As miserable as this NBA season was for Minnesota basketball fans, watching the Timberwolves in the playoffs so far this spring has been a gas.
No, we’re not talking about the Timberwolves, the team that toiled in relative obscurity through 82 games, missed the postseason for the fourth consecutive year and proved — heck, proves — almost daily that quagmire shouldn’t be applied only to long-term Washington fiascos.
We’re talking about the Timberwolves, past, former and ex-, scattered among the 16 NBA teams that still are vying for a championship. Everywhere you look, from Orlando and Denver to Cleveland and Boston, you’ll find players and coaches who were cut loose, shipped out or otherwise deemed unworthy of continued employment at 600 First Ave. N.
Kevin Garnett is the poster child, of course, reborn with the Celtics as a latter-day Bill Russell, wearing and honoring the green as if it had been nine years rather than nine months since he exited “Sota.” A quick head count, though, reveals enough alumni of one form or another to compile an entire team. Target Center is dark, yet these guys still are playing:
Guards: Chauncey Billups, Detroit; Sam Cassell, Boston; Bobby Jackson, Houston; Mike James, New Orleans, and Anthony Carter, Denver.
Forwards: Garnett, Boston; Wally Szczerbiak, Cleveland; Joe Smith, Cleveland; Juwan Howard, Dallas, and Maurice Evans, Orlando. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlRfl604ZqQ
Centers: Theo Ratliff, Detroit; Rasho Nesterovic, Toronto, and Dwayne Jones, Cleveland.
A baker’s dozen
That’s 13 legitimate, active players, a baker’s dozen and one more than the official NBA roster minimum. As a group, especially in the backcourt, they’re showing some tread wear — high miles tend to be a part of alumni anything. But if you brought them all together as one entry in commissioner David Stern’s 16-team tournament, the Once-Wolves might have a shot in a best-of-seven series against four or five of the actual playoff teams.
Put them against the 2007-08 Wolves squad, and the gone-but-not-forgotten guys probably would take it four games to one.
“‘When you look back at the years we had there, we had some great players and good teams,” Szczerbiak said late Thursday night, after Cleveland lost to Washington in Game 3 of its Eastern Conference series. “It just unfortunate how good the West was, even then. It’s unfortunate that we ran into the Lakers when they were at their best with Shaq [O’Neal] and Kobe [Bryant], and those San Antonio teams.”
We’re not done counting heads, by the way. Every squad needs a coaching staff, and the Wolves alumni club has that as well in this year’s postseason. In Detroit, we’ve got Flip Saunders, the winningest coach in franchise history and the only man to have led Minnesota into the playoffs. Over in Boston, Tom Thibodeau — an assistant to Bill Musselman for two years with the inaugural Wolves squad — is the defensive mastermind on Glenn (Doc) Rivers’ bench.
Sam Mitchell is Toronto’s head coach — and the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2007 — in part because the Wolves didn’t offer him an assistant job when his playing days ended in 2002. Terry Porter, a member of Saunders’ Pistons staff, was one half (with Mitchell) of Garnett’s invaluable human training wheels after the team drafted the teenager in 1995. Class act Tyrone Corbin averaged 16.2 points in 175 games for the earliest Wolves teams and now assists Jerry Sloan in Utah.
There also are some honorary Wolves sprinkled throughout these playoffs, fleshing out an unofficial inactive list. Like Boston guard Ray Allen, Minnesota’s first-round draft pick in 1996 for, oh, a few minutes before they traded him to Milwaukee for the rights to Stephon Marbury. Like New Orleans forward Morris Petersen, the 21st pick in the 2000 draft and a player the Wolves acknowledged they would have selected there — had they not traded the pick to Toronto. And like Dallas’ Josh Howard, an NBA All-Star in 2007 but merely the ACC player of the year in 2003 when the Wolves snubbed him (as well as Boston’s Kendrick Perkins and Phoenix’s Leandro Barbosa) to draft untested high-schooler Ndudi Ebi.
Asterisks, sure. But Wolves in spirit all.
We’ve even got an announcing team, with Sean Grande back in Boston to handle the radio broadcasts and Wolves pioneer Kevin Harlan pushing Marv Albert hard as the NBA’s official voice in his TV work for TNT.
A trainer? Eh, not so much. But we’ve got the front office covered: Kevin McHale, the Wolves’ academically tenured vice president of basketball operations, is very much alive in these playoffs. Thanks to last summer’s Garnett trade, McHale is as instrumental to Boston’s pursuit of its next NBA championship as he was, as a player 22 years ago, to its last.