How The West Was Won

David Kern

For the first time in their 15-year history, the Minnesota Timberwolves are favored to win a series in the playoffs. This season's success would not have been possible without crucial contributions from the team's other "three-headed monster": the front office triad of owner Glen Taylor, basketball operations VP Kevin McHale, and head coach Flip Saunders. McHale's shrewd wheeling and dealing brought veteran stars Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell and vital role players Trenton Hassell and Fred Hoiberg, among others, in a drastic overhaul of the roster. Saunders fostered a defensive identity and jury-rigged a player rotation beset by a bevy of injuries for most of the season. And Taylor bankrolled the entire affair, opening up his wallet wide enough during the off-season to spill some red ink on the team's bottom line.

In a pair of interviews conducted earlier this month--Taylor in a conference room up in the Wolves' Target Center offices a week ago Sunday; the McFlip tandem after practice two days later down in the Northwest Athletic Club adjoining the arena--the trio held forth on the ways and means of an exciting, almost magical regular season. But each one knows all too well that an eighth straight playoff defeat next week would transform the campaign into an embittering, expensive failure.


Glen Taylor

City Pages: When you signed Kevin Garnett to a contract extension in October, you said it would take a miracle for the team to make money this season. I know part of that is short-term because you are paying KG about $28 million for the last year of his old deal. But will you still lose money if the team goes beyond the first round of the playoffs?

Glen Taylor: Well, more playoff games would really help us. But when I said to you it would be a miracle, it was my way of saying that I don't see any way I'm not going to lose money this year. It's just a question of whether I'm going to lose $5, $10, or $15 million. I took that to my partners before we started and we just said we think it's worth it because it won't happen next year and we can put this team together now.

I'm going to get hit this year because we have very high salaries and so we have to pay the league's luxury tax. If there was no tax this year, it would be another terrific year for us, because of the playoffs. In the playoffs, you might make on the high side, a million dollars a game, on a home game. For sure in the first round we are going to clear about a half-million dollars. And we've never gotten to the second round yet, but I think it will be more than that in the second round. But even then, there just aren't enough games to make up the difference in what we have to pay this year.

CP: What is your input into roster changes? Do you pretty much leave that to Kevin and Flip? Have you ever vetoed a trade?

Taylor:Yeah, I have. McHale is the focal point in that area, not Flip. McHale looks at the structure and talks about what types of players he is looking for. And I am very much aware of that, because that's our business plan. So when he finds a player--let's take Trenton Hassell. Quincy Lewis was going to be our guy going into the season. But I was in the car, on the phone, and Kevin calls me up and says, "Geez, Chicago just cut a guy that we can have if we act quickly." I don't know who the heck he's talking about, but Kevin is able to say, "Well, he meets the criteria of the defensive role player that we talked about wanting as part of the business plan." And so I said, "Okay, you go ahead." Another example is this point guard thing that we've been dealing with all year. I'm watching the game the other night and I see Troy [Hudson] roll his ankle. So I call up Kevin and say, "Whatever the decision is, if you think we need another point guard, I'll back you."

Once in a while, Kevin gets excited about a possible trade. Now I don't usually say no, but I do say, "Let's go back to our business plan. How does this guy fit into it?" And generally he loses his excitement and says, "This guy really intrigues me, but you're right, Glen." Earlier this year, some coaches were excited because we could have gotten Juwan Howard in a trade for Michael Olowokandi. The coaches probably wanted Howard. They knew Howard could play and Michael was hurt. So Kevin calls me and says, "Okay, here are the options." That one was real easy for me. I said, "Kevin, what was our plan? Why did we go out and get Michael? It isn't to play Houston or Memphis; it is when we have to go and play the gol' darn Lakers." I said, "We're never going to get past the Lakers unless we have a couple of good centers." And he says, "Yeah, I know."  

We signed Michael for three years because he has so much potential. Michael is a very smart young man. But he's raw in two senses: He hasn't played a lot and he's played on the Clippers, so he hasn't been, I would call it, disciplined. He hasn't seen the discipline that is required in a team like ours, and we've got to go in and stay with him on that. And until we find out that he's maybe uncoachable or undisciplined, then I tend to stay with those type of guys. But that's a good example of how we talk through these things and why we have the business plan.

I will tell you that Kevin McHale and I very seldom disagree. And the reason is, he thinks long-term. He sees himself being here, that this is a family business. The coaches--and our coaches are probably better than most any other team because they probably believe that they are going to be here, too--but the coaches think game to game. And the long-term for them is the year. So they have a tendency to want to trade or do anything to have a better year.

CP: Your payroll is already around $70 million, the fourth-highest in the league. But if you saw a chance to improve, would you go above that?

Taylor: I think we want to be a little careful. We are really up there right now. But we know what Kevin's contract is going to be, and that's really going to help us because he's going to drop some. So if there is a player somehow available, and it will cost us more, because maybe we have to sign him long-term or something--yeah, we are willing to do that. What I've said to our fans is that we have this plan to stay competitive in the West, and to do that, we have to be among the elite of the elite.

CP: Is owning a basketball team in the NBA something beyond money?

Taylor: Oh, yeah. I think if you are in it only for the money, then you're like the Clippers. I think the Clippers make money because we are subsidizing them and they are losing every year.

It takes a special type of person. You've got to be really competitive and want to win. Even when I'm in business, I'm very competitive. And you need that, because you are going to have to take some risks. And although they are calculated risks, you are dealing with young people--and sometimes you're going to make a great deal of money. But sometimes it's going to really be a costly mistake that is hard to get out of.

CP: Do you have favorite Timberwolves players?

Taylor: I wouldn't say I have a favorite player, but there are different types of people that I like and relate to. When Sam Mitchell was here, I really liked Sam because of the leadership and respect he brought to the team, but also because he just sat down and we spent a lot of time talking about business. He wanted to know everything he could about it and I really enjoyed that. Then you have a really unusual person like Mark Madsen. This guy works his butt off even when he sits on the bench!

Without a doubt, I have always liked Kevin [Garnett], and more than just as a basketball player: I saw him as a young guy and probably saw more potential in him as a person. We have developed what I would call a close friendship. And then I also admire his God-given gifts as a basketball player. But I don't equate everybody as just a basketball player. I look at the gifts they have been given and how they use them.

On the team, there are probably four or five people I admire a little bit more than the other eight. But that's only because they have taken part of their personality and really pushed it. I love that leadership part. Like Sam Cassell--you talk about basketball smarts. I have to laugh at him, what he can do out on the floor and how he draws fouls and talks to refs and I know he has learned it over time. I'm sure he gets some calls just because of the way he relates to people, refs and other players, out on the court. So those are some of the people that I've really enjoyed.  

CP: Commissioner Stern was just in town. Is there any chance he will relent any further and give you a first-round pick back this year, that he took away with the Joe Smith signing penalty?

Taylor: No. The answer is no. We asked if the league was going to move off of that, and they said no.

CP: You yourself are in it for the long haul, aren't you?

Taylor: A long time ago, I made enough money to live on. So I am not interested in selling to make money because it wouldn't change my lifestyle. Watching other people grow as the organization grows is probably my biggest satisfaction and because of that, I'm not interested in selling it. •


Flip Saunders

Kevin McHale

City Pages: How would you evaluate the season? You've been up and down, but with four games left, you still have a chance to have the best record in the NBA.

Flip Saunders: I think the positive thing is the guys have continued to gel. At the beginning of the year we said our main emphasis was we wanted to get better defensively. I think we've done that. We're second in the NBA in field goal percentage defense. But to judge our team--it's not what's happening in the 82 games of the regular season; it is what happens in the middle of April when we start the playoffs. That's the reason changes were made in the team, for playoff success.

Kevin McHale: It has been a disjointed year from my perspective. A lot of guys were injured, so your chance to really work with them wasn't there. And they need to play together. The amazing thing is people actually think that they can come back and be in rhythm and playing in two weeks, after taking off 60 games. If that was the case, then the NBA season would be 20 games long and no one would practice and you would still see quality basketball. But that's not the way it works. That's why you have training camp and that's why you continue to work all season.

I'd say that when we protect the paint defensively and move the ball and move our bodies, we are a very good team. When we don't, we're not a very good team. But I can tell you that it is probably the same for 95 percent of the teams out there. There may be a few teams that play a lot of one-on-one that don't need to move the ball on offense and don't protect the paint on defense; they just say, "Screw it, we're going to try and outscore you 125 to 121."

That's not going to get the job done in the playoffs. The same basic principles that work in 7th and 8th grade work in the pros: You protect the paint and make other teams shoot through your hands. You move your feet, move your body, and move the ball--with a purpose. And when we do that, we're a very good team. We've proven we can beat anybody. And when we don't do that, we can lose to anybody. It has been a strange year.

CP: Although you guys overall have been much better defensively, it seems like your dribble penetration defense has been the most inconsistent.

Saunders: That's a league-wide situation, because that's the most difficult thing to defend. We've been better on that of late, and part of that is because of the personnel we have.

McHale: Any good player looks through the defense. When I played, I never worried about the guy guarding me. I had a purpose of going somewhere, and I wanted to know who I had to get through to get where I wanted to go.

And that's what I'm talking about when I say protect the paint. When we do that, we do a better job. And there are guys on our team who naturally do a good job with that. And there are guys who get tired or discombobulated, or some other thing, and they drift into old habits, which is to stand around on the weak side and move out to their guy. It's weird, but the best thing you can do on the weak side is get away from your guy and help out.

Saunders: Those things get magnified because the teams that are good, they have a great guy who can penetrate and great three-point shooters. What Kevin is talking about is, you have [defenders] who are very leery of their guy shooting a three, so instead of being in tight [toward the man with the ball on the strong side], they are guarding their guy up close. But when [the ball-handler] penetrates, they still have to come over and help, and then you are in total chaos.  

McHale: Everybody's running around trying to recover.

CP: Is that why Ervin Johnson is so effective on defense for you?

Saunders: He's smart. He knows how to play angles in the paint. He talks a lot and helps guys out. He doesn't get beat. Or if he gets beat, it is not mentally, it is physically--the guy is just quicker than he is.

CP: Kevin, you went through a lot of playoffs in your career. Do players necessarily pace themselves, either mentally or physically, to get ready? I see guys like Spree or Sam, veteran guys, and it's not like they aren't trying hard, but there is a feeling you get that they're pacing themselves. Is that natural?

McHale: Yes, it is. There's a certain point in the season where it gets very long. And then there is a point where, I don't know if it happens subconsciously or consciously, but you know the whole season is coming down to the last 10 games and the playoffs and you realize you might have been conserving a little bit.

I think part of what happened this year, too, is we were forced by injuries to play Sam and Spree and probably Kevin a little more than we wanted. If you average 37 or 38 minutes a game, and you can take that down to 33 or 34, that four or five minutes may not seem like much. But if you multiply that by 80 games, that's like playing 10 less games. It makes a big difference.

So I think there is a natural tendency to [pace yourself], no question. But the encouraging thing is, when we've played good teams, for the most part those guys have really risen up and played well. The discouraging thing is that sometimes--like Boston at home, or at Philly without Iverson and the Dog [Glen Robinson]--the sense of urgency hasn't been there.

CP: Did you anticipate that your identity this season would be as a defensive team? You didn't get Trenton Hassell until the last day, and that was a big key, and Freddie Hoiberg has obviously been bigger off the bench than I imagine you anticipated.

Saunders:We thought we'd be better because we have more size to, as Kevin says, protect the paint. Last year, we were 10th or 11th in field goal percentage defense. We gave more points, but we scored more points. We were a little bit more [effective] as far as transition on offense. But we didn't have the ability a year ago to totally stop teams. I don't think anyone thought that would be our stamp. Because we've got a lot of good offensive players. We're still second in the league in field goal percentage and have high assists and low turnovers.

McHale: I think you're always trying to play defensively. It is very hard for me to teach a guy to have a Larry Bird mentality, to dribble right with four seconds left on the clock, run it between his legs, step back and shoot a three and make it.

But you can teach defense. You can teach anybody to move to the right spots. So we are better defensively because that has been a bigger priority for Flip and the coaches. And the guys have got to buy into it; there has got to be pride that we can win a game shooting 30 percent. I'll tell you a team that has that: San Antonio. They won the conference finals and the NBA finals last year shooting under 40 percent. That doesn't bother them. Missing shots doesn't deter from their defense. Sometimes we have offensive players missing shots and it affects them on the other end, and that's something you have to fight through. But the ability to go big and change [opponents'] shots, I'm a big believer in that. That's the way the teams I played on had success.

CP: Is that why four big men were more of a priority for you than three point guards?

Saunders:We were in a situation--I mean, the four big men unfortunately are all pretty one-dimensional position players. We didn't know what the situation was with Olowokandi when we kept Oliver [Miller]. You better have some big guys playing in the West. But I don't think anyone anticipated that Troy was going to have the year that he's had, from an injury standpoint.  

McHale: That's been the biggest X factor. All along, we've just been banking on Troy [Hudson] being able to come back and get healthy. And that's been a really frustrating thing for Troy, and for everybody. You have to adapt. Is it ideal? No, but that's what you've got.

CP: It's easy to focus on Spree's inconsistency on offense--how he'll get 30 one night and nine the next. But Flip, you once told me that in order for this team to be successful, Spree has got to be on the floor, and he's second only to Kevin in minutes played. Explain why he's so valuable and yet so up-and-down offensively.

McHale: The problem is, sometimes we don't run the ball much. Spree's up ahead on the wing, and we don't get the ball to him when he's in a position to attack. And there are times when we come down and the ball movement isn't there and the body movement stops right after that. And then he gets isolated to where all he's doing is shooting 25 to 30 footers. And he can make those shots. He's a good shooter. But he's more of a slasher than a flat-out shooter. There are certain players in our league who are shooters, one-trick ponies who just catch and shoot. That's not Spree. He can do a lot of other stuff.

What I like is, there's a mental toughness about the kid. You don't see a lot of change of expression on him, not a lot of frustration or exuberance; he just goes out and plays. And you need those guys. Because some of our guys ride the emotional roller coaster a little bit. Three shots go in and they've got more energy than you can shake a stick at, and three shots don't go in and they lose that energy. Spree is just real professional.

Saunders: Sometimes when Spree doesn't think it's going for him, he won't shoot. Now you can say that's good or bad, but if a guy doesn't feel he is going to shoot and make it, then he shouldn't shoot it. So he tries to do some other things.

CP: But you leave him on the floor during those times anyway. Because of all the other things he can do?

Saunders: Not only that, but if he does hit one or two shots, he's capable of running off a 20-point quarter. We just have to make sure that Sam [Cassell] and the other guys are continuing to push the ball and getting him in good situations.

The same thing happens with Wally [Szczerbiak]. Even when Wally isn't shooting the ball as well, him being on the outside is stretching the defense.

McHale: There is no way a coach is going to say, "We're not going to guard Szczerbiak, or Sprewell, out on the perimeter." So those guys help our spacing.

CP: Another reason Spree is important is because when he is slashing toward the basket, he gets fouled and goes to the free throw line. That's something you guys have never done very well, because of the style you play. But is it more of a concern come playoff time?

Saunders: No question, it's important to get to the line. A lot of times free throws come with a fast break situation, or off the offensive rebounds. Now we've done a better job lately getting offensive rebounds. But we have guys who don't necessarily look to put it back up right away. Our guys have to do a better job of understanding that if they have a guy on their back, go back up and try to draw more fouls with contact.

CP: You mentioned Wally before, and what I've noticed is, he seems to be playing better defensively this season.

Saunders: I told the coaches the other day that he must be playing better because I'm not screaming his name as much. When he wasn't playing, everyone told him that when he came back, he had to do other things rather than just shooting the basketball. So I think he finally understood that in order to stay on the floor, he had to do other things.

McHale: I've always said that if you can't go 2 for 10 from the field and still help your team win, you are not a basketball player; you are strictly a one-trick pony. Kevin Garnett can go 2 for 10 and help his team win. So can Spree. But Wally's worked hard.

CP: Do you have to shorten your rotation further for the playoffs?

Saunders: Not necessarily.  

CP: So you think you can keep going nine or ten players deep?

Saunders: Yup. Right now, it depends what guys do. Teams go to a seven- or eight-man rotation because they don't have depth. Right now, our second unit--with Michael, Freddie, and Wally in particular--have been the ones who have gotten us leads and changed the whole tempo of the game when they come in. Then you throw in Darrick [Martin] because he's a backup point guard, and that's nine guys right there.

CP: You have a $70 million payroll. If you still don't get out of the first round, are you in the hot seat?

McHale: Sure we are. Everybody is.

Saunders: Twenty-nine teams are.

McHale: We should be. It's all about winning. You've got to step up and be able to play at the biggest of times, and that is the playoffs.

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