Out with the Old
In terms of talent, it seems like the Minnesota Timberwolves are suddenly back to the bad old days of Kevin Garnett and the 11 dwarves. How long will it be before KG finally punches his own "big ticket" out of town in search of a realistic chance at an NBA championship?
It's hard to imagine the Wolves without Garnett, isn't it? The franchise has never won more than 29 games in a season without him, and wouldn't reach that many victories in the '05-'06 campaign if KG were felled by an injury.
Last year, while folks throughout the organization were bitching, whimpering, back-stabbing, or just lying down like dogs, Garnett threw up an average of 22.2 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game, once again playing all 82 contests despite an assortment of injuries. Wilt Chamberlain is the only player in NBA history to beat each of those points-rebounds-assists averages in a single season. Wilt the Stilt did it twice, in fact, in 1967 and 1968, and was named the league's MVP both times. But due to the dysfunction around KG, his gaudy stats didn't even land him a place on the All-NBA First Team last year. Who would blame him for wanting to jump off a squad in which Wally Szczerbiak is generally regarded as the team's next-best player?
The marvelous, screwy answer is that KG would blame himself, for disloyalty and insufficient strength of character. Since the day he arrived in Minnesota, he's about the only person who hasn't openly speculated about when he'd leave. On the contrary, near the end of last year's shit storm, he got angry when I asked him if he was reconsidering his previous vows of fidelity to the Wolves, calling it a "stupid, ridiculous" question.
The lone occasion when his resolve seemed to waver was a couple of years back, when his first huge contract extension was coming to a close. KG venerates the traditions and history of the game, and was stung when Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson idiotically called him out for not being more selfish with the ball during yet another Wolves first-round playoff loss. But then the Wolves got Sammy and Spree, and Garnett permanently quieted his crunch-time critics with a dominant Game 7 versus Sacramento.
As the Wolves were adjusting to a new coach and a revamped roster this preseason, Garnett continued to flex his now-legendary leadership skills, renting out an entire movie theater so the team could get acquainted with a night out together, and taking obscure newcomers like Nikoloz Tskitishvili under his wing on the court. As Garnett prepares for his 11th season in Minnesota, it is high time we shelve our paranoia, bless our good fortune, and take him at his word when he says he is a "Timberwolf for life." To help us along, the team's marketing department has made "True Blue" the motto of the franchise this season.
Okay, KG is here now and forever more. But the rest of the MV3 is kaput. Who will the Wolves miss more, Cassell or Sprewell?
Fred Hoiberg. Cherish the two-year-old memories of Sammy and Spree if you wish, but last season their presence on the team was like a double dose of the clap. Sharing bad wheels, bruised egos, and blue language, their geriatric-outsider solidarity was toxic to team chemistry and, for poetic justice, their own future paychecks. Hoiberg, on the other hand, was pure money from beyond the three-point arc and inside the locker room. It was a shock to discover that the Wolves' second-best player last year will be forced to sit out this season, and perhaps retire for good, due to an enlarged aortic root that required surgery and a pacemaker.
In Hoiberg, the Wolves will be missing an invaluable role player from a team that couldn't even make the playoffs last year. Why should fans be optimistic this season?
The team should see a huge upgrade in perimeter defense--its most chronic, debilitating flaw last year. Remember, the old starting backcourt was Sammy and Spree, a combined 69 years of once-vintage wine that had soured. The Wolves unloaded Cassell to the Clippers in exchange for Marko Jaric, a point guard who is quicker, much more rugged, and, at 6' 7", four inches taller than Sammy. Jaric will start alongside Trenton Hassell, the Wolves' second-best man-to-man defender after KG. It took Hassell most of the year to adjust to the NBA's stricter enforcement of hand-checking rules last season, but he showed up at training camp in shape and secure in the knowledge that he won't be unfairly bumped to the bench in favor of inferior defenders like Spree and Wally Szczerbiak, as happened last year. Another positive sign is that new coach Dwane Casey vows that the character and identity of the team will be established at the defensive end of the court this season.
So was the hiring of Casey--
who has never run his own team during his 27-year coaching
career--a shrewd choice?
If he fails, it won't be because he's inexperienced or overmatched. Even as head coaches, some guys have the mien of career assistants--
Sid Lowe and Jimmy Rodgers exemplified as much in the team's pre-Flip days. Casey
carries himself with the self-possession of a credible head coach, projecting an appealing blend of command and approachability. By all accounts, he is purposeful, well organ-ized, and works his ass off.
But possessing the right skills and initiative doesn't
guarantee success in what amounts to an elaborate balancing act. The power relationships between Casey and KG, Casey and Wolves' owner Glen Taylor, Casey and iconic personnel director Kevin McHale are all open questions at the moment, as is the margin call between winning now and building for the future. Casey was hired because the team needed someone to make changes, but that doesn't mean the changes will be easy, or their outcomes predictable.
Is there a player on the Wolves roster who provides a glaring example of this balancing act?
Troy Hudson. Despite missing more than 50 games due to ankle injuries during the 2003-'04 season, Taylor signed Hudson to a six-year deal worth more than $34 million just before the 2004-'05 campaign. Hudson very belatedly proceeded to play his best basketball after McHale replaced Flip Saunders as coach last February, increasing his shooting percentage and assists-to-turnovers ratio under McHale's tutelage. But from the first day of training camp, Casey has pledged that during his tenure as coach, the Wolves will make stingy defense an abiding priority. And Troy Hudson is a monumentally horrible defender.
In recent years, pro basketball has been subjected to the kind of sophisticated statistical analysis that Bill James and his followers brought to major league baseball beginning in the 1970s. One of the leading exponents of this movement is economics professor Dan Rosenbaum, who recently measured the defensive prowess of individual NBA players by calibrating a team's plus/minus point totals according to when each player was on or off the court over the past three years. In an essay published by the website 82games.com, Rosenbaum states that Hudson "probably gets the award for being the worst defender in the league.... He is playing a game on the defensive end that is not remotely like anyone else's."
Providing T-Hud with even scant minutes off the bench seems problematic in light of the club's other options. Backup point guard Anthony Carter has had a magnificent preseason, abetting his always-disruptive defense with an up-tempo, synergistic offensive game, especially as part of a go-go trio with Szczerbiak and center Mark Madsen. And any minutes Hudson gets backing up Hassell at shooting guard will be at the expense of top draft pick Rashad McCants, who sports a giddy array of offensive skills that demand exposure. Yet just last week, Casey said he "considered Hudson like a starter," and implied he will include T-Hud among the top seven players in his rotation. That's the kind of political balancing act (or misjudgment of talent) that could tilt the Wolves' season right down the tubes.
Is McCants a future star or the second coming of J.R. Rider?
Both. People forget that Rider was a star, albeit briefly. One reason he flamed out was because there was no tone-setter like Garnett on board when he arrived. I suspect that McCants will never become a shut-down defender in this league. There's mischief among his package of skills, which is how someone with top-10 talent was still available with the 14th pick of the draft.
There is a lot to like about this situation. I like how McHale, anxious to remove the stench of Will Avery and Ndudi Ebi from his reputation as a draft scout, openly applauds the "edgy attitude" McCants brings; how McCants is arrogant enough to see himself and KG as being very similar in their approach to the game; and how Casey is talking tough about playing D but not penalizing the kid for his multiple lapses, even when they're induced by indifference. But most of all I like the athleticism and economy of movement that enables McCants, at least once or twice every game, to throw down a dunk or get off a jumper before even veteran NBA defenders expect it to happen. Every minute Hudson steals from McCants at the shooting guard position will penalize this franchise down the road.
Speaking of prolific scorers and indifferent defenders, is this a make-or-break year for Wally Szczerbiak?
Absolutely. A succession of stains and bruises have pockmarked Szczerbiak's progress ever since he landed in the 2002 NBA All Star game (and before then, actually, if you count his brief brawl with KG after practice one day). First a batch of influential teammates conspired to label him a ball hog in an influential ESPN The Magazine article. (The Wolves brass eventually blamed their decision not to re-sign Chauncey Billups, a.k.a. "Mr. Big Shot," in part on his ego rivalry with Szczerbiak.) Then a toe injury in the first preseason contest wiped out 30 games in 2002-'03. This was followed by the banner 2003-'04 campaign when the MV3 thrived while Wally hobbled around with plantar fascitis. Last year was another soap opera, trisected by Szczerbiak's selfish preseason demand to start, his subsequent midseason offer to come off the bench, and his postseason request to be traded.
Through it all, Szczerbiak has cultivated a pretty fair persecution complex, claiming that his ex-coach Flip Saunders picked on him too much and that he endured disproportionate scrutiny because he was a white guy in a predominantly black guys' league. The complaints were tacky, but not without merit. Adding to the intrigue, Szczerbiak seemed to play his best all-around basketball--passing, defending, blending in--two years ago, when his standing on the team was at its most tenuous.
But quite suddenly, he's a 28-year-old veteran entering his prime with momentum on his side. All his real and imagined adversaries--Billups, Terrell Brandon, Cassell, Spree, Saunders-- have moved on. In their stead is Casey, who as an assistant coach in Seattle watched Wally rack up a plethora of 20-point games over the years, and sees Szczerbiak as the clear-cut second option to KG. Instead of carping on Wally's miscues, he's figuring out ways to assist him on defense, feed him on offense, and let him run and freelance more when the opportunity beckons.
The new starting point guard, Jaric, will shoot less and dish more than any of his Timberwolf predecessors, and when Anthony Carter subs in, he and Wally will turn on the jets and cavort with the same telepathy that made them such a joyous tandem last season. Even Szczerbiak's on-court relationship with KG has relaxed into a relatively positive rhythm, fostered by their mutual desire to forget the dolor of last season. If he can keep the injuries and controversies at bay, and his turnover-prone drives off the dribble to a minimum in the half-court sets, we should see all the upsides of Szczerbiak showcased this season. And if we don't, he risks relinquishing his spot in the pecking order to McCants.
Will Kandi really laugh last, all the way to the bank?
Even more so than with Szczerbiak, Casey has gone out on a limb declaring his faith in Michael Olowokandi, the much-maligned, underachieving pivot man entering the final year of his contract. When the MV3, Wally, T-Hud, and the crew were all jacking up jumpers the past two seasons, Kandi was relegated to patrolling the paint for rebounds and blocks. He provided just enough offense to prevent opponents from double-teaming KG with another big man. Most of the time, even that limited role made Olowokandi visibly ill at ease--tense, bewildered, and hamstrung by doubt.
But Casey waxes steadfast in the face of this checkered history. "I really, truly believe that Michael is going to have a breakout year," the coach says firmly. To that end, Kandi has been instructed to look for his shot whenever he catches the ball in the low post. Minor injuries to KG have further increased Kandi's scoring opportunities in the past few preseason games. The rote head and ball fakes and the exaggerated footwork are all just as stiff and unconvincing as in his first two years with the Wolves, but that little turnaround bunny-toss is finding its path through the hoop with beguiling regularity.
Kandi has teased up and then let down expectations before, of course, and the games haven't even started to count yet this year. But it is also obvious that Casey wants to generate more points in the paint, that Kandi should be motivated by his push for a new contract, and that even with his sclerotic movements and putrid 43.5 percent shooting accuracy, Kandi's maneuvers in the low post are more refined than anything the team's other two centers, Eddie Griffin and Mark Madsen, could muster. All this faint praise is a reminder that the Wolves' default strategy may be KG-or-bust down near the hoop. But if Kandi really can chip in 10-12 points per game, it will open things up for everyone else on the court.
We'll see. Call me jaded, but I think the Wolves are better off relying on Griffin's long-range shooting prowess to draw opposing big men away from KG underneath. Or putting a go-go unit of Carter, Madsen, Szczerbiak, Griffin, and McCants in to foster layups and short, easy jumpers in transition. And we haven't even talked about Kandi's inconsistent defense against the pick and roll at the other end of the court. It's lucky for him that Griffin, if anything, is even more clueless.
Should the Wolves be rebuilding for the future, or gunning for the playoffs?
Rebuilding, of course. Otherwise they just reenter the rut of first-round playoff losses that plagued them through most of Saunders's tenure. When Casey was hired this summer, Taylor made a point of emphasizing that any suitors for Flip's old job had to bring a "win now" philosophy or be eliminated from consideration. Since then, Taylor has moderated his ardor for instant results, which indicates to me that Casey is a shrewd judge of talent and an effective communicator.
Acquiring Spree and Sammy two years ago was not, as Taylor characterized it, a "failed experiment," because the MV3 broke the playoff rut and vindicated KG's status as a formidable leader when provided with a decent supporting cast. The experience gave Garnett an idea of the firepower necessary to mount a serious championship challenge. He, Casey, Taylor, and McHale are all smart enough to survey the current roster and conclude that this is the time to sow the seeds for that eventual challenge. Time is of the essence--KG turns 30 in May--but that makes it even more imperative to realize that a savvy three-year plan will ultimately bring the team closer to the brass ring than three straight years of going for broke. That's why drafting an enormously talented, potential problem child like McCants is an acceptable risk, and why I'd like to see Eddie Griffin in the lineup more often than Kandi this year. It's also why the Wolves should cut their losses with Troy Hudson.
Marko Jaric just turned 27. Trenton Hassell is 26, Griffin 23, McCants 21. Last year was a disaster. It's time to rebuild.
So why should we care about this team?
Because when it comes to a synergy of character and talent, Kevin Garnett is the greatest athlete in the history of professional sports in Minnesota, and he is on display, in his prime, every time the team steps on the court. Because the new coach, the hot-shot rookie, and the large point guard are all worth a look. Because Wally Szczerbiak will be a constant threat to erupt for 30, even as he yields 25. Because Mark Madsen and Anthony Carter have one gear and when the time is right, it is enough to churn the Wolves' opponents into butter. And because even if this team is serious about rebuilding, they will win more often than they lose, and contend for the playoffs.
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