Not With a Bang but a Whimper

Sam's got to go--even if it means releasing him.
Minnesota Timberwolves

From their preseason bitchfest over contract extensions to Saturday night's disgraceful loss to the NBA doormat Atlanta Hawks, this year's Minnesota Timberwolves have proven to be a persistently distasteful bunch. Old, overpaid, selfish, and belligerent, they are the least likable collection of Wolves since I began covering the team in 1991. Those of you who held out hope that the squad should, could, or would make the playoffs deserve equal parts pity and admiration for your partisan delusion. But now that opposing point guards--including Atlanta's deservedly obscure duo of Tyrone Lue and Royal Ivey--have hung 59 points and 28 assists on Minnesota over the past two games while committing just three turnovers, it might be time to concede that the Wolves' defensive pressure on the perimeter is not quite up to snuff.

And who should be blamed for that? Certainly Sam Cassell, who popped off and pouted over a contract he willingly signed while with another team, a contract that still had two years left on it when Cassell began to yap. Never a staunch defender in the first place, Cassell now has age (he'll be 36 in November), an assortment of injuries, and the league's stringent enforcement of hand-checking fouls going against him, a combination that has made his defensive liabilities a matter of renown throughout the league. But save some blame for Troy Hudson, who offered more aggressive resistance to the team's attempt to put injury clauses in his ludicrous six-year, $37 million contract than he ever did to any point guard crossing half court. And don't forget Kevin McHale. McHale had a hand in negotiating Hudson's deal, fired coach Flip Saunders because of the Wolves' lack of intensity, and put the only point guard on the team who can defend anyone, Anthony Carter, in cold storage at the end of the bench.

Remember when McHale replaced Saunders two months ago? His overriding goals were to make the Wolves play hard every night, shore up their defense, and improve their play in the paint at both ends of the court. At home against Denver last Friday in a must-win game for their playoff prospects, Minnesota was consistently beaten in transition--and overwhelmed in the paint. They have yielded more than 100 points in four of their past five games. And after coasting to an early 13-point lead against a clearly inferior Atlanta team on Saturday, they rolled over like dogs and enabled the Hawks to win for just the second time in their last 29 games. McHale, coaching his 26th game, castigated the team for its selfish play. Not coincidentally, Saunders was 25 games into this season before he really called out his players for the first time, angrily citing the team's lack of focus and ball movement in a late-December loss to Cleveland.

McHale deserves a modicum of respect for owning the mess he exacerbated when he canned Saunders. He's had a dolorous tenure on the sidelines, wracked by a nasty cough for the better part of a month while absorbing the reality of the Wolves' intractable dysfunction. But for all his vows to get tough with the miscreants on this team and whip things into shape, he certainly has made a hash of his player rotations and substitutions.

Consider Kevin Garnett, for instance, who has consistently improved the play of his teammates almost from the moment he stepped on the court 10 years ago. It was thus stunning to note that in the month of February, the Wolves played better with KG on the bench than when he was on the court. At the time, I assumed this aberration was the result of a series of nagging injuries KG was enduring. Then March came, and Garnett posted numbers gaudy enough to get him named the NBA Player of the Month. And yet, when Garnett was on the floor during those 15 March games, the Wolves were outscored by 24 points, in a month when they enjoyed a 21-point edge overall. Somehow, the team was more effective when the Player of the Month was riding the pine.

To help explain the mystery, take a look at KG's cohorts in the starting lineup. There's not a single offensive force reliable enough to discourage opposing defenses from collapsing around Garnett. When KG plays "the right way" and swings the ball to an open teammate, more often than not the Wolves' two most notorious bricklayers this season--Latrell Sprewell and Troy Hudson--will jack up the shot. The other options are Michael Olowokandi, who lacks the basketball intelligence to get out of KG's way in the low block, let alone create more space for the superstar to operate, and Trenton Hassell, who is only now beginning to exhibit a pulse on offense.

The rationale for surrounding Garnett with this woeful quartet is that it enhances the defense. But in terms of defensive efficacy, there simply isn't that much difference between Kandi and Eddie Griffin, or T-Hud and Cassell, or Szczerbiak and Spree. And at the other end of the court, Sammy and Wally are shooters who peel opponents away from KG. And Griffin's ability to shoot the three, and crash the offensive boards from the weak side after camping on the perimeter, opens up room from Garnett to wheel and deal in the paint. What sense does it make to bring three reliable outside shooters--Cassell, Wally, and Fred Hoiberg--off the bench, while your top assist man and reigning MVP copes with a pair of gunners (T-Hud and Spree) who aren't even making 41 percent of their shots?

All season long, the Wolves have been hamstrung by their misguided homage to the memory of last year's MV3. Let's put this as plainly as possible: Sam Cassell can't defend anybody anymore, is unhappy with his contract, and needs to be traded or, worst case, released. Latrell Sprewell may be the fantastic teammate and tireless competitor every member of the franchise insists he is, but he should have been at best a sixth man this season. More than anyone on the team, he has pulled down KG's performance this year. (Significantly, he was the only player with a worse plus/minus point total than Garnett in March.)

Here's an interesting little stat: In the 26 games McHale has coached, Spree has taken fewer than seven shots in only four of them. Those also happen to be the only four games in which he has made at least half his shots. The more he shoots, the more he misses. Meanwhile, Szczerbiak, one of the precious few NBA players with outside range who has converted more than half of his career field goal attempts, rides the pine and then gets frozen out by Cassell when he finally enters the game.

Spree is gone after five more games. Cassell needs to be. KG and Wally, who have worked together better than ever in the moments when they do share the court, have at least four more years with this franchise. To the extent that Garnett has backed steady minutes for Spree and endorsed the scapegoating of Saunders, he deserves the damage done to his reputation as a team leader by this season's pratfall. But with five games still remaining and delusions of the playoffs no longer viable, it's time for this franchise to cut its losses and start what could very well be a long, slow, rebuilding process.

Should the Wolves trade KG? Britt Robson and Steve Perry continue the discussion of the Timberwolves' demise at Balls!, City Pages' sports blog.

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