This Is It
At long last, the Minnesota Timberwolves will embark upon a season in which there is no honor in a first-round playoff defeat. Every year since the fall of 1996, the franchise's Sisyphean superstar Kevin Garnett and a rotating cast of characters have waged a plucky uphill battle to get into the post-season, only to wind up steamrolled by an obviously better team. At first, in the wake of the Wolves' early history of ineptitude, these playoff cameos were a tonic for the team's long-suffering fans, beguiled by the promise of future glory.
Then, slowly but steadily, the Fates conspired to crush this tentative enthusiasm. Unnerved by the size of Garnett's exorbitant contract, the NBA implemented a salary cap that hamstrung the Wolves more than any other team. The rest of the litany is familiar enough to be shorthanded: Googs, Marbury, and Billups defected; Sealy was killed in a car accident; draft picks were rescinded by the league after Smith was signed illegally; Avery was a bust; Woods turned out to be a head case; and Brandon hobbled into early retirement.
Through it all, due to the ever-improving virtuosity of KG and the ingenuity of coach Flip Saunders, the Wolves persevered, beating the odds just enough to solidify their status as the most reliable playoff patsy in NBA history. And die-hard fans who were charmed by the team's tenacity from October through March not only felt like saps in April, but, in light of the Wolves' relatively modest talent, had nobody but themselves to blame for caring in the first place. Sooner or later, this dysfunctional dynamic had to change. This year, finally, it has.
Barring an injury to Garnett, if the 2003-04 Timberwolves once again perform as dogged warriors, they will win at least one playoff series, and maybe more. A marked upgrade in the team's talent gives fans cause to renew their faith without the attendant feelings of masochism--and cause to guiltlessly vent their displeasure if the Wolves don't deliver. An eighth straight first-round exit from the playoffs, or worse, would irrevocably mark this season as a colossal, expensive failure.
At considerable cost to Wolves owner Glen Taylor, last year's roster has been razed. The team retained three of its top four players--Garnett, Wally Szczerbiak, and Troy Hudson--and, save Gary Trent, rid themselves of the other eight. Taylor, an elfin wedding invitation magnate from Mankato, has again proven himself kin to such flamboyant moneybags as George Steinbrenner and Jerry Jones when it comes to opening his wallet to bolster his franchise. As if signing KG to the richest contract in team sports and circumventing league rules with a clandestine sweetheart deal for Joe Smith wasn't enough to establish his riverboat gambler nerve during years prior, Taylor threw fistfuls of c-notes in more than a half-dozen directions during the off-season to build a formidable playoff contender.
The renovation began in late June, when the Wolves fleeced the Milwaukee Bucks by trading them Joe Smith and Anthony Peeler for Sam Cassell and Ervin Johnson. Unloading Smith banished bad karma from the team in more ways than one. His illegal contract served to mortgage the Wolves' future when the NBA punished the franchise by taking away three of its first-round draft picks. And when Minnesota signed him for a second time (legally this time, after Smith spent a year's hiatus playing for Detroit), Average Joe played in a manner that personified the Wolves' dysfunction--he was gritty but injury-prone, with just enough talent to tease and dishearten. Cassell, on the other hand, is a fearless and savvy veteran point guard, with two NBA rings to his credit.
So why did the Bucks agree to the deal? Because they are in rebuilding mode and were anxious to avoid the league's luxury tax, which compels franchises to pay a dollar fee for every dollar their player payroll exceeds a certain amount (last year it was $53 million, about 20 percent over the salary cap). To get Cassell, Taylor had to take on the overpriced salary of the aging Johnson--totaling $9.3 million over the next two years--while the Bucks could dump Peeler, whose contract was expiring, as soon as they acquired him. (The contracts of Smith and Cassell are almost an even match.)
As beneficial as the Cassell swap was to the Wolves, the most significant upgrade in the club's talent occurred during a four-team trade in late July, when Minnesota sent permanently injured guard Terrell Brandon to Atlanta and backup center Marc Jackson to Philadelphia in exchange for four-time all-star guard Latrell Sprewell. Once again, the catalyst for this lopsided deal was Taylor's willingness to spend money and exploit the cost-consciousness of another franchise. Next February, Brandon will have reached the two years of inactivity required to officially retire him and his $11 million salary from the payroll. Rather than pocket the savings on that chit, Taylor gave it to the Atlanta Hawks, who at the time were desperately trying to reduce their debt load in order to entice prospective new owners.
By the time the dust settled on the convoluted transaction, the Wolves had given up a guy who never got out of street clothes and a bit player who finished ninth on the team in minutes played last year for a veteran dynamo who may well be the best perimeter defender (not counting the few times KG has played out there) in franchise history. If you add up the lost savings on Brandon, the cost of Sprewell's contract (minus the departed Jackson's wages), and the amount the trade pushed the Wolves over the luxury tax threshold, Taylor absorbed a $30 million hit to make it happen.
Last year, the Wolves won 51 games and finished with the fifth best record in the NBA with a starting backcourt of Troy Hudson at the point and either Peeler or Kendall Gill at the off-guard. This year, they will take the court with Cassell at the point, Sprewell at off-guard, and Hudson, an easily tired streak shooter who was born to be a sixth man, coming off the bench. Although personnel director Kevin McHale also engineered a series of free agent signings that provide the club with better depth and versatility, the feisty tandem in the backcourt best symbolizes the new paradigm under which the Wolves are operating. For years, McHale preached the gospel of continuity, of rearing young players together so their familiarity fosters a more synergistic, organic team sensibility. That philosophy has been tossed away. Cassell and Sprewell are both 33 years old. Sprewell's contract expires at the end of next season, and Cassell's the year after that. The Wolves' current payroll tops $70 million, the fourth highest in the NBA. The future is now.
Before the refashioned Timberwolves can pop any champagne corks, they must prove that McHale wasn't right in the first place. How long will it take, if it happens at all, before this team gels into something greater than the sum of its talented parts?
"November is going to be a very interesting month," says Wolves assistant coach Jerry Sichting. "I remember the year Bill Walton and I joined the Celtics. It took us until January before we really knew our roles and the coaches knew when and how to play us--and that was just the two of us. We have three new probable starters and eight new faces in all. This isn't something where you roll the ball out on the floor and we are automatically better. Guys have to accept new roles and challenges from the coaches. On paper we have a lot of talent, but you stay around the NBA long enough and you see talented teams put together that don't work. We have high expectations, and we'll make it work, but it just doesn't happen automatically."
The most prominent potential melodrama is the relationship between Saunders and Cassell. A former point guard himself, Saunders has traditionally exerted a heavy hand in coaching that position, for good reason. It is the point guard who initiates the various sets in Saunders's notoriously fat playbook, and coordinates the crisp, smooth passing game that has placed the Wolves at or near the top of the league in assists, shooting percentage, and paucity of turnovers since Saunders took over. Throughout his tenure, Saunders has worked with point guards who were willing to be molded, be it Stephon Marbury fresh out of college, converted shooting guards like Chauncey Billups and Troy Hudson, or the eminently coachable Brandon.
Cassell's game is entirely different. During his 10-year career, he has earned a reputation for dominating the ball, often utilizing his superb post-up skills by backing his man down near the basket, or dribbling out on the perimeter while surveying the court. For four years in a row, his assist total has dropped while his three-point shooting percentage has risen. Fueled by an arrogance that makes him fearless and especially adept in clutch situations, he is widely known for speaking his mind nonstop, mixing trash talk, lawyerly eloquence, and mischievous wit into a motormouth cocktail that charms and aggravates simultaneously, which may be one reason the Wolves are his sixth NBA team. Also, he doesn't like to practice.
Because they are such a portentous pairing, the best news to emerge from the Wolves' first two weeks of practice is that Saunders and Cassell have at least temporarily formed a mutual admiration society. The relationship could easily have become rocky after Saunders proclaimed that Cassell would have to earn the starting point guard position in competition with Hudson. The remark made sense only as a gesture of support for Hudson, who labored to learn the nuances of the point, had a fabulous playoff series against the Lakers last year, and can opt out of his contract at the end of the season. But Cassell, who bristled last year when Milwaukee asked him to slide over to shooting guard to accommodate their acquisition of superstar point guard Gary Payton, refused to take the bait. "If I were Flip, I would have said the same thing--nobody's position is guaranteed but Kevin's." Then, with an impish smile, he added, "But I don't think they brought me over here to come off the bench."
Indeed, Cassell has already ratified Marbury's unforgettable remark--"point guards are born, not made...point guards are sent from God"--by choreographing the Wolves' offense via a virtuoso display of instinct, timing, vision, and judgment that is beyond Hudson's grasp. "He might be more intelligent than any point guard I've worked with, in terms of his understanding of the game and his ability to run plays," Saunders says. "Because of that, it's been very easy to communicate in basketball terms what I want to accomplish."
For the first time in his career, Cassell participated in every one of his team's two-a-day preseason practices. "But there'll be some days when my body isn't able to take practice," he warns. Replies Saunders, "I understand that, at 33, Sam is going to need some rest [from practice] from time to time. I did the same thing with Terry Porter and Sam Mitchell."
As for who calls the shots on offense--which will be drawn from the same playbook as in previous years--indications are that Saunders will give his players greater latitude. "With more talent, it's easier to let the players play to their strengths," he says, noting that the team's increased depth and versatility will make it easier to identify and exploit matchups. "The coaches' job is to give them enough guidance in practice so that hopefully the veterans understand what we want to do during the course of the game."
"This is now a veteran team," echoes Cassell. "Spree comes in with baggage, I come in with baggage, Kevin and Wally have their baggage. Flip doesn't want to be calling the plays; he wants us to be able to figure it out on our own."
If by "baggage" Cassell means a need to handle the ball, he's absolutely right. Meaningful touches of the rock will be a precious commodity in the Wolves' offense, which suddenly has a surfeit of assertive playmakers. The superstar Garnett is the de facto go-to guy and way station for ball movement, but Sprewell and Cassell were both the primary ball-handlers on their respective teams last year. Wally Szczerbiak, whose defining attribute is deadly accurate shooting, was accused by his teammates of being a ball hog during his all-star season two years ago. And the streaky Hudson freely admits that if he hits two or three shots he's going to jack up two or three more to see if he's on a roll.
The party line among players and coaches is that, aside from Garnett's primacy, the ball will gravitate to the player with the most advantageous matchup and/or the hot hand. In other words, a player who goes off for 30 points one night shouldn't pout if his teammates don't force-feed him the ball the next few games. "Everyone wants to talk about our chemistry," Saunders says impatiently. "I define chemistry with one word: sacrifice. Sacrifice for the good of the team."
Sacrifice isn't always easy to come by in today's ego-glorifying sports-entertainment industry. Yet there are plenty of reasons to think that the Wolves will pass this portion of the chemistry test. In a league where it's axiomatic that a franchise takes on the personality of its best player, KG is arguably the NBA's most selfless superstar and hands-down the best passing seven-footer playing today. Sprewell and Cassell are at points in their careers where winning takes precedence over money and adulation. Saunders's offensive schemes provide a ready-made template for effective ball movement. And for all their scoring capability, the new Wolves are the only franchise to boast four players--in order: KG, Cassell, Hudson, and Sprewell--among the league's top 32 leaders in assists.
The Wolves also have a new crop of centers whose effectiveness doesn't depend on their offensive contribution. That can't be said about last year's incumbent, Rasho Nesterovic, who had soft, sure hands and a jump shot to match, which made him an ideal beneficiary of KG's interior passes and Minnesota's second most consistent scorer. The lone player among the eight departures that the Wolves were sorry to lose, Nesterovic exercised his free agent rights and signed with San Antonio in July, in between the trades for Cassell and Sprewell. For a brief moment, the team seemed to be in a real bind--you don't advance in the playoffs with Ervin Johnson and Marc Jackson as your centers. But the next day, McHale and Taylor boarded a plane to Los Angeles and personally convinced free agent Michael Olowokandi to sign a three-year contract for less money than they would have paid Rasho.
How the Kandi Man will perform this season is anybody's guess. Estimates of his potential have been overinflated ever since the clueless Clippers selected him with the top pick in the 1998 NBA draft. Yet he does possess the key ingredients--a large, nimble body and comfort with combat--required to credibly joust with the behemoth centers in the Western Conference. By blaming his retarded development on the dysfunctional atmosphere that pervaded his five years with the Clippers franchise, he unintentionally damns his capacity for self-motivation. For a seven-footer who operates down near the basket, his shooting accuracy is horrendous--he's never converted even 44 percent of his field goals or made two-thirds of his free throws in a single season.
But as luck would have it, Olowokandi is probably a better fit on the revamped Wolves' roster than Rasho would have been. Even if his offensive skills continue to stagnate, he will benefit from playing alongside Garnett, who often draws the opposing center to double-team him and then shovels a pass to the open big man. Kandi's tendencies on offense will also create better spacing for the Wolves down near the hoop. While Rasho is rightfully regarded as the more polished scorer, he often generated points by driving across the paint or down the lane, or by tossing in short jumpers in the area between the charging circle and the free-throw line. But that's also the preferred terrain for KG's inside game. By contrast, Olowokandi likes to initiate his offense with his back to the basket deep in the low post, which will provide Garnett more room to operate. But Kandi's greatest contribution to the offense might come at the other end of the court, where his assertive rebounding and shot-blocking will catalyze the Wolves' fast break and generate points in transition.
For the past few years now, Kevin McHale's grumpy old man routine has been in full flower during the Wolves' annual meet-and-greet with the media a day before the opening of preseason practices. In the course of his pro forma lament about how watered down the NBA's talent pool has become since the halcyon days when he played, McHale has routinely identified an aspect of the Wolves' performance during the previous season that made him "want to puke" as he watched from his seat a few rows up from center court. A year ago it was lackluster ball movement. This year it was the club's lack of defensive effort and intensity.
"The idea that somebody can't play defense is the biggest crock of crap I have ever heard in my life. I will not accept it from anybody. Defense is all about commitment and desire and discipline and that's what we've got to have," he began. "Guys lived in the paint against us last year. They had too much penetration and it collapsed our defense. The key is keeping the guy in front of you and containing the perimeter. Inside of 12 feet [from the basket], a team's shooting percentage is very high; outside of that, it is not. The only two ways to get the ball in the paint are to pound it in off the pass or dribble it in. We were pretty good about denying the pass, but we were very poor off the dribble. When people go to the basket, our big guys either have to block the shot or knock them down. It can't be a freeway or a lay-up fest. Sometimes last year I thought that we were the little flag girls on the side of the road.
"How committed are you to this?" McHale asked, as if the assembled throng were Wolves players rather than reporters and photographers. "When you don't do it, you need to sit on the bench."
One could quibble with the particulars of McHale's rant--last year the Wolves actually improved their defensive performance over the previous season and ranked in the top third of the league in limiting the field goal percentages of their opponents--but not with its essence. In basketball, as in nearly every other team sport, offense garners the headlines while defense earns the rings. Last year, the San Antonio Spurs became NBA champions despite shooting just 39 percent in the final playoff series, relying instead on a yeoman team defense that featured extraordinarily cohesive (and largely unheralded) role players such as Malik Rose and Bruce Bowen. Even if they find a way to maximize their offensive firepower, the Wolves can't seriously contend for a league crown without coalescing into an elite defense. Given the level of grit, guile, and athleticism among the team's new roster, the odds of that happening are long, but hardly impossible.
Begin with Garnett--the league's most versatile shutdown defender, a disruptive praying mantis in Saunders's matchup zone schemes, and an inspirational leader who makes his teammates better at both ends of the court. KG can't do everything, however, and since the death of Malik Sealy, the Wolves have lacked the ability to defend opponents who possess more than one offensive weapon. That's where the acquisition of Sprewell comes in. For more than a decade, Spree has drawn the assignment of dogging his opponents' most productive small forward or shooting guard. Among the NBA's starting perimeter defenders, only Gary Payton and Scottie Pippen have logged more playing time. Although he freely admits, "I'm not nearly as quick as I was when I was 25," his veteran savvy, wiry physique (he looks and plays an inch or two taller than his listed height of 6'5"), and contagious intensity have forestalled a precipitous decline in his defensive prowess. Any concessions to his age have been made at the other end of the court, where he is increasingly apt to launch three-pointers in lieu of slashing drives to the hoop.
Spree's joyous passion for the game has enabled him to engender respect around the league despite the nasty skeleton in his closet--six years ago, he was suspended for seven months for punching and choking P.J. Carlisimo, his coach at Golden State. Before the intersquad game that culminated the Wolves' preseason camp in Collegeville, he came up behind assistant coach Don Zierden and spun him around with a playful bear hug. Both men wore broad smiles and nobody in the building batted in eye. Like Cassell, Sprewell is not above exercising a veteran's caprice--he was a no-show at the team's media day and has taken his sweet time recovering from a preseason injury to his achilles. But when the games start to count, he won't require badgering from McHale in order to deter penetration out on the perimeter.
Supplanting Nesterovic with Olowo-kandi at center should add more assertiveness to Minnesota's interior D. Rasho mastered the intricacies of Saunders's zone matchups and rotations better than anyone besides KG, yet, betrayed by his gentle nature, he too often shunned the follow-through necessary to transform deterrence into intimidation. During his four-plus years with the Wolves, he probably endured 10 facials for every flagrant foul he meted out. That won't happen to the Kandi Man, who takes pride in shot blocking and has impressed his coaches with vertical quickness. At the same time, it's unlikely that Olowokandi can match Rasho's knowledge and disciplined fidelity to the team's defensive rotations, especially now that minor knee surgery will deprive him of playing time for most or all of the preseason.
Olowokandi's absence on the court has created more minutes for Mark Madsen, who appears primed to become the most pleasant surprise (and, at a salary of little more than a million dollars per year, the best bargain) of the Wolves' 2003-04 season. It's a safe bet that Madsen possesses the most exotic thumbnail history in the NBA--he's a former Mormon missionary with an economics degree from Stanford who started 22 games for the Lakers last year and has been nicknamed "Mad Dog" since the fifth grade. More to the point, the 6'9" center/power forward has a blue-collar sensibility, plays with nonstop energy perhaps best described as physical muckraking, and wouldn't care if he only touched the ball during steals and rebounds.
When the Lakers were in the process of drafting Madsen, the team's personnel director Jerry West made a real impact by telling the center that playing hard is a skill just like shooting and rebounding. "It made me realize that playing hard is the one thing I can control," Madsen says.
"He is going to be very important to our team," Sichting predicts. "I'm not necessarily comparing him to Dennis Rodman, but once in a while you'll have a guy like Rodman or Charles Outlaw, who can come in and change the tempo of a game just like you've seen quick, smaller point guards do. He's got a motor that goes all the time and there's nothing phony about him--the fans are going to love him. He's going to make us a better practice team and he's got more skills than I thought he had."
Madsen isn't the only bit player who has turned coaches' heads during the preseason. In late July, the Wolves were able to sign eight-year veteran shooting guard/small forward Fred Hoiberg to a minimum contract. The 6'5" Hoiberg has served in roles ranging from captaincy of the Chicago Bulls to last guy off the bench. He bears some similarity to Anthony Peeler (one of Saunders's favorite players) in that, while he is known primarily as a shooter, his 41-percent career field goal accuracy may be the weakest aspect of his otherwise solid, all-around game.
"Fred Hoiberg has been one of the surprises of our camp," Saunders said in mid-October. "He is an exceptional defender and does a lot of different things well. I'd say right now he is going to push for a lot of playing time. It's important for Wally and the rest of the guys to know that I'm going to go with the five guys who play best together, and let the competition bring out the best and worst in individuals."
Having the coach call him out by name as a potential loser of playing time suggests that Wally Szczerbiak is losing prestige in the ball club. That's not a scenario anyone would have envisioned less than a year ago when Szczerbiak signed a six-year, $60-million contract extension that marked him as a cornerstone of the future, and the franchise's marquee attraction if the Wolves failed to re-sign KG to a new deal. Since then, Wally has figuratively and literally lost his footing. Garnett has inked a pact that he claims will keep him in Minnesota for the rest of his career, and Cassell and Sprewell have been acquired. The seemingly minor dislocated-toe injury Szczerbiak suffered in last year's first preseason game was slow to heal, and sidelined him for more than two months. Then there was his awful performance in last year's playoff series loss to the Lakers, who gave him no room to maneuver, overplayed his right side, and exposed his penchant for turnovers and his inability to create his own shot.
"Yeah, [the Lakers] kicked Wally's ass last year," McHale said on the day before training camp three weeks ago. "He got his butt whupped. They pushed up into him, made him go left, bodied him. But I think Wally understands that, and he is going to get better." But within days, the dislocated little toe had apparently altered the way Szczerbiak put pressure on his left foot, leading to plantar fasciitis, a painfully chronic inflammation of the arch that has again forced him out of action.
The optimistic scenario is that the inflammation will soon vanish and not recur, and that KG, Spree, and Cassell will occupy opposing defenders enough to free Wally up for what is still one of the league's most accurate jump shots. The reality is that a fairly one-dimensional scorer, no matter how deadly his jumper, is not as beneficial to the revamped Wolves as staunch defenders who can shut down penetration on the perimeter, intimidate interior shooters, and enable the offense without handling the ball.
The enthusiasm over Madsen and Hoiberg may be preseason infatuations that lose luster when the games start to count. But ever since the Wolves acquired Cassell, Saunders has been enamored with the prospect of pairing him and Hudson in the backcourt, compensating for their lack of size on defense by deploying his matchup zone. Unless he's planning to bench Spree or KG, or go with a very, very small lineup, that means Wally will sit.
It's difficult to imagine that the Wolves will marginalize a 26-year-old player just embarking on a six-year contract that makes him the third-highest paid performer on the team. But Szczerbiak's injury-related absence from the lineup hasn't prevented Saunders from gushing about his team, in terms that don't reflect Wally's strengths.
"Of all the teams I've had, this one has the most basketball intelligence," Saunders says. "I am more excited about intangibles than talent. We're sharing the basketball. We already run our zone better than before. We're versatile--we can go with so many different looks. And that basketball intelligence is what takes you over the top. At this point I'd have to say that I think we'll be among those elite teams."
Nearly all of those are in the brutally competitive Western Conference. Yet nobody is impregnable. The Lakers have the distraction of Kobe's court case; the Kings are without Webber until December; the Spurs have to adjust to new personnel; the Mavericks still can't play defense; and the Suns need another year to gel. To break out of their rut and register their first-ever playoff series victory, the Wolves will almost certainly have to beat one of these teams. And they will.
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