Gone West, Old Man

Monday's announcement by former Minnesota Timberwolves guard Doug West that he was suffering from depression and chemical dependency was not as surprising as it should have been. For at least the past couple of years, there had been vague rumors, whispers, and wisecracks from within the Wolves organization about West's lack of dedication to his body and his game. Even as the caliber of West's play steadily declined, however, it was pleasantly convenient for all concerned to portray him, both physically and psychologically, as a gnarled survivor.

As the last of the original Timberwolves, West had endured seven years of constant losing with admirable dignity, sacrificing his body and holding his tongue for the greater good of the team. When the franchise's fortunes moved in a positive direction the past two seasons, it was easy to embrace the hokey but still heartwarming thought that West's perseverance had paid off, that justice had been benevolently served. In that respect, he was the feel-good, on-the-court surrogate for thousands of long-suffering Wolves fans. No wonder there was something of a conspiracy of silence regarding the increasingly apparent flaws in his game.

All that was exploded last week when West was traded to Vancouver in exchange for guard Anthony Peeler. When West threatened not to report to his new team, Wolves Vice President Kevin McHale reportedly told him his contract would be terminated, a blunt wake-up call that prompted West's statement on Monday that he would undergo treatment and get his life together before heading to Vancouver. Whether West rededicates himself to basketball, the trade for a player with Peeler's package of skills was one that should benefit the Wolves. Before we applaud the deal and move on, however, an honest appreciation of the pros and cons of West's long tenure with the Wolves is in order.

Most of the good memories are from the bad times. In fact, during the worst two seasons in the Wolves' woeful history, a period when the team lost 130 out of 164 games, West's performance was a solitary joy to behold. On offense, he would slide his lean, rugged physique behind one of his burly teammates to rub off his defender, then rise up and sink his trademark jump shot from the corners of the foul line. On defense, as the opponents' best outside shooter jogged toward the basket, West would hike up his shorts and bend into a feline crouch, flexing his hamstrings and slapping the court with his palms to signal his readiness for battle. In the locker room, while higher-priced stars such as Chuck Person, Christian Laettner, and Micheal Williams traded glares and excuses, and clueless coaches like Jimmy Rodgers and Sidney Lowe groped for answers beyond their grasp, West was an oasis of professionalism and good will.

The acceleration of West's physical decline began after the '92-'93 season. Having drafted gifted shooting guard J.R. Rider, the Wolves' brain trust asked West to bulk up so he could shift over to small forward, a position that would pit him against bigger, stronger opponents. West had just compiled what remains the most accurate two-year shooting percentage in Wolves history, and his '92-'93 season point total was more than Rider would amass in any of his troubled three seasons here. Yet he dutifully added 20 pounds to his 6-foot-6 frame and maintained his gritty style in the face of physically superior competition. For three years, both the frequency and the accuracy of his shooting declined. Minnesota's win total kept inching upward.

West's sacrifices did not go unnoticed. Less than two years after McHale and Coach/General Manager Flip Saunders took over the team's personnel decisions in the spring of 1995, West and Tom Gugliotta were the only players who had not been dumped from the Wolves' 12-man roster. Before the '95-'96 season, West was given a five-year contract at an average annual salary of nearly $3 million. A year later, after McHale and Saunders had drafted Kevin Garnett to play small forward and traded Rider to Portland, West was slotted back at his old shooting guard position in the starting lineup.

Now on to the bad memories of good times. As the Wolves surged to their first-ever playoff berth last year, West was clearly the weak link among the starting five. Granted, his intensity was invaluable to the team's defense on the perimeter, especially alongside the naïve and nonchalant guarding abilities of rookie Stephon Marbury. But on offense, West's once-automatic jump shot was suspect, and his confidence had eroded to the point where he was a shooting guard who refused to shoot, launching fewer attempts per minute than any other guard or forward on the team.

The positive, not totally inaccurate spin on this was that West's unselfish offense complemented a lineup in which other players needed the ball a lot to be effective. But it's also true that West's inability to shoot from long range--he made just 15 three-point shots last year--enabled opposing defenses to ignore the perimeter and shorten the distance required to trap Marbury outside or double-cover Gugliotta and Garnett near the basket.  

Always a pro with the media, West became increasingly sensitive when questioned about his offense. Plays designed for him to be the shooter were infrequently called, he said, creating an inactivity that affected his rhythm. But as his shooting percentage plummeted, it became a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: What came first, the lack of accuracy or the lack of opportunities?

Further complicating matters were a series of nagging injuries. Last year alone, West was sidelined by a sprained right wrist, a mid-back strain, a lower-back strain, and a sprained left ankle. More than seven years as a physically oriented NBA player were taking their toll.

Heading into training camp this year, word around the Wolves was that West might be supplanted in the starting lineup by Chris Carr, a promising shooter who may well be the worst defensive player on the club. Asked about the possible change, West was equivocal: "Whatever happens. The year I was the leading scorer on this team, we won 19 games. If we are a better team with me coming off the bench and teaching Chris everything I know about defense, then that's what I'll do. What matters are the wins."

The context of West's remarks made me wonder whether they were just a bit too conveniently noble. During the off-season, the league moved back the three-point shooting line and made it more difficult for a player to use his hands on defense without being whistled for a foul, two rule changes almost certain to diminish West's effectiveness. Coming off a subpar season, I wanted West to react to his potential demotion with an angry, competitive fire, as he did four years ago when Coach Sidney Lowe briefly started Chuck Person in order to bring West off the bench as an offensive spark. Instead, West seemed willing to become a well-paid member of the Wolves' supporting cast.

As it turned out, Carr's insertion into the starting lineup paid off: He quickly converted enough open jump shots to extend opposing defenses, adding another option to an increasingly prolific offense. But Carr's defense remained such a liability that Saunders was loath to play him in the second half of close games, increasingly relying on veteran Terry Porter as shooting guard in clutch situations. As the Wolves soared to a best-ever 24-17 record, West was even less of a factor than anticipated, having missed a dozen games due to pulls in his hamstrings and falling behind Carr, Porter, and even journeyman Reggie Jordan in the team's substitution rotation.

Then, in late January, both Gugliotta and Carr went down with significant ankle injuries within three games of each other. Not wanting to burn out Porter, two months shy of his 35th birthday, Saunders again tapped West as his starting shooting guard. It was time for the lone original Timberwolf to stop drawing on his depleting credits from years past and start earning his multimillion salary for a club that now needed his caliber of play.

But what the last two-and-a-half weeks have conclusively proven is that the vintage Doug West is long gone. In the eight games he started in the wake of Carr's injury, West converted an anemic 32 percent of his shots under very favorable circumstances. Given that opponents were trapping Marbury and clustering around Garnett, West was wide open on many if not most of these attempts.

Such was his lack of confidence that he passed up a slew of other open jump shots and didn't even try a long-range three-pointer. Meanwhile, aching hamstrings and the rule change against hand-checking hindered his defensive prowess, forcing him to commit a foul every seven minutes he was on the court. At an old 30, with three years remaining on a lucrative contract, his presence on the roster had become an impediment to the team's long-term success.

It's hard to imagine that McHale and Saunders were totally unaware of the reasons behind West's shoddy habits. In this era of vigilant player unions and guaranteed contracts, however, it's less apparent what they could or should have done to follow up on any suspicions they might have harbored, specifically about West's alcohol intake (it wasn't as if he was missing flights or practices). A more germane question is how much Vancouver knew about West's personal difficulties before making the deal. (Calls to the team's front office were not returned.)

Even before West's statements on Monday, the Peeler deal represented a minor coup for the Wolves. With four years left on his own multimillion-dollar deal, Peeler is far from a steal. At 28 and with less wear and tear on his body, his future upside is superior to West's. A career 38-percent shooter from the old three-point distance, Peeler has the long-range accuracy the Wolves covet, is a better passer and dribbler than West, and plays tougher defense than Carr. And finally, freed from a feud with Vancouver coach Brian Hill that denied him playing time, Peeler is ecstatic about joining a playoff contender. While not a savior, he should immediately help the Wolves, as Sunday's 16-point performance against Sacramento attests.  

While it's depressing to consider Doug West again relegated to providing inspiration to a perennial loser, the Vancouver deal will turn out to be a blessing in disguise if it gives him the strength to surmount his personal demons. For Wolves fans, the bottom line should be that over the course of eight-and-a-half seasons, he gave at least as good as he got from this community and this franchise. It would be disingenuous to bemoan his departure. But fans in this town would be remiss if they didn't wish him a return to good health in the course of saying thanks for the memories.

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