After their worst season in 11 years the Minnesota Timberwolves might seem like a team on the brink of being located at or near the bottom of the league for years to come, but an extreme makeover is about to occur and it has nothing to do with the trading of a certain superstar. Attention: All Minneapolis/St. Paul area basketball fans, cease setting fire to your Kevin Garnett memorabilia. The Minnesota Timberwolves are better than you realize.
If the 2006-2007 season is going to be any better then this past season then Timberwolves GM Kevin McHale needs to turn a deaf ear to all the fans and NBA experts calling for a massive rebuilding project. McHale has taken a lot of heat in the media for his mishandling of the Joe Smith contract in 1998 which cost the team three first round draft picks and 3.5 million dollars as well as several failed draft picks (Rasho Nesterovic, William Avery, Ndudi Ebi, Paul Grant to name a few) and the fact that in eight playoff appearances the teams he built only advanced once. In spite of all that Kevin McHale has set lofty expectations, created a situation much better than the one he inherited and has given his home state a pro basketball team they can be proud of.
Let’s not forget that just two seasons ago this team was two games away from an NBA Finals trip in only their 15th year of existence. A trade of Kevin Garnett will never net equal value in terms of talent and will leave the Timberwolves with young, unproven players, future draft picks, and massive, cap-eating contracts. Garnett is only 30 years old and still has at least 4 all-star caliber seasons left in him. Many changes have occurred in Minnesota since 2004 but as long as Kevin Garnett continues to don a Timberwolves jersey they will always have a fighting chance at success.
It is often said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If the Timberwolves want to avoid repeating the results of their frightening early history then McHale should bring out the blueprint he used to build the 58-win 2004 Midwest Division Champions. The 2004 Timberwolves were not a team of superstars but in Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell they had two legitimate scoring options to take the load off of season MVP Garnett. Rookie guard Randy Foye (acquired in a draft-day deal with Portland) has the potential to be in 2007 what Cassell was in 2004, and that’s a guard with the ability to get others involved, take the ball to the hoop, and create his own shot. Foye doesn’t bring the veteran savvy or experience of a Sam Cassell, but he has been compared with 2006 Finals MVP Dwayne Wade for his strong frame and fearless style of play. Playing with a talent such as Garnett could produce Rookie of the Year honors for Foye. Minnesota also finished 11th in the NBA in scoring defense at 104.7 ppg, which is promising for a team that finished 11 games back in their division.
Timberwolves head coach Dwayne Casey was praised all over the league for bringing out the best in forward Rasheed Lewis during his time as an assistant in Seattle. If he wants to avoid another sub-.500 finish with his current team he must perform a similar act with forward Ricky Davis. There is no doubt about Davis’s talent, especially his ability to score, but his selfish attitude and big mouth have already caused him to be traded 4 times in his 8 year career. If properly motivated Davis has the youth (he’s only 26) and ability to be an all-star as evidenced by his 19.4 ppg average the last three seasons.
As for offseason transactions the cap-strapped Timberwolves only have the mid-level exception of 5.5 million dollars to work with, though that should be enough to re-sign unrestricted free agent PG Marcus Banks as well as add a serviceable frontcourt player such as Lorenzen Wright. I’m sure fans remember that in 2004 mega-bust Michael Olowokandi and Ervin Johnson (combined career 6.3 ppg average) manned the post for the Timberwolves and Wright is a lot better than those two stiffs.
Banks and Foye would be the ideal backcourt for coach Dwayne Casey’s pressure defense, up-tempo offense style, not to mention that they both can stroke it from downtown with regularity. 2005 1st round draft pick Rashad McCants could miss the entire 2006-2007 season after having microfracture surgery on his right knee putting the Timberwolves depth in limbo along with the questionable nature of backup point guard Troy Hudson’s right knee. In spite of those injury concerns Minnesota should still field a solid, albeit thin bench next season. Center Mark Blount and forward Mark Madsen will provide grit and toughness inside while guards Trenton Hassell, Marko Jaric, and Bracey Wright possess decent ballhandling and scoring abilities from the perimeter. Jaric has expressed his desire to be traded, but due to his lack of significant production and large contract (5 years left at 6.5 million a year) the Timberwolves will be hard pressed to find any takers.
The 2005-2006 Minnesota Timberwolves were an aberration. 18 of their 49 losses were decided by six points or less, they lost a league high 15 games when leading going into the 4th quarter, including losing 5 out of 6 games in overtime. They had a rookie head coach and an oft-injured roster with Kevin Garnett being the only player to start 70-plus games. Also Garnett has already stated that he likes the young nucleus Kevin McHale has assembled and that Ricky Davis is the “Scottie Pippen” that he has been looking for since his debut in 1996.
Coach Casey and the Timberwolves definitely have their work cut out for them if they want to get out of the Western Conference cellar and return to the playoffs next season, but Kevin Garnett has a renewed sense of commitment and desire to bring a winner back to Minnesota, and this just may be the team that can get it done.