Twelve Uneasy Pieces

Welcome to hell, kid: McHale welcomes new draftees Randy Foye (left) and Craig Smith

Welcome to hell, kid: McHale welcomes new draftees Randy Foye (left) and Craig Smith

Could it have been only last summer that Minnesota Timberwolves fans were warming themselves to the prospect of better things dead ahead? There was talk of improved perimeter defense via the acquisition of Marko Jaric, the addition-by-subtraction of dumping the corrosive Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, and the return of a healthy Troy Hudson. Wally Szczerbiak would finally become the reliable second scoring option behind Kevin Garnett. Flashy rookie Rashad McCants waited in the wings. Eddie Griffin seemed ready to emerge, and—according to new coach Dwane Casey—Michael Olowokandi stood poised for a career season.

When the faithful get played for suckers that thoroughly, drastic remedies customarily ensue. Instead, as fans clamored for Kevin McHale's head after a disastrous 33-49 campaign, Wolves owner Glen Taylor allowed his chief personnel guy not only to announce his own return, but to recap the season by opining that the team simply needed a few "tweaks" to return to playoff contention. Nobody was fooled by this bullshit. If tweaks are indeed the Wolves' only response to the club's worst performance in a decade, it will be because McHale's bungling has foreclosed too many other options.

As it was, the team had to purposefully tank the final three weeks of the season in order to hang on to their first-round draft pick instead of adding insult to ineptitude by sending it to the Clippers as part of the Cassell for Jaric swap. (Under terms of the deal, the Clips will be given the pick the first time the Wolves are not one of the NBA's 10 worst teams, or in 2011—whichever comes first.)

So what did the short-term degradation of benching KG and allowing Mark Madsen to launch three-pointers ultimately win them in last week's draft? A combo point guard/shooting guard, Randy Foye of Villanova, who meshes well with the team's latest personality makeover.

Last year the watchword was "defense," at least until McHale's big January trade with the Celtics brought over three new starters who either couldn't or wouldn't guard anybody. Since then, Casey's new theme has been "up-tempo," a concept made more alluring by this year's NBA Finals between Miami and Dallas. Without discounting the presence of Shaq or the return of coach Pat Riley, it was plain that Miami leapfrogged to a championship on the strength of swingman Dwyane Wade's open-court heroics. There are enough collegiate similarities between Wade and Foye for the Wolves to hope that lightning strikes twice. Both are about 6'4" and can dish, penetrate, rebound, and stick the open jumper. Both are hard-nosed, "good character" guys who highlighted their college careers with spectacular performances in the NCAA Tournament at the Metrodome.

Of course no one can reasonably expect Foye to be another Wade, which is why, when Casey expounds on his "up-tempo" paradigm, he cites not Miami but Dallas as the model—a team with several players who are comfortable handling the ball, who seize fast-break opportunities but can also ratchet up the pace through swift, improvised ball movement and better spacing. It's a system that casts KG as the Dirk Nowitzki-type fulcrum of the offense, but with a smarter and more flexible supporting cast.

Foye blends well into this scheme, but arguably no better than Brandon Roy, the swingman from the University of Washington who is two inches taller than Foye and who Casey, if you read between the lines of his draft-night comments, preferred over Foye. The comparison is significant because the Wolves actually drafted Roy and then traded him to Portland for Foye—chosen one pick later, and the player favored by McHale all along—and "cash considerations."

Those who have screamed for McHale's hide will no doubt monitor the progress of Foye versus Roy throughout the season. But the bigger picture concern is that Minnesota has about as much chance of approximating Dallas's depth of talent as Randy Foye has of becoming the next Dwyane Wade—especially now that last year's top pick, Rashad McCants, has been waylaid for much or all of the upcoming season with a microfracture of his knee.

Foye is potentially a valuable piece of the puzzle, as you would expect of any player chosen with the sixth pick in the draft. But most of the other remaining pieces still don't match. When introducing second-round pick Craig Smith of Boston College, McHale made the obligatory remark about being pleasantly surprised that Smith was still available that late in the draft, but the 6'7" Smith is a 'tweener forward whose first meaningful NBA contribution will be an unexpected bonus. What's more, Foye and Smith make two of the four players acquired from the Celtics last season—guard Marcus Banks and 'tweener forward Justin Reed—redundant. Meanwhile, the point guard who best pushed the pace last year (Anthony Carter) and the team's best finisher on the fast break (Wally Szczerbiak) are both gone.

During McHale's infamous "tweaks" press conference at the close of last season, he stressed that the draft was just one avenue toward improvement; the club would go hard after free agents and explore trade talks. But there is precious little room for free agents under the salary cap, and the team's mediocre roster hamstrings receiving good value via the trade route.

It's time to shoot the moon. In order to capitalize on KG's remaining years as a premier NBA talent—and that clock is certainly ticking down—the Wolves will have to take risks and get lucky. That means rolling the dice on an enormously talented, recently dinged problem child like Portland's Darius Miles, who'd fit perfectly into Casey's up-tempo scheme and is rumored to be available for Jaric and one other player. Miles, like McCants, has demonstrated a streak of selfishness and immaturity to go with a beguiling set of skills. But the incompetence of the Wolves' front office has pushed them past the luxury of automatically passing on such risky characters. This year the fans (and at least one hoops columnist) won't be gulled into assuming anything more.