Scapegoat Time

Flip unbound: His personal prospects, unlike those of the team, just improved
David Kern

What a mess.

With their season in a shambles, the Minnesota Timberwolves sacrificed Flip Saunders last Saturday, firing the coach after one of his teams underachieved relative to its collective talent for the first time in Saunders's nine-plus years here. When a team that is expected to contend for a championship falls below .500 more than 50 games into the season, canning the head coach is an almost reflexive response. But serving up Saunders's head on a platter still retained an element of surprise precisely because it was the sort of ineffectual, unimaginative decision that bad franchises typically make. It is not likely to remedy the team's troubles in either the short term or the long run.

The most striking thing about Saunders's removal is how little input--or how much plausible deniability--Kevin Garnett has had in the proceedings. More than any other team sport, pro basketball is renowned as a "player's league," where the stars, far more often and thoroughly than the coaches, set the tone and hold the power. Grumpy old men who bemoan today's pampered, selfish players like to reminisce about the "golden era" ushered in by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, but conveniently forget that Magic personally got then-Lakers coach Paul Westhead fired in 1981 by issuing a "him or me" trade demand. Westhead was gone the next day. An entire book, The Jordan Rules, was written about Michael Jordan's privileged status on the Chicago Bulls. And even the NBA coach regarded as the shrewdest manipulator of superstar egos, Phil Jackson, couldn't prevent the feud between Shaq and Kobe derailing the Lakers a year ago.

At the start of the current season, the website surveyed the league's general managers on their opinions of the "best leader" among active players. KG, the reigning MVP, received more than twice as many votes as anyone else. In recent years, it's been no secret that the Wolves' brain trust has consulted Garnett about potential trades and acquisitions. Despite all this, Garnett said after the Wolves' loss to Chicago on Sunday that he wasn't aware of the decision to ax Saunders until after it was made. "It had nothing to do with Kevin Garnett. It had nothing to do with Kevin McHale, nothing to do with Latrell Sprewell," KG added, claiming the decision was owner Glen Taylor's alone. This contrdicts accounts by both McHale and Taylor, who say it was their joint decision resulting from a discussion initiated by McHale.

But what's most revealing is Garnett, without prompting, throwing Sprewell's name into the mix. I've written plenty already about the damage Spree and Sam Cassell did to the Wolves' focus, chemistry, and performance by bellyaching about their contracts during the preseason; in the past week, Saunders and Taylor have finally admitted as much. In retrospect, Saunders's undoing was the direct result of erratic and often poor performance by the two stars directly behind KG in the team's pecking order. Whether the cause is advancing age, lack of motivation, or simple vindictiveness, Saunders obviously didn't handle the situation properly.

But to an outside observer not privy to what goes on in practice or the locker room, it doesn't appear that he received much help from KG either. Maybe Garnett called out Cassell and Spree in private. But KG also was quick to point out, and thus to tacitly criticize, occasions when Spree was benched in the first half, most notably after Spree racked up 19 first-quarter points in a loss to Milwaukee on February 1. Eight days later, when Spree's defense on Carmelo Anthony fueled a Wolves win against Denver, Saunders pointedly said it was superior to Spree's effort in Milwaukee. The bottom line is that everybody's reputation--Saunders, KG, Spree, and Cassell--deserves to take a hit this season.

Meanwhile, Wolves VP of player personnel Kevin McHale has been seething on the sidelines for most of the season. The grumpiest of the old men, McHale routinely uses the halcyon days of Magic and Bird to disparage the relative lack of effort and appreciation for fundamentals demonstrated by today's players. By appointing himself Flip's interim successor, McHale has admirably, albeit unwisely, decided to put his own philosophy and personnel decisions in the spotlight.

McHale and Taylor justified the firing by claiming that the players need to hear "a different voice" (translation: they had begun tuning Flip out) from somebody with both the will and the power to "get in the players' faces." More specifically, McHale has a laundry list of changes he wants to implement, including fewer set plays and more freelancing on offense, with an emphasis on getting points in the paint. KG, plagued by an ailing knee, will supposedly have his playing time cut back to about 32 minutes per game. McHale will demand that the team hustle back in transition defense and guard the basket more physically. After the Bulls game, McHale added that when one of the Wolves' big men comes over to stop dribble penetration, he wants his "6'3" guard to come down and belt [seven-foot Chicago center] Eddy Curry in the mouth," putting a literal spin on his taste for smash-mouth basketball. At present there is only one 6'3" guard on the Wolves' roster: Sam Cassell. If McHale thinks Sammy is going to drop down and joust with the bigs consistently after getting beaten off the dribble outside, he's in for a rude awakening.

After the Wolves lost at home to Chicago, a .500 team from the inferior Eastern Conference, McHale praised the team's effort. Imagine Saunders trying to claim a moral victory under the same circumstances. The game was lost on a 15-0 Chicago run during the first half that started right after McHale rested KG. Imagine Eddie Griffin and Michael Olowokandi holding the fort during the 16 minutes Garnett rests in future games. The Wolves did register an impressive 46 points in the paint, but scored only 83 overall. (And the players waylaid by illness or injury, Cassell, Wally Szczerbiak, and, in the second half, Fred Hoiberg, are more catch-and-shoot scorers than penetrators toward the hoop.)

Taylor said Saunders was replaced now because there is only a third of the season remaining and he couldn't wait until it was "too late" to make a meaningful playoff push. But it's already too late, folks. On Sunday, McHale freely admitted that there is "a lot to clean up" in the team's bad habits right now. Let's dream a bit and say that the Wolves win 20 of their final 30 games with an MV3 that includes a hobbled KG, a lame-duck Spree, and an injured, unhappy Cassell; let's suppose the team's core style of play changes dramatically as grumpy McHale gets in their faces.

If this 20-10 scenario somehow comes to pass, Houston and Memphis need only play .500 ball during the same period to keep the Wolves from climbing any higher than an eighth seed in the Western Conference, good for what would surely be a nasty, brutish, and short series against top seed San Antonio.

Meanwhile, Saunders, who owns a reputation second only to Phil Jackson's among currently unemployed head coaches, will go home to mull over an abundance of possible job opportunities. Whose future is brighter, Flip's or the Wolves'?

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