|The Wolves are two years removed from 58 wins, the Western Conference finals, and a healthy Cassell hip from an NBA title. They are also one year removed from throwing a stick of dynamite into the team and starting a rebuild. Over those two years, the Wolves have fielded a 44-win team that barely missed the playoffs when they were supposed to compete for a title and a 33-win team that purposefully tanked to keep their lottery pick when they were supposed to at least compete for the playoffs.
What went wrong?
The Western Conference Finals team had some glaring holes. There was no athletic ability. No speed. And lots of geritol in the locker room. And no depth. And lots of injuries. And only one guy that could play perimeter defense. On the plus side, they had the most valuable player in the league, one of the smartest and most effective scoring point guards in the NBA, and a bunch of players that knew their role and produced. They also had a vet scorer in Spree that could turn it up and carry the team once every few games while disappearing in others. And an imperfect, but consistently solid coaching philosophy. Basically, the KG-Cassell 1-2 punch turned a very ordinary team into a championship contender.
The next year supposedly returned the same team but with more depth with the return of Wally, Hudson, and Kandi...championship, right? Wrong. Cassell and Hudson could barely walk, let alone score consistently or (heaven forbid) keep anyone else from scoring. Spree checked out over his money. Rule changes and playing time worries threw Hassell off his game. Wally tried to forcibly shoot himself back into the upper tier of the team. Erv started playing with a cane. Kandi just stinks. Flip lost the team. KG was slowed from All-World to just All-NBA by a sore knee. What was supposed to be a championship team on paper devolved into a slightly hobbled KG, a bunch of players that wouldn't start for any other playoff team, and a fired coach. I maintain that the biggest difference between the success of '04 and the failure of '05 was the production of a healthy, happy Cassell. A KG/good Cassell combo is strong enough to hide all types of warts, as shown in '04.
Despite finishing only 1 game out of the playoffs with Cassell obviously hobbling, management decides to blow up the team. Flip's gone. Cassell's talked himself into the doghouse. Spree's talked himself out of the NBA. Team actually has a lottery pick. Let's blow it up and start over.
So they did.
Last year was year one of the rebuild. And like most rebuilding teams, last year's team sucked. Though some saw it coming, I never thought they'd be that bad. I was wrong. And in hindsight, it's much easier for me to see why. Rookie coach. Going back to running Flip Saunder's offense without a single point guard that could consistently score (HUGE no-no). No offense initiators outside of KG. No experience in the backcourt. No consistent big man besides KG. A huge midseason trade that swaps out half of the playing rotation and makes the backcourt even less experienced. Still a rookie coach, now with a whole new team. Defensive chemistry (the one strength of the team early on) now shot. 6'7 Reed ends season as primary back-up PF/C. No clutch backcourt offense = triple teams on KG in the 4th. Team no longer seems to believe it can win. Team needs to lose to keep pick. Mark Madsen shoots (and misses) about 39 3-pointers in one game. The end.
Year one of rebuild finished with team playing at lowest level of the NBA. Offseason...hope? Nope, promising rookie that finished season strong blows out knee. Promising young point guard that team gave up a #1 pick for leaves as a free agent. Only young big man with talent on team becomes a bad punch line. The only new players added are a journeyman and a rookie, using up most obvious assetts without addressing the pre-surgery-Star Jones-sized hole in the middle.
So where is the hope?
What is there to smile about?
Why am I excited about the direction the team's moving in?
Why did I place a bet on the Wolves to win a title this year?
Well...the answer to the last one is homerism and the 105-1 odds I got. But the other ones actually do have legit answers. Honest! Well, at least plausible answers. OK, maybe the answers only make sense to me but dangit these are my musings so I'm posting them anyway!
The Wolves haven't done much yet this offseason...but I believe that they've filled the most glaring hole they've had since 2004. All of a sudden, they seem to have consistent scoring from the backcourt. All of a sudden, they've got lead guards that I don't believe I'll have to throw things and gnash my teeth and contemplate un-manly bawling when I see the ball in their hands in the fourth quarter. Not just that, but suddenly we have one of the quickest teams in the NBA. Really! Good athletes from players 1-10 in the rotation. Not only that, but there's a good chance we'll also have some outside shooting in the starting line-up. What a concept! And it appears that the team has enough balance to have 3 scorers AND 3 good defenders on the court at all times. Stop-the-presses! And vets! The team can now start a playoff-tested veteran at ALL 5 STARTING POSITIONS if they want to! I can't BELIEVE what I just heard!
True, not much has been done this ofseason. And the team still has a big need for big people that play big. But in basketball, moreso than any other sport, sometimes you only need one player to turn the ship. Sometimes all you need is that one lynchpin to be able to overcome and hide what previously appeared to be glaring holes. And in this case, I think the Wolves got two of them. James is no guarantee...he waited until he was 30 to have the year of his career. Foye is no guarantee...he's a 6'3 rookie that's gonna be learning a new position on the fly. But both of them have that dog in them. We needed a lead guard with that dog, and between our two new acquisitions I think at least one of them is gonna bark this year. Hopefully they'll bark in chorus with each other, as well as with the Black Wolf that too often has had to howl alone.
I don't know...I just feel good things this year. I was more confident going into '04, but at that time I had no idea Sam would be playing on only 1 leg. I had hopes going into '05 but I underestimated just how much not-a-Wolves-PG Jaric was and just how bad a Jaric/Hudson/Hassell backcourt combined with a rookie coach would be. Now it's '06, and maybe I'm just a homer. Maybe I'm just a glutton for punishment (I am, after all, a lifelong Bengals fan). Maybe I'm going to be let down again. But right now...it just feels different. And I'm looking forward to getting my howl on again once the season kicks off in a few months...
Posted by Drz, The Optimistic Professor at 7/21/2006 6:00:00 PM