Merry Christmas, Mr. Blair

LAST SATURDAY AFTERNOON, beleaguered Minnesota Timberwolves coach Bill Blair sat courtside at the Target Center and said, "This is a very, very tough job. Last year, I felt it was the worst job I had ever seen. This year it's getting a little better." Less than 48 hours later Blair was fired, culminating a lost weekend in which the coach essentially signed his own death warrant with inept performances in embarrassing home defeats against two teams with inferior talent.

It began on Friday night against Cleveland, when Blair implemented a new defensive scheme that had the Wolves switching off on the men they were guarding instead of trying to push their way through the other team's picks and screens. The strategy obviously confused the Wolves more than their opponents. As Minnesota point guard Terry Porter said, "It's hard for a team unaccustomed to switching to try it all of a sudden. You get guys running around and yelling." Blair never abandoned the ill-fated defense. "Cleveland surgically removed our liver, our spleen, whatever they wanted to do out there," said Wolves vice president Kevin McHale, the man who fired Blair. "I said to myself we have no chance of winning this game." Afterwards, a scowling McHale could be seen walking down the hallway outside the Wolves' locker room, muttering obscenities under his breath.

Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, the Wolves fell behind early against a Philadelphia team that had lost 17 of 20 games this year. Blair responded adroitly, benching his starters and bringing in hungry rookies Kevin Garnett, Mark Davis, and Jerome Allen to play tenacious, full-court pressure defense. In less than a quarter of action, the young trio helped close the gap, prompting a raucous ovation from the crowd when they returned to the bench. But in the second half, Blair stuck with his veterans, playing Garnett a measly three minutes and ignoring Davis, who could have used the reinforcement. Instead, the veterans suffered some costly defensive lapses in the fourth quarter, particularly by Porter, the 32-year-old veteran who has played far more minutes this year than anyone expected. After Philly had eked out a two-point victory, McHale met with his trusted advisers and former teammates Flip Saunders and Jerry Sichting, and conferred with Wolves owner Glen Taylor, who then informed Blair that he was out of work.

BEFORE TURNING TO Saunders, who is now the coach as well as the general manager of the Wolves, it's appropriate to take a moment to appreciate Blair, who has clearly been the best coach in the wretched six-year history of the franchise. Even with his recent gaffes, Blair capably blended the nuts and bolts of the game's technical planning with the blood, sweat, and beers of player relations. Neither a dictator nor "one of the guys," Blair's rapport with his players was flexible enough that he could chew somebody out for a lapse during practice and then razz him about the clothes he wears leaving the locker room.

On Saturday, Blair reiterated a point that his experience around successful programs in the player-oriented NBA had taught him: "It is totally necessary to have your top two or three players be on the same page as you are so they can set an example for the rest of the team." But due to the idiocy of former general manager Jack McCloskey and the team's dysfunctional culture, that's the opposite of what Blair inherited. Instead, attitude-laden rookies like Christian Laettner and J.R. Rider joined editions of the Wolves that were bereft of any reputable veteran leaders and were coached by befuddled amateurs like Jimmie Rodgers and Sidney Lowe.

Even with the addition of Tom Gugliotta, Sam Mitchell, and Terry Porter, the Wolves don't have anyone on their roster who is generally acknowledged as a team leader around the NBA. Yet Blair had coaxed career-best seasons out of both Laettner and Rider so far this year. As a coach who preferred to stress defense and anchor it around a big, shot-blocking center, he had adjusted his own philosophy to accommodate Laettner's move to the center position. Lacking a quality point guard and an intimidating force down near the basket, Blair still had the team playing harder and more successfully than at any time since the end of the 1990-91 season.

But it wasn't enough to suit McHale. On Monday, he correctly stressed that there is a crucial difference between effort and efficiency, between playing hard and playing well. While praising Blair for motivating the players, he implicitly criticized the coach for not channeling that motivation more effectively. It's a legitimate point insofar as the Wolves self-destructed much more often than they gave up under Blair. The problem is that McHale overestimates the amount of talent Blair had to work with. On Monday, McHale said that at the beginning of the season, he figured the Wolves would win at least 35 games, a 67 percent increase over last season's 21-win total. That's a tall order considering the caliber of the half-dozen players McHale added to this year's roster: two veterans (Porter and Sam Mitchell), neither of whom was among the seven best players on his previous team; a supremely gifted teenager who is making the jump from high school to the pros; two second-round draft picks, and a player from the minor-league CBA.  

Ironically, the most flawed aspect of Blair's coaching performance this season--the inconsistency of his substitution patterns, brought on by his reluctance to use younger players--likely stemmed from his need to appease McHale (and, for his own part, to generate a little momentum) with some victories. After losing nine of his first 10 games, Blair knew the Wolves were facing the easy part of their schedule over the next 10-game stretch, and that he needed to post some wins in order to keep his job. His fatal misperception was that relying almost exclusively on his veterans was the best short-term solution. (Never mind how it hindered the team's long-term prospects.) Asked why he left the starters in when the Wolves already enjoyed a healthy lead over the Clippers in the fourth quarter two weeks ago, Blair replied, "I want to win, management wants to win, and I'm going to do what it takes to win. If that means somebody doesn't play as much, that doesn't concern me." A few minutes later he added what could be his epitaph as the Wolves' coach: "If we are going to lose the ballgame, we are going to lose with veterans." Sure enough, the night after beating the Clippers, the tired veterans again got extended minutes and blew a 10-point lead in a loss to Charlotte.

GIVEN THE GAME philosophy and long friendship that he shares with McHale, not to mention his continuing duties as GM, new coach Flip Saunders is immune to the desperate measures that job insecurity may have provoked in Blair. On the other hand, Saunders, who was a consistent winner as a CBA coach but has no NBA experience, has to prove that he's more than McHale's yes-man. In conversations before and after Blair was fired, Saunders was refreshingly bold and specific about the changes he wants to see on the team. Blair's motion-oriented passing offense will be junked in favor of more deliberate plays that try to isolate and exploit individual matchups. Saunders also plans to establish a more predictable substitution pattern so that players better know their respective roles and can prepare accordingly.

The players who figure to benefit most from Saunders's arrival are Doug West and Kevin Garnett. West thrives on the kind of offensive sets favored by the new coach and will also see his playing time increased by what looks to be Saunders's biggest gamble--occasionally going without a point guard and putting West and Rider in the backcourt together.

"We can pair them for 10 minutes a game because of the way Gugliotta and Laettner can handle the basketball. Doug can fill in at the other spots [shooting guard and small forward] for 15 to 20 minutes so we can get up to 25, 30 minutes a game," Saunders says. West has been uncharacteristically inconsistent at both ends of the court so far this year and may have allowed his competition with Rider for playing time at guard to bother him. With a new long-term contract under his belt, his improvement is a worthy priority.

Blair's sporadic, inadequate use of Garnett's skills was dumb both in terms of Garnett's long-term development and the team's immediate need for his shot-blocking and offensive rebounding. Saunders will get him on a steady regimen of 20-25 minutes a game, playing alongside the veterans as well as the other rookies. "We've got to get the second unit in with some of our lead guys, in winnable situations, and Garnett will obviously be a part of that," Saunders says. That doesn't mean that Marques Bragg and Mark Davis will automatically get more time, however: "Realistically, we have to go with an eight or nine man rotation and some guys have to realize that unless someone gets hurt or is in foul trouble that they will not be a part of that."

Culturally, the biggest change will likely be that Saunders has the clout to back up his nature as a tough SOB. Before Blair was fired, Saunders told some Wolves players that as a coach, he did not treat everybody the same--meaning that the better players sometimes got better treatment--and added that players should hope they were among the favored few. Or, as McHale put it, when asked why he chose Saunders, "He will clearly define what the players' roles are. He will tell them, 'You are not going to play and here is why you are not going to play.' I think they will respond to the way Flip communicates."  

More than anything else, the firing of Bill Blair is another sign that McHale takes no prisoners. The huge risk in drafting the high-schooler Garnett indicated that McHale didn't mind a little scrutiny. By dumping Blair just 20 games into the season and installing his protégé in his stead, McHale has burned his scapegoat early. If the Wolves don't start playing at a 35-win pace, the heat comes back to him. The most exhilarating thing about the sad and in many respects unjust dismissal of Blair is that the Wolves are being guided by someone who wants to be more than just a nostalgic hometown hero--someone determined to create a winner, or go down in flames trying.

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