The Last Worthless Season
THE MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES are the worst pro sports franchise of the 1990s. This is not an opinion: The Wolves' winning percentage of .255 is lower than any other professional team that has competed in a major sport over the past five years. Worse than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the San Diego Padres, the Hartford Wailers, the Los Angeles Clippers; worse than anybody. Obviously, the thousands and thousands of people who still come to the Target Center 41 times per season to see the Wolves play are the opposite of fair-weather fans. They deserve not to have their intelligence insulted by yet another dose of false optimism. Beneath that patina--and despite an easier schedule that includes six games against brand-new teams from Toronto and Vancouver--this season's edition of the Wolves will be hard-pressed to do much better than the 21 wins and 61 losses they notched last year.
In fact, the most hopeful development for the team this year is that management did not panic and squander lots of money on a mediocre crop of free agents, wisely preferring to stay well under the league's salary cap so they can spring a blockbuster contract proposal on a bona fide star or an invaluable role player before the 1996-97 season, when nearly a third of the league's players could be free agents. Add a quality free agent and another lottery pick from the college draft to the Wolves' current nucleus of players and you've got a team that could win as often as it loses and contend for the playoffs. "Wait till next year!" is usually a loser's cry; in view of how horrendously this franchise has been managed over its six-year history, the sentiment could be considered a sign of progress.
Yet there are more than a few wishful thinkers in and around the Wolves who offer reasons why the team stands to add at least five to 10 wins to last year's total. Mostly they cite the leadership of local hero and new Vice President of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale; the arrival of high-school phenomenon Kevin Garnett via the draft; the return of point guard Micheal Williams from a foot injury; and the likelihood of better team chemistry due in part to the signing of free agent (and ex-Timberwolf) Sam Mitchell. But McHale and Garnett are at best long-term assets, Williams is overrated, and, Mitchell notwithstanding, a compelling case can be made that abrasive chemistry will continue to dog the Wolves.
Let's get specific, beginning with McHale. As a player with the University of Minnesota and the Boston Celtics, his talent, savvy, and desire were unimpeachable; in his brief tenure in the front office since then, his relations with coaches, players, and the media have been candid and charming. But the charms have always worked both ways in McHale's career. He's invariably been in the right place at the right time for success--until now. At the end of last season, McHale made the right noises about being disgusted and embarrassed by the Wolves' play and implied that there would be vast, fundamental changes on the team, probably through a major trade involving J.R. Rider or Christian Laettner, or by acquiring one of the few significant free agents on the market.
But McHale underestimated Minnesota's status as the gulag of the National Basketball Association, a cold, obscure place with a perennially miserable team of underachievers. With Rider and Laettner both toting problematic reputations and players disinclined to come here, player agents and personnel directors on other teams knew the Wolves were operating from a weak position and demanded exorbitant salary or trade terms.
Of the two prominent free agents McHale was able to add, Mitchell has roots here and scored a very nice contract for himself, while guard Terry Porter is past his prime and coming off an injury that limited him to under 800 minutes played last year. The bottom line is that McHale has not been able to translate the respect he personally commands throughout the league into substantial gains for his team. His predecessor, Jack McCloskey, was also highly respected (he'd won two championships in Detroit) before adding to the Wolves' sorry legacy with a lethal assortment of bonehead moves born of equal parts arrogance and impatience. McCloskey's emphasis on raw talent over coachable character was a culture shift away from the philosophy of Bob Stein and Billy McKinney when they ran the team during the Wolves' first two seasons. Now McHale is trying to shift the culture back to the gritty, underdog mindset of those early years; hence the return of Mitchell. Granting McHale his considerable talents, his ability to manage personnel and endure failure are two crucial aspects of his duties that remain largely unknown. How patient he will be and should be with this team are the central questions facing the future of this franchise.
McHale's biggest move to date--drafting teen-ager Kevin Garnett right out of high school--is a bold gamble that stresses both talent and patience. Since he turned pro, Garnett has been besieged by the media asking him in a thousand different ways essentially the same loaded question: Are you mature enough to handle all this hoopla? Before very long the natural response, whether you're 19 or 90 years old, would be, "Get the fuck away from me." But since that would get Garnett branded as a spoiled, ungrateful punk quickly corrupted by big money, he says things like, "When you know something is coming at you, you can dodge it. But I can't do anything yet because I don't know which direction people are coming at me from right now."
While most people fixate on whether Garnett has been given too much too soon off the court, a more pertinent question may be whether his confidence will survive the feeling of having too little too late on the court. Without having witnessed Garnett play a real NBA game yet, we'll accept McHale's contention that "he's a 6-11 player who moves like he is five inches shorter." Even if he possesses NBA-caliber height and quickness, he's never encountered them in opponents--opponents who happen to be playing for keeps over a six-month season. It will take time and repeated embarrassment to hone the mental tenacity and instantaneous reactions necessary for the two quantum leaps forward in the level of competition.
Garnett, who drapes just 221 pounds over his 83 inches, will also discover the extent to which NBA basketball is a contact sport that ruthlessly exploits weak links in individual match-ups. While he absorbs the basketball art of the bump-and-grind, he will be jousted out of position on offense and in frequent foul trouble on defense. Can he mentally accept the experience of getting lunched by the likes of Detlef Schrempf, Scotty Pippen, and Larry Johnson, and of languishing on the bench of a losing team?
The point is that despite the excitement engendered by the presence of McHale and Garnett, they will have relatively little impact on the Wolves' night-by-night performance during the 1995-96 season. That is not true of point guard Micheal Williams, who returns to the lineup after being sidelined for all but 28 minutes by a foot injury last season. It's become commonplace to use Williams's absence to justify the Wolves' lack of improvement last year, but considering that his place was taken by journeyman Winston Garland and rookie Darrick Martin, the loss of Williams was not as significant as you might expect. True, the Wolves' assist total declined from 17th to 21st in the league last year, but they stole the ball more often and turned it over less without Williams. Meanwhile, there was less grumbling from teammates in the locker room about the point guard hogging the ball. The genuine enthusiasm exhibited by the Wolves' front office when Porter signed indicates they were not enthralled with relying upon Williams this year either.
Without question, the Wolves' offense was pathetic last year, for the same reason it was pathetic the year before, when Williams was at the point: the lack of a quality big man at center. The Wolves don't score enough because they don't shoot enough; they were dead last in the NBA in shots attempted last year, and next-to-last the year before. And why don't the Wolves shoot enough? Because they don't have a center who can rebound the ball. Last year the Wolves collected 167 fewer rebounds than the next-worse team--an average of over two fewer per game--and nearly a thousand fewer rebounds than Dallas, the league leader. When you don't rebound your opponent's shots, you can't run an uptempo, fast-break offense and you provide the other team easy scoring opportunities rebounding their own missed shots. Conversely, when you don't rebound your own misses, you lose out on the easy put-backs and the other team has the chance to run you into the ground.
But the hurt from the Wolves' weakness in the middle doesn't stop there. As anyone who saw the playoffs last year knows, good teams increasingly deploy a half-court offense that revolves around getting the ball underneath the basket to a quality center. If opponents don't double and triple-cover the big man, he turns around and scores. If they do collapse the defense on him, he passes the ball back out to the long-range shooters for 3-point baskets. Because the Wolves are overmatched at center, they frequently must collapse the defense down low, allowing opponents uncontested 3-point shots. When the Wolves are on offense, opponents rarely collapse around their big men, meaning that Minnesota's 3-point shooters are more closely guarded. That's a primary reason why the Wolves had the lowest 3-point shooting accuracy of any team in the league last year--and why their opponents had the highest shooting percentage from long range.
The sad irony is that Timberwolves head coach Bill Blair has long anchored his offensive and defensive philosophy with a mobile, rebounding, shot-blocking big man. "You can run a full-court press and an aggressive perimeter defense when you've got a big guy back there who can block shots and intimidate people. And you can get out and run when you've got a rebounder who can get the ball and make the outlet pass," explained Blair, wistfully speaking last year during the preseason about the potential contribution of retread center Charles Shackleford, who is no longer with the team. During the last month, the Wolves failed in their bid to obtain a couple of Shackleford-like free agents, and will go with Sean Rooks, whose forte is a 10-foot jump shot; Christian Laettner, who routinely gets pummeled at the power forward position; and Eric Riley, who's lucky to still be in the NBA. None of them comes close to being the center Blair craves, and McHale's failure to upgrade the position since last year stands as the first serious blemish on his record for assembling the right mix of talent. It's no secret that McHale (and the rest of the NBA) covets Tim Duncan, the junior center from Wake Forest who will likely declare his eligibility for next year's college draft. But even if the Wolves do defy their bad lottery luck and get the chance to draft Duncan, it may come too late to save Blair's job.
Which brings us to the subject of team chemistry. Last year it was fairly easy to predict that McCloskey would be the designated fall guy (and appropriately so) when the Wolves hit their annual quota of 60 losses. If it happens again this year, the most likely candidate to get thrown overboard is Blair. McHale, who fumed so much about last year's record that he will be compelled to shake up the franchise if there isn't significant improvement, spent his biggest marker on Garnett, a kid who won't really pay off for at least two or three years. Blair was not a McHale hire and McHale's right-hand man, former college teammate and current Wolves General Manager Flip Saunders, has a proven track record of resurrecting floundering franchises as a coach in the minor-league Continental Basketball Association.
It's possible that the Wolves' best all-around player, Tom Gugliotta, has also deduced a potential unhappy ending for Blair in Minnesota. Googs was mentored by Blair when he was a rookie at Washington and Blair was assistant coach. At the end of last season, Blair had plans for running a lot of the offense through Gugliotta this year--he'd operate like a point forward--and had referred to the 1995-96 Wolves as "Tommy's team." But Gugliotta unexpectedly played hardball during contract negotiations, finally accepting a deal a couple of days ago that gives him the option of leaving after three years. Although he kept his dissatisfaction mostly to himself, Googs didn't appreciate being shuttled to small forward on occasion so that he and Laettner could split time at the power forward slot last season; the small forward duties were hard on his back and curtailed his rebounding prowess by drawing him away from the basket. This year, his role is only slightly less cloudy. Laettner is still a central figure on the team and there are no guarantees that Christian can adjust to playing center; even if he does, that means there's no big-man enforcer to absorb and mete out most of the pounding underneath the hoop. Add in the prospect that Blair could be a lame duck and it becomes easier to understand Gugliotta's contract demands.
There are plenty of other scenarios that could lead to volatile disruptions in team chemistry this season. McHale has repeatedly said that when it comes to earning playing time, "It isn't going to be the five best players so much as the five players who play together best." But evaluating teamwork is not an objective science. (If Tom Gugliotta hadn't signed a new contract, might not the elements of his game on the court be less team-oriented this season?) For example, it's almost comical to hear Blair announce that the shooting guard position will be filled through an open competition between Doug West and J.R. Rider. Gee, I wonder who will get most of the minutes: the lone remaining original Timberwolf, who was just rewarded with a lucrative new five-year contract, who plays superb defense as part of a selfless all-around game, and who happens to be one of Blair's two favorite players on the team; or the guy who is consistently ripped by Blair, who was chronically late for planes and practices last year, who spent part of the summer in jail and was the source of desperate trade talk by the Wolves during the off-season?
With new acquisitions Garnett and Mitchell both slated to get most of their playing time at small forward, West, last year's incumbent small forward, needs to get most of his time at shooting guard, which is better suited for his wiry physique anyway. Porter will also play some at shooting guard. Rider may be stubborn but he isn't stupid; he knows the Wolves are paving his way out of town. It is just a matter of time before he and the team are embroiled in some petty crisis that will become "the last straw" precipitating his departure.
Then there is Laettner. When he arrived three years ago as an insufferably cocky Dream Teamer, there was a question about whether he was physical enough to play power forward. Practically the only victory Laettner has achieved since then is proving that he is indeed tough enough. Along the way, the karmic payback from his Golden Boy days at Duke has been duly delivered: He has lost as many games as anybody in the NBA, shouldering the grunt work of rebounding for a slow, poor-shooting team while numerous fouls against him are ignored by the referees he pissed off with bad behavior during his rookie season. He will never be an all-star and it's unlikely he'll again be a champion. Critics note that his stats have plateaued at about 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, but it's just as apt to say he has become a reliable performer who makes a solid, if unspectacular, contribution.
That said, this may well be the year Laettner falters from his customary perseverance or starts going ballistic in the locker room and through the media. In the past, Laettner's occasional outbursts were oddly timed in that they didn't seem directly connected to a decline in the team's or Laettner's overall play. But now he has more just cause to gripe. Nobody blossomed more than Laettner with Gugliotta's arrival, in part because it enabled the entire three-man front line to fight for rebounds. By contrast, allotting more minutes for Laettner at center simultaneously strains his endurance and his patience. It means he will have to claw for position not only in the general melee over rebounding space, but also to deny his larger opponent a choice location near the hoop whenever the Wolves are in their half-court defense. Is Laettner physical enough to be a decent NBA center? Not really. And it will frustrate the hell out of him.
So, is there anything good that can be said about this year's Wolves' team? Actually, yes: From top to bottom, the skill level on the current roster provides Blair with a lot more depth and flexibility than he had last season. If the Wolves' starting lineup includes Laettner at center, Gugliotta and Mitchell at the forwards, and West and Williams at the guards, that still leaves a second unit of Rooks, Garnett, Rider, Porter, and either Riley or one of the team's two second-round draft picks, Jerome Allen or Mark Davis. Thankfully, Wolves fans don't have Stacey King or Andres Guibert to kick around anymore.
Blair will be challenged to use this newfound depth in a manner that both maximizes the talent and keeps the peace. He is easily the best coach in the Timberwolves' history (although considering the others, that's the faintest kind of praise), but it should also be noted that Blair did a poor job of grooming his rookies last season. When first-round draft pick Donyell Marshall left the team last February (traded to Golden State for Gugliotta) he was more befuddled about how to play the game than when he'd first arrived five months earlier. Second-round pick Howard Eisley was prematurely thrust into the starting lineup for a week during the first month of the season, then barely played at all for an extended period of time, and was finally waived off the team a week before Marshall was traded away. The treatment of Garnett, who is even younger and more talented than most heralded rookies, will be Blair's litmus test, particularly with McHale, whose regime is heavily invested in him panning out. The coach has to pick Garnett's matchups carefully, in a manner that exposes the rookie to the bitter and the sweet aspects of the most rigorous competition his skills will ever encounter. No one knows how fast or slow his progress will be, which is why it will be valuable to have a steady veteran role player like Mitchell sharing the position.
It isn't just the rookies who could use a little more sensitivity from Blair and other members of the Wolves' management. Take center Sean Rooks, a young player who is desperate to please and responds well to encouragement. Unfortunately, Rooks's package of skills are mostly incompatible with what Blair wants to get out of the center position. But don't blame Rooks for that; blame McCloskey, who gave up a first-round pick to acquire a center who doesn't fit in. A more extreme case is the way the franchise has dealt with Rider. At the end of last season, various Twin Cities media went on a feeding frenzy trying to dig up dirt on the Wolves' leading scorer, and in some cases Wolves officials helped to fuel that frenzy, actively and passively, in on- and off-the-record conversations. And while it is true that Rider was frequently late to practice and other team functions last year, it is also true that various members of the Wolves' management have publicly criticized Rider a lot more than he has criticized them.
This too is mismanagement, in the sense that the Wolves drafted Rider knowing full well his less than stellar personal reputation, and in the sense that an ugly spat with a high-profile player reinforces the notion around the league that Minnesota is a place no self-respecting player would choose to go. The terms of the new collective bargaining agreement make it all the more important that the Wolves shed this negative image. Next year literally dozens of players will become free agents, and you can bet that the cream of the crop, the Reggie Millers and the Alonzo Mournings, won't even consider signing with Minnesota, despite the added money the team has to spend as a result of being so far under the salary cap. Just as it takes money to make money, it takes a critical mass of existing talent to lure talented free agents to a team. That's why the Wolves' handling of Garnett is immediately important--he'll be eligible to leave in three years, at the age of 22, at a time when most players are still in college. With even die-hard fans starting to fall by the wayside, the worst sports franchise of the 1990s can't afford to "wait until next year" too many more times. The gulag they have created is impressively dank and forbidding. It's time to start tunneling out.
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