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Will the Wolves Howl Again?
Minnesota, Disappointment is a powerful emotion. The feelings that follow not accomplishing one’s goals and being left to cope with the realization that failure is your bedfellow can crush the souls and wills of weak men. The 2005 version of the Minnesota Timberwolves are those men. Only time will tell if their souls and wills can again rise to the heights at which they once proudly soared. As the reality of a season ending without a playoff berth sets in for the players who toiled (at least a few toiled, but that’s an entirely different article) under the watch of GM/Head Coach Kevin McHale, a sense of relief should settle on their heads. Relief that a disaster of a season is winding to a close and relief that next year brings new hope for success and a fresh start to a season that can bring a coveted championship. If there is any hope for the Timberwolves to regain their rightful place among the leagues elite, some drastic changes must be instigated this summer. To arrive at any solution a problem must be correctly diagnosed. Here are some of the obstacles the Timberwolves face.
Head Coach In the NBA, the position of head coach is a mercurial one. It seems that unless the coach is a flamboyant personality or a consistent loser his impact is overlooked. The organization felt it necessary to part ways with previous coach Flip Saunders because his reigns over the team had loosened to the point that his direction was minimal at best and nonexistent in reality. As the head coach that led the Timberwolves from the dregs of the league to the Western Conference Finals, albeit with seven consecutive first round playoff series losses in between, I felt that Saunders deserved to keep his job. Injuries, age, and general team dysfunction left him with a team that was only a shell of the squad that he led the previous year. Any coach that comes in to lead the Timberwolves will struggle with the same problems Flip did, in addition to a team in desperate need of a psychological boost. This season will still weigh on the minds of the returning players next year. The process of going from penthouse to outhouse will certainly cause the players to question themselves and whether or not their magical ride to the WCF (Western Conference Finals) was a fluke. A good coach is able to inject pride, confidence, and a willingness to accept roles into his team. This team of malcontents will definitely exhaust the chosen candidate’s resources and his ability to carry our those tasks. That being said, I believe a good choice for head coach would be Maurice Cheeks. He showed the ability to deal with dysfunction in Portland and would breathe a blast of fresh air into the organization. As a former player, Cheeks would command respect and bring knowledge of the championship journey to Minneapolis. In Cheeks’ playing days he was quite the point guard and that position is where the second red flag for the Timberwolves lies.
Point Guard Starting PG Sam Cassell proved last season that your first All Star Game selection could also coincide with your last season as an effective floor general. If you study the NBA, the good teams have a point guard who embodies the soul and identity of the team. Whether it be a razzle-dazzle, flashy style that comes with little defense (the Phoenix Suns and Steve Nash), a high scoring, aggressive, in your face style (the Washington Wizards and Gilbert Arenas) or a hard nosed, strong willed, underrated style (the Chicago Bulls and Kirk Hinrich) the point guard sets the tone. If that is the case then the Minnesota Timberwolves look to have the soul and identity of either (a) an oft injured, past his prime, shoot first PG in Sam Cassell or (b) a fragile, career backup, shoot first PG in Troy Hudson. With those two as options the T-Wolves are in a lose-lose situation. Their only choice is to look for a solid point guard in the draft and banish one of the two current options to the bench. Better players than either Cassell and Hudson have been relegated to the bench because another player fit the teams needs more than they did. That idea of drafting a point guard is not, in and of itself, outrageous but this assertion may be: after you draft a point guard next year start him. Out of the gate, start him and let either Cassell or Hudson be the primary backup. While it is true that point guard is a difficult position to learn in the NBA (second hardest after center), it is not impossible for a team to do well with a rookie point guard playing significant minutes. Magic Johnson won a championship his rookie year, and more recently, TJ Ford ran a very effective Milwaukee Bucks team until he went down with a season ending injury a year ago. If I may once again insert my opinion, I believe a potential answer to the Wolves void at PG can be filled by Arizona Wildcats Senior Salim Stoudamire. He is an accomplished collegiate player, a big time performer (as this years tournament showed), and shows the kind of fearlessness that Kevin Garnett craves in his point man. Garnett in tandem with an aggressive, smart, point guard has produced dividends before. (Reference: Garnett/Marbury, Garnett/Brandon, Garnett/Cassell) I believe Stoudamire could fill that role next year.
Defense In Basketball, good defense is simply causing the opposing team to miss field goal attempts and rebounding those misses to end offensive possessions. For that progression to take place you need three integral ingredients. Athletes who understand the fundamentals of man to man defense (i.e. balance, active hands, man-you-ball positioning, defensive rotations etc.), those same athletes to consistently challenge shooters without fouling, and a team commitment to rebounding led by at least one (preferably two) good rebounder. This is where Minnesota needs the most work. The point guard trio of Sam Cassell, Troy Hudson, and Anthony Carter features one good defender (Carter) and he is only effective in uptempo, fast break style games because of his halfcourt offensive liabilities. Cassell or Hudson can burn an opposing point guard for 25-30 points on any given night but they will give up 30 against any of the leagues elite point guards. Steve Nash, Gilbert Arenas and Mike Bibby all had their hand at torching the Timberwolves porous defense during the course of the year. Hell, even Jason Terry, Chucky Atkins, Tyronn Lue, and Rafer Alston played leading roles in handing the Timberwolves losses this season. The starting wing combination of Latrell Spreewell, Wally Szczerbiak, and Trenton Hassell only include one player with a real commitment to defense (Hassell) and the other two play defense sporadically at best and those games usually coincide with good offensive outings. Most of the NBA’s premier scorers are either shooting guards or small forwards (Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Allen Iverson) so good defensive players on the wings are a necessity. Ndubi Ebi has the build and natural athleticism to fill in here, at least defensively, but his progress has been frustratingly slow. Next year he will have to step in and produce. Minnesota’s post defense is adequate, but only because of the unreal defensive talent of Kevin Garnett. When playing along side Garnett, Mark Madsen, Eddie Griffin, and at times Michael Olowakandi (notice the use of the words at times) are very effective defenders in the paint. The Timberwolves defensive problems can also be easily remedied. First, a blast of youth and athleticism needs to be injected into the Wolves lineup. The contributions of Sam Cassell, Latrell Spreewell, and Ervin Johnson are far outweighed by their deficiencies athletically and in turn on the defensive end. John Thomas and Anthony Carter are also expendable provided the player coming in provides the same qualities they possess and some of the ones they lack. (Mainly size and offense) The NBDL and the upcoming NBA Draft will provide plenty of potential prospects to fill the holes in Minnesota’s roster. It will be imperative to load the roster with young, aggressive, defensive minded players in the off-season. Between Garnett, Szczerbiak, Hudson, Hassell, and Fred Hoiberg off the bench there is plenty enough offensive potential for this basketball team. The youthful vigor to pressure defensively and score off of the resulting turnovers and missed shots will be imperative to the Timberwolves success next year. Some options could be Darius Rice or Byron Mouton of the NBDL or else Jawad Williams, Kelenna Azubuike, Allan Anderson, or Joey Graham could help immediately on the wings next year as rookies.
For those of us who have ever been knocked down, we know that the hardest part of the whole ordeal is locating the resolve and strength of mind to get back up. Aside from all of my pseudo-GM ideas and plans for next year, the most important thing the 2005-2006 version of the Minnesota Timberwolves will have to do is find it within themselves to shake off the disappointment of this year and rise to the challenge next year will present. They will have to find it in themselves to get back up.