McHale's Last Gasp
The Minnesota Timberwolves could not have designed a better scapegoat than Dwane Casey. A middle-aged African American with ramrod posture and impeccable bearing, Casey had endured a questionable but besmirching connection to a college recruiting scandal in 1989, and was a career assistant patiently awaiting his chance at a top job when the Wolves named him head coach in the summer of 2005. Throughout his 122-game tenure in Minnesota, Casey comported himself with enormous personal dignity and rigorous discretion. He steadfastly refused to publicly criticize his players, even after they rebelled against him and fueled the notion that he had lost control. Likewise, Wolves owner Glen Taylor and VP of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale made their sudden but not surprising decision to fire Casey a week ago Tuesday secure in the knowledge that he would not lambaste them on his way out the door.
But Casey didn't have to squawk; the consensus is that he got a raw deal. This is especially true among pundits in the national media, who generally pegged the Wolves to be among the bottom third of the NBA's 30 teams this season. Instead, despite a four-game losing streak at the time he was canned, Casey had Minnesota in eighth place, the final playoff spot, in the brutally competitive Western Conference, with a record of 20 wins and 20 losses.
Yet people didn't flock to Casey's defense with such passion because of the brilliance of his performance this season. The greater motivation was to rise in protest against the obtuse attitude and apparent blame-shifting from McHale and Taylor as they lopped off Casey's head. Ever since the Wolves crystallized and then disintegrated in back-to-back seasons of riding the volatile chemistry generated by now-departed veterans Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, McHale and Taylor have overestimated the caliber of the remaining personnel on the roster, and subsequently set unrealistic benchmarks for success.
After the team crashed and burned two years ago, costing coach Flip Saunders his job after more than nine seasons, the McTaylor duo left no doubt when they hired Casey that they expected a return to the playoffs in the 2005-06 season. When the Wolves instead stumbled to a 33-49 record, McHale continued to insist that "a few tweaks" were all that was required to return the team to postseason prominence. But an equally strong case can be made that McHale has instead stocked the roster around superstar Kevin Garnett with a surfeit of mismatched mediocrities, short-changing the long-term future of the franchise along the way by sacrificing precious first-round draft picks in each of his last two trades. Those who feel that way take umbrage when McHale, consistent in his rosy view of the team's core talent, bemoans the Wolves' lack of consistency and claims that the squad actually should be in an even more competitive position in the playoff race.
The easy, trendy reaction to Casey's firing is to claim that McHale is much more culpable for the current malaise surrounding this franchise than any coach, and should thus be the first one to get the axe. (I made this argument last month on the Balls! blog at citypages.com, and incorrectly called out McHale as a lame duck in a Hang Time column way back in January 2006.) While I still agree with this contention, there remain some extenuating circumstances that compose a decent devil's advocacy argument against it. So, in the interest of fairness, here's the thumbnail version.
Casey knew what he was getting into and bought into the rose-colored rhetoric, if not the sentiment, flatly stating on the day he was hired that the Wolves should make the playoffs. While McHale's recent trades and free-agent signings have been questionable at best, his last two drafts—Rashad McCants and Bracey Wright in 2005, Randy Foye and Craig Smith in 2006—have been surprisingly strong. And while Casey evinced ongoing improvement as a coach, he still had some glaring weak spots, such as drawing up sound plays during timeouts, making in-game adjustments to counter bold gambits from opposing coaches, getting his team ready to play each and every night, and, most crucially, maintaining the support of his players.
Some players had begun to snipe about Casey's substitution patterns. Four days before the coach was fired, forward Ricky Davis threw a childish tantrum when Casey lifted him from a game, stomping off the court for a brief period and refusing to go back into the game, which eventually went into double overtime. Casey sought to cover up and then minimize the extent of Davis's disobedience, claiming Davis left the court for a bathroom break and that it was his decision, not Davis's, to keep him on the bench the rest of the game. A day after McHale suspended Davis one game for leaving the court, Casey told the media, "I love Ricky Davis." Yet for the most part, that staunch loyalty and affection wasn't reciprocated by his players. In the wake of Casey's firing, many veterans—most significantly Garnett—appeared to tacitly endorse the change. (But KG has historically shown a very Minnesota-like passive-aggressive streak in response to previous upheavals around the ballclub, so you never know.)
Finally, if McHale really wanted to use Casey as a human shield or employment insurance policy, he would have kept the coach around through the end of the season. Instead, he seems to be making a do-or-die bet on the Wolves improving their performance the last three months of this season. Almost everything we have seen or heard from Casey's replacement Randy Wittman (that he will give KG more rest, emphasize tough interior defense, be very direct and no-nonsense in practice but upbeat and encouraging on the sideline) is reminiscent of McHale's 31-game coaching stint two years ago. If the Wolves don't win more games than they lose and fail to make the playoffs this season, McHale is discredited, and out of scapegoats. And a sea change is in the offing for the Wolves franchise.
But for Wittman and the rest of the Wolves' personnel to vindicate McHale's faith after all, a number of tall orders have to be filled. Perhaps first and foremost, free agent point guard Mike James—a bust during the first half of the season—has to make the psychological leap from gritty, undrafted overachiever to reliable linchpin, and assume responsibility commensurate with his $6 million annual salary. (As a forceful advocate for signing James, KG also has a personal stake in his rehabilitation.) Davis has to stop intermittently pissing away his formidable talent due to pique, sloth, and lack of focus, or else accept a demotion to the bench without creating a distraction. And the learning curves of potential stars like Foye and McCants have to be accelerated in time to provide Garnett with a redoubtably worthy sidekick before his skills fade further or he's dealt away in a blockbuster fire sale.
None of these things will be easy to accomplish. It's not like you can simply fire the coach and make everything all better. I suspect that more than just the 2006-07 season is at stake for the Wolves over the next three months.
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