The Minnesota Timberwolves are tumbling into the All Star break with their season in a shambles. The team's record after 50 games, 22-28, is their worst since Kevin Garnett was a teenaged rookie 10 years ago. The trade of grousing veteran Sam Cassell and a first-round pick to the L.A. Clippers for Marko Jaric has amounted to less than nothing. Jaric, who was signed to a six-year, $37 million contract as a precursor to the trade, has been benched and then deactivated for a knee injury he claims isn't severe enough to prevent him from playing.
Sound familiar? Last season, the Wolves signed Troy Hudson to almost exactly the same deal (six years, about $35 million) to be the point guard who wound up getting benched because he couldn't really play the point and then got injured besides. It wasn't easy, but this franchise is now spending more on Hudson and Jaric per year, and for more years, than a trio of contenders are doling out to their respective MVP-candidate point guards: Steve Nash (Phoenix), Tony Parker (San Antonio), and Chauncey Billups (Detroit).
The ballclub will spend an additional $40 million-plus over the next four and a half years on centers Mark Blount and Mark Madsen, both players with glaring weaknesses who are not talented enough to start for a contending team. The center on the roster with the most promise, 23-year-old Eddie Griffin, has also been benched despite ranking among the league's top 10 in shots blocked per game. Got that? The Wolves have arranged to spend extraordinary amounts of money for years to come in order to ensure they'll remain badly outclassed at the two most important positions on the court.
Throw in an underachieving rookie, Rashad McCants, who is fulfilling his reputation for carrying a chip on his shoulder; a first-year coach, Dwane Casey, whose player rotations and substitutions generally have been inexplicable and unwise; and a fabulous role player, Fred Hoiberg, who may yet make a miraculous recovery from a heart ailment but cannot play for Minnesota this year because he was dropped from the roster for insurance purposes; and you have what could officially be called a shambles.
Can it get worse? Sure, and it will--this weekend, in fact, when KG travels to his ninth consecutive All Star Game. He'll meet up with his old coach, Flip Saunders, fired by the Wolves almost exactly a year ago and now piloting the Detroit Pistons to the best record in the NBA, and his best friend in the league, Billups, who is on track to earn his second championship ring in Detroit. Remember, too, that in the media round-robin leading up to the game, reporters from across the nation will be asking Garnett a series of questions already numbingly familiar: Doesn't he want out of Minnesota? Does he really believe the Wolves can rebuild in time to give him a legitimate shot at a championship before he retires?
In such a suddenly doleful environment, any heroes on the team are almost certain to be unsung. There is Garnett, of course, still among the 10 best players in the NBA--but with more than 30,000 NBA minutes on his nearly 30-year-old body, no longer one of the top two or three. After KG, just a single name stands out: Trenton Hassell is having a career season, as not only the Wolves' most-improved player, but the second-best performer on the squad.
Ever since he arrived as a free agent just in time to become an improbable starter on the Wolves' magical 2003-'04 team, Hassell's calling card has been on-ball defense. He sees the court well and understands and executes defensive rotations with perspicacity, but what makes him one of the league's 10 best defenders is his ability to tie up opponents' most important offensive players. Hassell has become a formidable defender against almost any player in the NBA. On back-to-back nights in early January, he guarded the Spurs' 6' 2" jitterbug Tony Parker and the Mavericks' seven-foot antelope, Dirk Nowitzki. Casey has deployed him against point guards like Parker and Billups, large shooters like Nowitzki and Tracy McGrady, and--his specialty--rapid-fire gunners such as Boston's Paul Pierce, Milwaukee's Michael Redd, and Denver's Carmelo Anthony.
Hassell's defensive masterpiece occurred last week against LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavs. The hype on James is legit: He has the potential to be an heir to the greatest swingmen in history, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson. At 6' 8" and 240, James is three inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than Hassell, not to mention quicker and stronger. Nevertheless, the Wolves decided to let Hassell guard James solo a majority of the time. Hassell, who struggled last season with the tighter hand-checking rules imposed by the league, has since modified his footwork, and uses his upper body strength as well as any backcourt defender in the NBA. His battle with James was titanic--and if Lebron eventually managed 35 points in the Cavs' win, he did it on just 11 of 34 shooting from the floor.
But the most obvious upgrade in Hassell's game has occurred at the offensive end of the court. Casey has increasingly relied on Hassell's acumen in the low post as a "third option" on offense behind KG and the shooting guard (first Wally Szczerbiak, now Ricky Davis). Hassell's scoring average has risen each month from November to February. He has supplemented his distinctive rainbow jumper with a repertoire of additional weapons: an up-and-under move to the basket, a spin move into the paint that can yield either a layup or a little floater, an extended hang-time fade-away jumper, and a turnaround jumper from the left low post. And perhaps best of all, Hassell is capable of dishing to open teammates in the midst of all these maneuvers, as his career-high 10 assists against Phoenix last week attest.
Finally, on a team with no shortage of locker room drama, Hassell never poses trouble for anyone. When the Timberwolves refused to offer him a significant contract extension, and took their time matching Portland's offer sheet of six years for $27 million (less than Hudson, Jaric, Blount, or Davis is being paid), Hassell didn't pout. He didn't grouse last year when Wally Szczerbiak demanded to start in place of Hassell, despite the team's trip to the Western Conference finals the year before with Trenton in the lineup. Even with his expanded offensive role, if you ask him what his role is on this team, he'll simply say, "play defense." Ask him his place in the pecking order, he'll mention less significant veterans on the club ahead of himself. But the fact remains that when McCants and Ronnie Dupree have questions about defense, they go to Hassell. When Griffin wants to work through some of his feelings about getting bumped from the starting lineup, he talks to Trenton.
The other night, the Wolves blew another game in the fourth quarter in typical fashion when the Hornets' backcourt went off on a series of pick and rolls that Minnesota didn't defend properly. Hassell, absurdly, rode the bench the entire period. He acknowledges that he saw what was happening on the pick-and-rolls, and grudgingly confesses that he knows what adjustment he would have made, or dictated to his teammates on the fly. But when it is suggested that he should have been playing, he replies, "Those guys are the ones who got us back into the game with a rally. They deserved to be in there."
So did you, Trenton. So do you. As much as possible.
Want more Hang Time? Britt Robson breaks down most individual Timberwolves games in his "Three-Pointers" on the City Pages's Balls! sports blog.
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