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MV3 Minus 2 Equals 1 Long Season

It is not uncommon for Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell to be long gone--already showered, dressed, and behind the wheels of their luxury cars--by the time the media invades the Timberwolves locker room after a game at the Target Center. Contrast that to a year ago, when more often than not journalists would encounter Spree buttoning up his shirt in front of his corner stall just inside the entryway. Hed offer a few pithy, no-nonsense comments before leaving the premises in dovetailed time to Cassell holding forth with colorful quips and chiding asides while sprawled on a seat in front of his locker.

We dont see Sammy and Spree on the court so much anymore either. Cassells playing time has been cut from 35 to 29-and-a-half minutes per game, while Sprewells average minutes have dropped from 37.8 to 30.5. It would be reassuringly convenient if this resting of the teams two demi-stars could be cited as the cause of the Wolves underachievement thus far this season. But the reality is that their inconsistency has too often been at the root of Minnesotas lackluster performance.

Last season, the pair arrived with a fair amount of baggage and something to prove, having been dumped by their respective teams for less than fair-market value after an acrimonious campaign. To land them both, the Wolves merely had to part with three journeymen (Joe Smith, Anthony Peeler, and Mark Jackson), some permanently damaged goods (Terrell Brandon), and a boatload of Glen Taylors dough to meet what became the leagues fourth-highest payroll. The question wasnt whether or not the Wolves would be more talented with two veteran stars on board, but whether Sammy and Spree could blend their egos and feisty temperaments in a manner that would galvanize a ballclub built around an unselfish superstar in Kevin Garnett and a disciplined, ball-movement oriented offense devised by coach Flip Saunders.

They could and they did. With admirable professionalism, Sprewell accepted the role of third wheel in the teams high-powered attack, became a linchpin of the best defensive squad in franchise history, and demonstrated that leadership is always greater than the sum of ones statistics. For his part, Cassell achieved a seamless and respectful compromise with Saunders, guiding an offense that moved the ball and maximized Garnetts talents while adding the enormous bonuses of Sammys freelance acumen and cold-blooded crunch-time shooting. Before the season was over, Cassell, Sprewell, and KG had graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, sat on the late-night couch of talk-show host Craig Kilborn, and propelled the Wolves into the Western Conference finals.

So there is no mistake, let me repeat: Sprewell and Cassell deserved every fawning headline and accolade for fostering the most successful, satisfying season the Wolves have ever produced. But this season, in word and in deed, they have betrayed that high standard of teamwork and are dashing the lofty expectations that accompany a championship contender.

It began in training camp. Cassell failed to show up for the first day, as a means of leveraging an extension in his contract. It was a needlessly inflammatory gesture. When was the last time Wolves owner Glen Taylor failed to offer a key player on his team at least as much as he was worth? This is a guy whose willingness to pay Garnett a kings ransom prompted his fellow owners to institute a new collective bargaining agreement, the terms of which he then illegally flouted by promising Joe Smith more money than he was allowed to. And after being penalized a series of draft picks, he turned around and paid Smith the legal maximum, far more than Smith deserved.

Nor has Taylor shown any sign of changing his ways. During this past off season, he wisely ponied up $27 million to match Portlands contract offer to Trenton Hassell, and foolishly doled out another $37 million to keep Troy Hudson around for six years, ultimately caving on incentive provisions that would have required Hudson be healthy enough to earn the money. Now, after getting their guaranteed deal, Hudson and his agent have the gall to bitch that the Wolves should be more tolerant of T-Huds recent lapses because he is still recovering from last years injuries.

Under league rules, the most Taylor can pay Cassell is just a little more per year than what he has just committed to Hudson, who obviously lacks Cassells proven abilities. In other words, all Sammy had to do to get what he wanted was tone down the melodramatics and continue to play the way he always has played. Instead, during the preseason, Cassell upped the ante by loudly advocating on behalf of a new contract for Sprewell. During this past off-season, Spree had the option of taking $14.6 million of Taylors money to play for the Wolves this year or declaring himself a free agent and finding out if any other owner would pay him more. Not surprisingly, he opted to remain in Minnesota. But he also demanded a contract extension at a similarly exorbitant rate, which happens to be the maximum allowed by the league. Taylor reportedly counter-offered $21 million spread over the next three years. In other words, Taylor was willing to give Spree $7 million to play the 2007-08 season, at which time Sprewell will be 37 years old and will have logged approximately 40,000 minutes of defending the perimeter and slashing to the basket during his hardnosed career.

 

Unlike many others, I had no problems with Sprees infamous remark that he needed all these millions in order to feed his family. Obviously, it was an awkward way of saying he wanted to set his family up for life, not ensure that they didnt starve, and I dont begrudge him that impulse. Nor do I care that he told an unruly fan in Los Angeles to suck his dick, a remark caught and aired on television, resulting in a one game suspension in early December. Ive heard the way some jerks on the sidelines berate the players and am not certain I wouldnt respond in a similar fashion.

But I think there were other things Sprewell reportedly said that not only brought discredit to him but may have damaged the Wolves drive for a championship this year. He claimed he was insulted by Taylors offer, and ratcheted up the pressure by adding that if he didnt get his contract extension before the start of the season, he would not re-sign with the Wolves when his current deal expires at the end of this season. If we take him at his word, that makes him a lame duck who has dramatically de-coupled his personal long-term goals and interests from those of his team this year.

More bluntly, Spree also asked why, in the absence of an extension, he should try and help the Wolves win a title this year. The obvious inference was that, unless Taylor acceded to his terms, that he shouldnt try. Leaving aside that there are 14.6 million good reasons for Spree to bust his ass this season, the remark allows people to wonder if any deterioration in his play might be deliberate or spiteful. And thats a potentially toxic notion to have wafting around a team widely expected to vie for a championship.

Sprewell engenders so much respect among members of the Wolves organization that nobody flinched in the wake of these statements. It also didnt seem to matter that, after vigorously participating in the vast majority of the teams preseason practices and exhibition games a year ago, both Cassell and Sprewell begged off from that workload this year due to minor injuries. How I feel about Spree hasnt changed, said Saunders after the Wolves season opener. Hes a great teammate and a great person to coach.

He said what he said and hes not backing down from it, Cassell added later that week. And everybody in this locker room is behind him 100 percent." As recently as two weeks ago, Wally Szczerbiak was quoted in the Strib as saying that Spree was the best teammate hes ever had, an eye-popping statement, given that the ultimate team player, Kevin Garnett, has been beside Wally throughout his career.

So, as with Cassell, all Spree had to do to put any lingering controversy to rest was demonstrate his value on the court. But that hasnt happened. While Sprees shooting percentage has improved this season, his contribution to the teams offense hasnt flowed as naturally. But the bigger setback has occurred at the other end of the court. With Wally Szczerbiak replacing Trenton Hassell in the Wolves starting lineup, Sprewell bears more responsibility for stopping the opponents best perimeter shooter. And while the Wolves various zones and defensive rotations make it difficult sometimes to know who is responsible for breakdowns in coverage, Spree is less apt to fight through picks and screens and more likely to be beaten off the dribble or to lose his man on back-door cuts to the basket than he was a year ago.

The website 82games.com contains a variety of statistical formulae to determine a players worth. One formula reveals that, as of January 3, the Wolves are outscoring opponents an average of 1.2 points per 48 minutes when Spree is on the court--and 7.5 points per 48 minutes when he is on the bench. This difference of minus-6.3 points puts Spree 9th on the Wolves 12-man roster in terms of team value. The website also has a feature called Net Production by Position, which shows, for example, how the Wolves aggregate of centers or power forwards fares when matched up against their opponents aggregate of centers or power forwards. Taking into consideration everything from points to rebounds to assists to turnovers and blocked shots, the feature calibrates a player efficiency rating, or PER, for each of the five positions. Thanks to Kevin Garnett, for example, the Wolves power forwards enjoy a gaudy +7.7 PER rating advantage of the opposing power forwards in their collective matchups. Minnesotas centers and small forwards likewise boast a positive PER advantage, in games played through January 3. At Sprees position of shooting guard, however, the overall PER rating is -0.2, and thats factoring in the stellar play of backup shooting guard Fred Hoiberg, the third-most valuable Timberwolf in terms of plus/minus point differential thus far this season.

 

What made Spree so valuable last year was that he seemed to rise to the occasion, especially on offense, when his team needed him most. That isnt happening this season. Last year, Minnesota went 13-2 when Sprewell led the team in scoring; this year, they are 0-2. Last year, the Wolves were 17-3 when Spree made at least half of his shots from the field; this year they are 5-3. Last year, the team was 18-3 when Spree scored at least 24 points; this season, they are 1-1.

Numbers never tell the whole story, of course. But on every statistical measure of value, Sprewell is producing less than he did a year ago. Most often, the numbers indicate that his presence on the court is actually hurting the performance of this ballclub.

The numbers are not particularly kind to Cassell either. Everybody knows that Sammy is at best a mediocre defender who more than compensates by running an efficient offense and making clutch baskets. Indeed, according to 82games.com, Cassells overall value to his team was second only to KG among all the players in the NBA. Specifically, the Wolves were 9.2 points (per 48 minutes) better than their opponents when Sammy played, and 3.9 points worse when he sat, for a whopping differential of 13.1 points in 2003-04. But this year, the Wolves are only 4.9 points better than their opponents when Cassell is playing, and 2 points better when he sits, for a much reduced positive differential of 2.9 points per 48 minutes. Of even more concern, with Troy Hudson playing defense as poorly as Cassell, the Wolves point guards are being outplayed by their opponents point guards, suffering a -3.5 PER rating in the Net Production by Position stat.

Even more than Sprewell, Cassell has been the barometer of the Wolves success or failure thus far this season. In Minnesotas 16 victories he has averaged more than 18 points per game and shot better than 51 percent from the field. In the Wolves 12 losses, hes registering less than 11 points per game while shooting below 40 percent from the field. In the past two games, with Saunders correctly proclaiming that the key to the teams long-term success is better defense, opposing point guards have scored more than 60 points.

When the Wolves struggled during the first month of the season, Sammy shrugged it off as a typically slow start for him, brashly stating that November dont matter and that no one would remember these travails come March and April, when the playoffs loomed. He looked like a prophet when the Wolves thrashed four straight opponents on a West Coast road trip as the calendar was flipping into December. Three of those foes were riding lengthy winning streaks at the time, but with Cassell dropping fourth quarter bombs and Spree slashing and defending with vintage vigor alongside KGs ever-consistent splendor, the MV3 seemed primed for an indomitable reprisal of last years synergy. Instead, in the month since that road trip, the Wolves have dropped six of eleven games, and lack both identity and consistency.

With an abundance of home games on the schedule this month and ample time remaining for the Wolves to reestablish momentum heading into the playoffs, a compelling dilemma confronts Saunders and other members of the teams braintrust. All along, Saunders has stated that the five players who perform best as a unit will be accorded preferential minutes on the court. Yet it is difficult to imagine the Wolves mounting a serious run for a title without prominent leadership from all three of their battle-tested veteran stars.

Saunders could try to force-feed the resurrection of the MV3 system by returning to last seasons starting lineup. Inserting Ervin Johnson at center and pairing Hassell with Spree as small forward/shooting guard swingmen would lessen some of the defensive load on both Cassell and Sprewell while providing them with more prominence on offense. This would relegate Szczerbiak to sixth-man status coming off the bench, a role he loudly disavowed during the preseason and would now regard as a demotion. The other alternatives are to give some more of Sprees minutes to Hoiberg and Hassell, or to continue with the status quo, which is apportioning time according to performance and matchups on a game-by-game basis.

 

All of these choices are risky. Do you piss off Szczerbiak, who has been very productive while steadily transforming himself from one-dimensional scorer to fairly complete player? Do you piss off Spree, a locker room leader with enormous pride playing out the final year of his contract? Do you hope that all the situational mixing and matching doesnt prevent players from finding well-defined roles and responsibilities, and doesnt muddle the consensual pecking order so vital to team chemistry? The makeup, personality, and credibility of this team--not only this season, but in years to come--could very well hinge on what happens over the next six to eight weeks.


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