Underachieving with Attitude
It was still the first week of the 2004-05 season and the Timberwolves had just escaped with a lackluster, 99-92 victory over a desultory New Orleans team that may still be winless as you read this. Having filled reporters' notebooks with his customarily colorful commentary, point guard Sam Cassell was dressing in front of his locker when I asked him if it was difficult to make an immediate transition from meaningless exhibition play to games that count in the standings. "I only try," Cassell said with a dismissive chuckle. "What you do in November don't matter. By March, nobody gives a damn what you did in November."
Cassell had better hope that's true, because he and his team are off to a distasteful start this season. In the Wolves' very next game, at home against Indiana, Sammy played horrendous perimeter defense and obviously ignored the advice and play-calling shouted out by coach Flip Saunders, who eventually benched him for most of the fourth quarter of what became a one-point loss for the Wolves. Afterward, Saunders minced few words, saying that his squad got "killed off penetration and the pick-and-roll" on defense. From the beginning, Indiana's offense "was going right at Sam," Saunders pointedly noted. "He's still trying to get his legs. He's not in good shape yet."
When the Wolves acquired Cassell in a trade with Milwaukee in the summer of 2003, no one knew how well the headstrong, opinionated point guard who doesn't like to practice would mesh with Saunders, who historically had demanded diligence and fidelity from those in control of running his complicated offensive sets. Somewhat surprisingly, it quickly became a fabulous relationship born of mutual respect and compromise, and turned into a crucial component in the Wolves' success last year. Cassell acceded to Saunders's request that he participate in every preseason practice for the first time in his 11-year career. For his part, Saunders was immediately impressed by Cassell's court savvy, and afforded him unprecedented freedom to operate the offense.
This preseason, Cassell reverted to past form, holding out the first day of camp to dramatize his desire for a contract extension, easing his way back into practice, and pretty much deciding for himself how many exhibition games he wanted to play. It should be emphasized that all this was done with the blessing of Saunders, who wanted Cassell to be fully recovered from his off-season hip surgery. During Cassell's convalescence, the coach frequently expressed confidence that his point guard was sufficiently familiar with both the system and his teammates this year.
Cassell's matador defense is likewise not particularly surprising nor controversial--at least not yet. Wolves fans will remember that at the beginning of last year, Sammy's inability to contain opposing point guards was a primary factor in Minnesota's woeful November home losses to Utah and Seattle. It was only in early December, after injuries compelled Saunders to insert Ervin Johnson and Trenton Hassell into the starting lineup, that the Wolves were truly able to compensate for Cassell's shortcomings on the defensive end of the court.
Cassell and his teammates arrogantly assume that last year's success will be repeated. If they're right, then it will certainly be true that, come March, no one will remember the disastrous game against Indiana, or the fact that Cassell's ejection in Denver (for throwing a ball at an opponent) probably enabled the Nuggets to hang another close loss on the Wolves this November.
But a repeat of last season's glorious stretch in December and January is a tall order. Saunders seems intent on starting the chronically inconsistent Michael Olowokandi in the pivot (and saving the aged Johnson for the postseason?), and when he's in the doldrums, the Kandi Man is as inept as Cassell at defending the pick-and-roll. Together, they tilt the Wolves' identity toward that of a team that has to win by outscoring their opponents as often as they do by stifling them. And speaking of scoring, while Cassell claims that last season's excellence was typical of his career, he never had a two-month stretch of prolific, crunch-time shooting to compare with his heroics last December and January. This year, he has to provide enough touches to satiate the egos not only of Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell, but Kandi and Wally Szczerbiak. Opponents will be geared up to stop the high pick-and-roll between him and KG. And he won't have Johnson setting picks and otherwise providing telepathic assistance with as much frequency.
Here's the bottom line: Last year, the Wolves were still regarded as gritty underdogs, hoping to parlay an exciting infusion of veteran talent into the first playoff series win in franchise history. This year, the bar is raised--and a number of boorish demands (Szczerbiak's need to be a starter, Cassell and Sprewell's contract disputes) have eroded any patience or goodwill fans might otherwise have felt as the team searches for the sort of groove required to meet its lofty goals. Not content with knowing owner Glen Taylor will pay him the maximum amount possible for the next three years, Cassell has shifted his lobbying effort from his own deal over to loudly supporting the idiotic statements Spree has made about his contract situation. (Criticizing Spree is a hanging piñata for any columnist eager to don the guise of Joe Lunchbucket, but for now I'll resist the temptation.)
Is it just coincidence that the Wolves' most effective individual performers thus far (KG, Hassell, and, when healthy, Fred Hoiberg) all make teamwork, especially on defense, their top priority? The pressure is on for Spree, Cassell, and Szczerbiak to walk their talk. Otherwise, the bluster of October and November could yield to the recriminations of March.
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