With Friends Like KG

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves are all better now. It was that dastardly, now discarded, Flip Saunders who compelled his players to lay down like dogs at least a half-dozen times in their first 51 games.

That's the absurd, delusional vibe you got if you watched the on- and off-court performance of Wolves players since Kevin McHale replaced Saunders 10 days ago. There is no question that Flip bears some responsibility for Minnesota's pratfall from championship contender to sub-.500 ballclub at the time he was canned on February 12. But there has been a lot of talk--some wise, much of it bullshit--since then that bears sorting out before the psychologically rejuvenated Wolves embark on the post-All Star Game portion of their season.

When McHale and Wolves owner Glen Taylor dumped Saunders, the message given to fans and the media was that the players needed, and would get, a kick in the ass. McHale said he was frequently embarrassed by the team's effort thus far, and Taylor noted that McHale would get in their faces more than Saunders had.

Yet 10 days later, 99 percent of the player feedback about McHale's style has emphasized how much easier and more enjoyable he has made the game for them. In particular, the players have been pleased by McHale's decision to dramatically simplify Saunders' complex offense and allow them to freelance more frequently. They like that he listens to them and uses their input, and that he offers constant praise and encouragement that has raised their confidence. Indeed, for all the ass-kicking he threatened, and for all the caustic commentary about players he delivered when Flip was coach, McHale has gotten in the players' faces most often when he is leaning over patting them on the head. So far, after three games, it seems to be working. But imagine the fan reaction if McHale and Taylor had presented a more accurate description of McHale's coaching style 10 days ago.

In last week's column, I intimated that Kevin Garnett probably endorsed, or at least signed off on Flip's firing. That conclusion was reached by inference, not through access to inside information. The NBA is a player's league. KG, the reigning MVP, is without question the face of the franchise, the most important presence both now and in the near future. With Latrell Sprewell (certainly) and Sam Cassell (probably) playing their final season in Minnesota, the Wolves will likely again have to rebuild on the fly around Garnett next year. To fire Flip--who had coached Garnett for all but 20 games of his professional career--without KG's knowledge or consent would be foolhardy. If Garnett had been steadfast in his loyalty to Saunders, firing the coach would have been at least divisive and highly distracting, and could easily have led to KG demanding to be traded.

Ten days later, does anyone doubt that KG wanted Flip out of the way? More significantly, is anyone else disappointed by the passive-aggressive manner in which he has handled the situation? I've fawned all over KG-the man and the ballplayer-his entire career, and appropriately so. But it certainly feels like his previously unimpeachable character has taken a hit in the past month or two.

How many times have we heard Garnett preach on the virtue of loyalty? How many times have we heard him, and seen him, step up and take responsibility for his team's poor performance? So what are we to make of the comments he made after the New Jersey game, when he directly compared McHale to Saunders (and his first NBA coach, Bill Blair)? This is my third coach, he said of McHale. Compared to the previous two, he is probably the most fulfilling. He's like a breath of fresh air.

Let's put this in perspective. When Saunders took over for Blair back in 1995, Garnett was a rookie riding the bench. Flip almost immediately put him in the starting lineup. Over the next nine-plus years, covering approximately 800 games including the playoffs, Saunders constantly defended KG from all critics and left little doubt that Garnett was the number one person in his pecking order. Others were jealous of KG's exalted status: first Christian Laettner, then Stephon Marbury, and, if ESPN's Marc Stein can be believed, most recently Sprewell and Cassell. Yet Flip never wavered in his trust and reliance on KG. Last year, with Saunders running the ballclub, Garnett became the league's MVP and the Wolves went to the Western Conference Finals.

And yet, after a 12-point victory at home against a woeful, 22-29 New Jersey team, bringing the Wolves' mid-February record to 26-27, KG is gushing about fulfillment and favorably comparing McHale's impact as a coach, after two games, with that of Saunders.

Nor was that the only time. During the festivities around the All Star Game, Garnett again favorably compared McHale to Saunders in front of national media, pointedly noting that McHale had the advantage of playing in the league and Flip didn't. Ironically, KG also had kind words for McHale's strategy of spreading the offense around, pounding the ball into the paint, and resting him more frequently. It doesn't feel as much like it is all on me at times, he said. But wasn't Saunders the coach when KG was taking heat for spreading the ball around too much in the post-season? And wasn't that KG openly defying Saunders on a regular basis when Flip would signal that it was time for Garnett to take a break on the bench?

Last but not certainly not least, KG was the unquestioned leader of a group of players that publicly quit on their coach. During the last few weeks of Flip's tenure, Garnett's overall play reflected one of the least effective and dynamic stretches of his career. I'm not saying Garnett himself quit; I'm sure his knee was bothering him and that he was thoroughly discouraged by the doldrums around him. But this is a player's league. Kevin Garnett is the reigning MVP. It is unseemly for him to blame his team's putrid first half on a coach who stood by him for nearly a decade.

Garnett was not the only Wolves player kicking a little dirt on Saunders. In yesterday's Strib, Wally Szczerbiak repeated his childish criticism that Saunders and the other coaches criticized him more often than the other players. It bothers a player, believe me, Szczerbiak told Sid Hartman. Now there are no favorites out there.

More irony: One reason the Wolves started slow this year was that Saunders acceded to Wally's demand to be in the starting lineup, which necessitated the super-slow, 69-year old backcourt of Spree and Cassell. To his credit, Szczerbiak has raised the caliber of his defense this season (though not nearly as high as he seems to think) and is enjoying his best all-around season yet. But note that Wally never said that Flip and the coaches were wrongly pointing out his mistakes; just that they did it too often, and used a higher standard for him than for other players. Of course Wally also currently pulls down the team's third-highest paychecks, and with the inevitable departure of Spree next year, Szczerbiak's $10 million salary will rank behind only KG.

As long as I'm calling bullshit on everybody else, it's time for a personal confession. Not only did Saunders's firing catch me totally off-guard, I had no idea that relations between him and his players had grown so toxic. So yes, it's too early to draw any conclusions after three games. But there are a couple of things that McHale is doing more effectively than Saunders. First of all, he has established a set rotation and substitution pattern. On offense, he has made good on his desire to attack the basket, to isolate and then pound a mismatch until the opposing coach adjusts, and to allow more freelancing while running fewer set plays that must be initiated by KG or the point guard. And his team is rebounding better at both ends of the court.

Right now, the players and McHale are enjoying a little honeymoon. The true test of McHale's mettle will occur during a brutal stretch in mid-March, when his team's playoff prospects are most likely to be cinched or dashed. In any event, I still believe the club has put itself in such a hole that a first-round playoff series loss is the best-case scenario. And as much as the players might like to blame Flip Saunders for that, those who have watched this team from opening day know better.

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