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Sam the Sham

Minnesota Timberwolves

"What you do in November don't matter. By March, nobody gives a damn what you did in November." That's Wolves point guard Sam Cassell, mouthing off in November. And sure enough, here in March, pretty much nobody gives a damn what Cassell said or did back then, or what he does and says in what will almost certainly be his last six weeks in a Timberwolves uniform.

With his infamous "feed my family" comment and his obese $14.6 million salary, Latrell Sprewell has been the most obvious target for fans venting over the Wolves' plunging fortunes this season. But it has been Cassell, the other selfish bleater, who has proven himself the most pivotal underachiever on the team. It was Sammy, not Spree, who earned a trip to the all-star game last year; who, more than any other teammate, lifted some of the enormous burden off Kevin Garnett's shoulders by running a smart, efficient half-court offense and by anointing himself the go-to shooter at crunch time. Heading into this season, the team had a trio of shooting guards and small forwards in Wally Szczerbiak, Fred Hoiberg, and Trenton Hassell who could reasonably be expected to take up most of the slack should Spree falter. The drop-off from Cassell to Troy Hudson (who has always been a shooting guard in a point guard's body) was much more precipitous. Few would question that, after KG, Cassell was the second-most valuable component in the Wolves' makeup.

Today, it's no coincidence that Cassell's career and the Wolves' hopes for a ring are both in shambles. All the blemishes Cassell cleansed from his reputation last year--doesn't like to practice, perpetually unhappy with his contract, disruptively outspoken, stubbornly arrogant, and indifferent on defense--have come to the surface again this season. His relatively casual preseason workout regimen was justified by hip surgery rehab and the desire to pace himself enough to be at full strength for the playoffs. When then-coach Flip Saunders benched him for ignoring instructions from the sidelines, saying Cassell "didn't have his legs yet," Sammy issued the quote that began this column. But the bravado was short-lived. After a torrid display of clutch outside shooting last November that sparked a 4-0 West Coast road trip and rekindled memories of last year's glory, Cassell-and, by extension, the Wolves--have been a bust this season.

After missing 18 of his team's past 29 games due to a hamstring injury, Cassell will be fortunate to log half as many minutes as he did a year ago. Some of his detractors within the Wolves organization whisper that he's been sidelined by his attitude as much as his hammy, but either label--petulant malcontent or damaged goods--is likely to kill any chance of a lucrative contract extension, something that seemed inevitable just four months ago. The signs of injury or aging are most apparent in Cassell's sudden inability to hit long-range jumpers (his accuracy from three-point range is down this year from 40 to 23 percent) and his geriatric moves on defense, which have been further laid bare by the new rules against hand-checking.

The symbolic end of the Sam Cassell boomlet in Minnesota came for me in the Wolves overtime loss to Houston at the Target Center in early February, which at the time seemed like an important chance for the team to gain ground on a close competitor in the playoff race. Cassell had shot 8-11 from the field to keep the Wolves within four points of the Rockets after three quarters. The stage seemed set for the type of crunch-time heroics he had displayed so often a year before. But time and again with the game seemingly in the balance, Sammy failed to convert, going just 1-5 in the fourth quarter and 1-4 in overtime. Meanwhile, Houston's go-to guy, Tracy McGrady, hit his key attempts to fuel his team's six-point victory.

If you think Cassell's contract status was a distraction this year, imagine what will happen if the Wolves don't trade him during the off-season. He would return for training camp less than two months from his 36th birthday, in the last year of long-term deal that undervalued his worth. After this season's antics, owner Glen Taylor isn't likely to offer an extension, making it imperative that Cassell be shed from the squad. But what can Cassell fetch in a trade? When healthy, he's a deadly mid-range shooter with great court vision and a feisty competitive streak. But he's also a huge defensive liability now, has a chronically high opinion of his value that makes him difficult to coach, and is, quite suddenly, long past his prime.

 

Cassell's disappearing act is only the beginning of the Wolves' bungled point guard situation. At nearly every point when both have garnered significant minutes during the season, Anthony Carter has thoroughly outperformed Troy Hudson. Four days after Christmas, Saunders finally gave up on Hudson's wild shooting and sporadic defense and installed Carter as Cassell's backup. In the wake of this eminently sensible switch, Hudson's agent demanded a trade and Hudson claimed to be confused about his role. The next game, Hudson was reinstated as the backup.

Weeks later, when Cassell was injured and the Wolves continued to flounder with Hudson starting, Saunders again promoted AC over Hudson, which instantly produced a five-game winning streak. For the season thus far, Minnesota is 8-4 with Carter starting, and just 5-7 with Hudson in at the opening tip. What's more, two of those five wins for T-Hud have occurred in the last two games, and rightfully belong to Carter.

In last week's Hang Time, I somewhat fancifully proposed a "go-go five" starting lineup featuring Wally, AC, KG, Spree, and Mark Madsen. Instead, McHale has been bringing Wally, AC, and Madsen off the bench (often with Hoiberg and John Thomas), with spectacular results. After the Wolves beat Milwaukee last Friday, Szcezerbiak gushed, "I have been waiting my whole career to play with a point guard like AC." What he means is a point guard who can force turnovers with pressure defense on the perimeter, triggering the fast break opportunities that Wally exploits better than anyone on the team. He also means a point guard who will penetrate to the hoop and kick it back out so Wally and Hoiberg can catch-and-shoot--a point guard who ignites and flourishes in an uptempo pace.

The Wolves have won the past two games by a total of eight points. During the 49 minutes Hudson has been on the court during those contests, Minnesota has been outscored by 30 points. Over the 46 minutes AC has performed in the same games, the Wolves are a plus 38. Yet after the win over Milwaukee in which AC was awarded the game ball, McHale went out of his way to praise Hudson. Just a means of keeping T-Hud's confidence up, right? Well then, why did Hudson play nine more minutes than Carter against Boston, a move that nearly cost Minnesota the game? Could it have anything to do with the fact that Hudson just signed a six-year, $37 million deal this season, while Carter is on a one-year minimum salary? Nah. After all, we've heard both Saunders and McHale say that it isn't the five best players who necessarily get the minutes, it's the five players who play best together.

If you believe that, then you also believe McHale would rather play with only ten guys while Michael Olowokandi and Cassell are sidelined by injuries but still on the roster. McHale says he prefers to play a paint-oriented, smash-mouth style that includes fewer and more simpler set plays than Saunders had. Yet after Kandi and Eddie Griffin--two big men crucial to paint-oriented play--were waylaid, and believed to be out at least two more weeks during this crucial playoff push, McHale said he isn't signing temporary replacements because he'd rather everyone know the set plays. But could the real reason for the lack of replacements be that owner Glen Taylor has decided that $70 million is more than enough money already spent for a team currently in 10th place in the competition for eight Western Conference playoff spots? Nah.

But we wouldn't blame him if he did.


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