Many Happy Returns
If you want to feel good about the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves over the next couple of years, go to hoopshype.com/salaries.htm and start clicking on the annual paychecks of the various journeymen, aged, unproven, and/or dinged-up centers and power forwards around the league. Check out Danny Ainge's Boston Celtics, who signed forgettable power forward Brian Scalabrine to a 5-year, $15 million contract this summer despite having a boatload of cash already invested in the likes of Mark Blount, Raef Lafrenz, and even the since-departed Vin Baker. Or look at the Sacramento Kings, who are paying Corliss Williamson, Brian Skinner and Kenny Thomas an average of $5 million apiece over the next two years. Chris Mihm is earning $4 million for each of the next two years for the Lakers, Tony Battie is making $5.2 million in Orlando, Lorenzen Wright is pulling down $7.7 million in Memphis, Theo Ratliff tops that at $11.6 per season for the next three years in Portland, and Jerome James and Eddy Curry are receiving a combined $12.4 million from the Knicks.
Now click on Eddie Griffin, the shot-blocking fiend who can't seem to supplant Michael Olowokandi in the starting lineup (more on that absurdity in a moment) but has quickly become a crunch-time security blanket for new Wolves coach Dwane Casey. Griffin's salary? A measly $2.5 million this year, bumped up to $2.7 million next season, with Griffin having the option of accepting or rejecting $2.9 million for the 2007-08 campaign.
Expect him to reject it. By 2007, it wouldn't be surprising to see Griffin courting eight-figure, multi-year offers from a bevy of teams that all could have had him for the relative pittance the Wolves paid this summer. Because after his stupendous, 8-block performance against Utah Monday night, Griffin now ranks 8th in the NBA with 2.5 blocks per game thus far this season despite playing an average of less than 20 minutes per contest. Once Eddie is allowed to step on to the court, only Miami's Alonzo Mourning is swatting away opponents' shots at a faster pace.
Which begs two questions. Why did 29 NBA teams pass on Griffin when anyone could have had him for a fraction of the $5 million salary cap exception all clubs are allowed? And why isn't he getting more playing time in Minnesota?
The answer to the first question is simple, and fairly simple-minded: Griffin carries a lot of baggage from his past mishaps. Here's a thumbnail sketch of his woes that I wrote in a Hang Time about EG last December, updated for chronological accuracy.
Five years ago, Griffin was widely regarded as the top high school basketball player in the country. Then a cafeteria fight with a teammate got him expelled from Roman Catholic High in Philadelphia, forcing him to complete his studies under home supervision. His lone year in college at Seton Hall was marred by an occasion when, according to news reports, he "sucker punched" another teammate in the locker room. During his first three seasons in the pros, he was convicted of marijuana possession, charged with felony assault for allegedly punching and shooting a gun at his girlfriend (he eventually pled down to the misdemeanor of "deadly conduct"), and was arrested for allegedly attempting to assault a man outside a Houston gas station at three in the morning.
Two years ago, he was dropped by two teams without playing a single game. He has been treated for depression and anger management, had his driver's license suspended, spent 11 days in jail, and checked into the Betty Ford Center for more than a month to stem his alcohol abuse. As he told a Philadelphia reporter a year ago, "I couldn't get any lower than I was." He will be on probation well into 2006 for his various offenses.
Last season with the Wolves, Griffin was a model citizen, soft-spoken when he wasn't completely mum, and free of any incident that might have further tarnished his reputation. But then in July, he was jailed for 15 days for violating his probation. According to his attorney, he went to a Houston nightclub to pick up a friend when a fight broke out. Although he was not involved in the altercation, even after being harassed by two men at the scene, and wasn't drinking at the time, the police report listed him as a witness. This caused the district court to rule that he violated probation by "consorting with disreputable people" late in the evening.
Wolves fans should regard that probation violation as a blessed event, even as personnel executives around the league slap their foreheads in self-disgust for passing on Griffin, whose scrapes with the law were amplified by the East Coast media's sports echo chamber. No question, the guy has a checkered history. But any back-channel inquiries should have revealed Eddie solid citizenry last year. And anyone who saw him play last season knows he has rare skills, including an incredibly quick second and third jump that enables him to recover even after being faked into the air on defense.
Instead, Ainge signed the utterly mediocre Scalabrine for more years at more money that what Griffin received. Or look at the Lakers. Not content with doling out $8 million to Mihm for two years, they traded capable swingman Caron Butler and backup point guard Chucky Atkins to Washington for Kwame Brown, after agreeing to pay Brown $25 million over the next three years. This is the same Kwame Brown who had numerous run-ins with coaches and front office personnel during his three years in Washington, culminating in his suspension (his second of the season) for the final six games of the playoffs last year after complaining about his playing time and then begging out of practice over what was perceived to be a phantom stomach ailment.
Those who would defend the signing of Brown (and I'm actually one of them, although I believe his price tag was higher than necessary) point to his tender age and enormous potential. With a little maturity, he still has a chance to be a star. Ah, but the same could be said of Griffin, who is two months younger than Kwame Brown and won't turn 24 until the end of next May. Meanwhile, as if Mihm and Brown weren't enough of an investment in problematic big men, the Lakers made high school seven-footer Andrew Bynum their top draft pick this season and will pay him $4 million over the next two years, before he turns 20, waiting for him to develop. They could have had Griffin for just $1.2 million more.
Okay, but if Griffin is so good, why are the Wolves stubbornly continuing to keep him out of the starting lineup in favor of Michael Olowokandi? While he may lack Griffin's off-the-court baggage, Kandi on-court inconsistency has made him a notorious bust. His two years in Minnesota have merely extended his career-long tendency toward underachievement. And he'll be a free agent at the end of this season-the future is with Eddie, not Kandi.
That said, the rationale for starting Olowokandi is not totally without logic. The two places where his game is more refined than Griffin's-on-ball defense and low-post scoring-are better to establish early in a game, creating a rhythm to the defensive rotations at one end and discouraging a jump-shot mentality at the other. Kandi also is more mentally fragile than Griffin (whose emotional stability as a member of the Wolves convincingly rebuts concerns about his rap sheet), requiring the symbolic stroke that starting a game provides. For the same reason, Casey and Kandi's teammates try and feed him for some early shots to further stoke his self-regard.
Finally, there is the seemingly eternal allure of the big man. It has been common practice every year in the NBA for a handful of teams to start a high-priced giant who inevitably cedes to a smaller but more capable replacement. That Kandi is not only large but athletic has made him doubly seductive to coaches and general managers-he was the top overall draft pick in 1998. If only he could thoroughly understand and enjoy the game enough to fully engage his natural ability. But the folks who are still breathlessly waiting for that to happen are either naãve optimists or poor students of human nature.
Starting Kandi isn't that objectionable, for the reasons listed above. But there are times when Casey rides with him too long. The most obvious was a dreadful November loss to the Hornets on the road, when Kandi visibly tired and the Wolves got pounded on the boards while Griffin languished on the bench. Since then, Casey has been far more apt to have Eddie beside KG in the paint during crunch time.
Even so, there are times when Griffin simply isn't accorded the respect he deserves. Monday night versus Utah, he racked up 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 blocks in the first half. At the onset of the third quarter, Kandi's head was obviously elsewhere: He shot an airball, and picked up a couple of silly fouls. Right then Casey should have yanked his big man and installed Griffin, for the good of both players. Instead, Casey waited until Kandi picked up his fifth foul with 3:45 left in the quarter before making the move.
I understand the coach wanted to save Griffin for the stretch run in the final period. But something more fundamental was at stake. When the discrepancy in performance is so vast between two players who play the same position, reward the man who is fulfilling his promise instead of the one who isn't. As it was, Griffin wound up with 14 points, a game-high 11 rebounds, and a game-and-career high 8 blocks, in just 27:45 of play. And after playing just 14 minutes the previous night, he was one of the few Wolves' fresh enough to get extended minutes on the second night of back-to-back games on the schedule.
Throughout his career, one of the more legitimate criticisms you could make of Griffin's game was his proclivity for launching outside jumpers instead of honing his low-post game. This season, he has consciously cut down on those wayward treys, and while his back-to-the-basket moves remain rudimentary, he's obviously working on it.
More to the point, Griffin is vital to shoring up the Wolves primary area of weakness-rebounding. He ranks fifth in the entire league in defensive rebounds gathered per-minute, on a team that consistently gets beaten on the boards. It's no coincidence that Minnesota is 8-2 when Griffin grabs six rebounds or more, and 2-4 when he doesn't; or that the Wolves are 6-0 when they outrebound their opponent and 4-6 when they don't.
Eddie's ability to slide over on help-defense also provides rare respite for Kevin Garnett, the ultimate help defender. In fact, ever since he joined the Wolves, Griffin has been the perfect complement for KG, which is why the most productive five-man units Minnesota has assembled the past season-plus almost always include that pair on the front line. Suffice to say that among the four men who play center and/or power forward, the Wolves are plus-80 in terms of net points over their opponents when KG is on the floor, plus-40 in the minutes Griffin plays, plus-4 with Mark Madsen, and minus-22 with Kandi.
Griffin also happens to be seven years younger and signed with Minnesota for at least one year longer than Kandi, at less than half the price per season. It is long past time to acknowledge that the present, as well as the future, rests with Eddie Griffin in the pivot. Rarely have the concepts of "rebuilding" and "winning now," been more in sync.
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