The Minnesota Timberwolves traded one of the ten best players in the NBA, along with the rest of their starting lineup. They retained a coach who went 12-30 in the second half of last season, and a general manager who has become the default scapegoat–and not without reason–for anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the club’s recent misfortunes. They unloaded salary at a startling pace, and piled up a team-and-a-half’s worth of callow personnel.
It was their best off-season in four years.
This doesn’t automatically mean that the Wolves are "turning it around," however. This could be a redux of the Atlanta Hawks or the LA Clippers of yore, teams that had a cupboard full of promising young talent that never managed to gel and synergize during their time with the ballclub, resulting in churning disappointments year after year that sapped the spirit of the fan base. All the Wolves have done thus far is swap out the fading marquee value of a singular talent and magnetic personality who had inexplicably worn out his welcome after a dozen seasons and replace it with youth and hope.
There has been a torrid trend toward revisionism, borne in part from comments by owner Glen Taylor and in part from comments and actions by superstar Kevin Garnett, that have already begun to besmirch KG’s legacy here in town, in terms of his value and character on and off the court. At some point this season I will finally organize a decent paean to the best player this franchise is likely ever to employ in my lifetime, but for now, suffice to say, losing Garnett is an enormous blow to the base quality of hoops that will be played in these parts over the next couple of years, minimum. It will be fun to don the rose-colored glasses and emblazon the tiny thrill of each inspired performance by the young’uns into an imagined tapestry of teamwork worthy of championship contention in the hopefully not too distant future. But let’s not let our excitement deceive us into imagining that the 2007-08 Wolves are better ballclub than last year’s version. Because they won’t be.
Okay, enough hall monitor lectures. It seems pretty silly to make grand pronouncements, or even assay any detailed analysis about this edition of the Wolves, given the paucity of information we have on how this ballclub will be operated. It is an unusual circumstance. Nobody knows how the substitution rotations will evolve, how often each side will win in the tug-of-war between long-term and short-term priorities, the impact of vague but ominous existing injuries, and the capabilities of the coach and front office to follow through on their announced blueprint.
For better and for worse, it is a very clean slate. Consequently, here is my necessarily uneducated take on the team, based as much on intuition as observation, and delivered in a scattershot series of bullet points.
* A frontcourt of Ratliff, Jefferson, and Gomes has the potential to be immediately above-average defensively. The backcourt is less certain in that realm. Coach Wittman raves about Telfair’s defensive quickness, and I guess we’ll see, beginning with Iverson tonight, if that’s stroking the confidence of a player thrown into the breach, or a sincere endorsement. A "stress reaction" in the knee would seem to be most injurious to the responsive twists and stop-starts a defender must execute, so Randy Foye is likewise a question mark. Marko Jaric simply can’t stay with the quickest top half (three-fifths? four-fifths?) of the point guards in this league. And while he is certainly adequate defending most point guards, don’t believe the hype about Greg Buckner being able to run an offense for any length of time in the regular season.
*At the other guard, I was surprised at how Corey Brewer looked to be physically a man among boys in the NCAA, and yet not bulky enough for muscular two-guard of the NBA, a suspicion partially borne out by his play in the preseason. Brewer has the desire and the fundamentals to be a quality defender. He just lacks the experience–on the court and in the weight room–to deliver on those virtues. Rashad McCants can be sneaky good on defense due to his long arms and pretty sound gambler’s mentality on how to guard people, but his commitment to consistency on D is still not a given; ditto his ability to rotate effectively. All that said, the Wolves have the potential to be a sound defensive team before the end of the calendar year.
* Offensively, it is going to be a long year. Wittman said early in training camp that he wants to run, but let’s get serious. Running in the NBA circa 2007 means Phoenix, Golden State, Denver, Dallas… It means having a big man who owns the boards and can snap off the outlet pass, and a plethora of smart, athletic middle men who can press the issue in transition and make the right assist pass, and a bevy of guys who love to run, who have good hands and are adept at finishing on the fly. The current Wolves roster has fewer of these components than Minnesota teams from the previous five or six seasons. Running with this ballclub will be a high reward, higher risk endeavor, providing some nice highlights and twice as many groans.
* Instead, the offense should–and will–revolve around Al Jefferson. Big Al was the team’s best go-to option even before he became the de facto future of the franchise with his current contract. It is the style of play long coveted and highly endorsed by personnel man Kevin McHale, and it will draw sufficient double-teams and other responses from opposing defenses to free up the likes of Gomes, McCants, Brewer, Foye, Craig Smith and even Ratliff to capitalize on weakside put-backs. Wittman has preached the Wolves will hit the offensive glass, and if it isn’t more cool-sounding lip service, it could be the best source of Minnsota’s offense behind Jefferson.
* Because who is the deadeye shooter in the backcourt? For all his defensive improvment last season, McCants did not progress on the caliber of his treys or his penetration, both of which remain questionable against quality defenses. Randy Foye’s best offensive weapon–penetration–is jeopardized by his knee woes, and in any case, defenses are going to make Foye prove he can hit a midrange jumper with regularity this season; otherwise, Al Jefferson will have Foye’s man in his lap down low. Corey Brewer? Whispers about his ability to stick the jumper coming out of college haven’t diminished during the preseason. Gerald Green? Great hops, but he makes Mike James look like Larry Bird when it comes to shot selection. Gomes can score, but you don’t want that to be his priority. Telfair? No, the idea is to put the reins on his jumper. And we know about Marko Jaric’s woes from outside. Once again, Greg Buckner moves from supposed afterthought to increasingly viable option once you exhaust the other possibilities. But the more Buckner plays, the more you sacrifice long term growth for short term gain.
*Meanwhile, in addition to Jefferson, Craig Smith has a knack for getting the ball in the hoop. And Michael Doleac could very well prove to be a pleasant surprise for this ballclub–the guy is slow but dogged and, to the prevailing point here, has made a career out of sticking midrange jumpers when opponents double-cover his more talented teammates. Bottom line, expect a higher percentage of points in the paint from this season’s ballclub than any other team in Wolves history.
* What about Antoine Walker? One major point in his favor is the support of Jefferson, who embraced ‘Toine’s arrival more sincerely than any other Wolf when the Miami trade was announced (and not just because he was happy to see Blount and Davis go). And if Walker decides to transform himself into a mentor, get himself in shape, and accept limited minutes, he could really help the Wolves. Yeah, the odds of that happening are 10-20 percent. And the Wolves already have most of Walker’s niche covered by Gomes. But if Walker wants to be Gomes’s mentor/caddy, and perhaps be a microwave off the bench, th
ere’s no harm there. The problem is only if Walker plays enough to merit more minutes, and can’t understand (or accept) why he isn’t getting them. Of course the more likely problem is that Walker doesn’t get in shape, doesn’t want to be a mentor, and won’t accept limited minutes even then. The first scenario–an effective, motivated, Walker– is a nice problem to have. The second, more likely one, should land him in street clothes or with DNP-CDs until he’s traded or comes around.
* Walker is one of three wild cards on the Wolves’ potential upside this season. The biggest is the health and performance of Randy Foye. Anyone who watches Brandon Roy become a de facto point guard for Portland at crunchtime of close games has to wince at the draft day swap that brought Foye here. To justify what currently seems like a bone-headed move, Foye needs to demonstrate that he can distribute the ball well enough to galvanize the offense beyond dumping the ball into Jeff and then banging the glass for follow-ups. He needs to develop his own midrange so that defenses don’t take away the trey and the penetration, his two decent weapons, when he’s the go-to option at crunchtime.
*The third wild card is Theo Ratliff. Of all the players on the roster, Ratliff presents the most difficult choice between long-term and short-term. If he is healthy enough and otherwise capable enough to emulate his preseason performance over the course of an entire season, and can handle being bumped up to 30-35 minutes a game against certain matchups, the Wolves might be able to win 30 games. But then what? How much, if anything, does Minnesota want to pay a then-35 year old Ratliff with a long history of back problems? And for how long? The chances of Ratliff first being healthy and second being with the squad next year and beyond are very very slim. But man will it be tempting to let him patrol the paint and generate some momentum for this collection of pups, at least for the first two or three months of the season. And then it is too late to yank him, unless it is to trade him, and Taylor isn’t letting go of his $11 million expiration chip.
* The season starts in just a few hours. I believe the Wolves will win between 20-25 games, although it could go as low as 14 and as high as 35, what with all the unknown factors surrounding this club. More to the point, I think there will be reason for hope again next season; that the 2008-09 Timberwolves will be starting from a place that is a step or two beyond scratch. And I think at least four or five players will be around longer than Wittman and McHale for this franchise. That too is a sign of hope.