headed out the door, renowned for the glory they brought to the franchise last year, and for the loudmouthed selfishness and aging skills that helped dash that glory so thoroughly this season. It's not too soon for a changing of the guard.

Hell, you might even put a uniform on Ndudi Ebi and see what he can do.

Hang Time will be on vacation next week. It will return Monday, April 11.

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