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Wolves’ Wittman is getting a pass — and shouldn’t

Charles Barkley was on to something about Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman earlier this week, whether his runaway mouth or random-shuffle mind knew it or not.

Barkley, as you probably have noticed, is more famous now as an NBA studio commentator and a commercial pitchman than he ever was as a Hall of Fame power forward for the Philadelphia 76ers, the Phoenix Suns and the Houston Rockets. His career posting up microphones is going on eight years now, half as long and twice as funny as his playing days. And still Barkley doesn’t see himself as a member of the media, whom he referred to Tuesday morning as a bunch of “a-holes.”

“One of the reasons I have a problem with the media is, I don’t think you can have a double standard,” Barkley said in a teleconference interview set up by TNT, touting the cable network’s coverage of the NBA playoffs that begin this weekend (sans Wolves, of course). “A lot of these guys in the media, they’ll kill a guy they don’t like. They’ll protect a guy they do like.”

Barkley had been asked if he ever takes heat — in person, by phone or via text messaging — from NBA players who wind up as targets of his criticism and frequently outrageous comments. “Hey man, I don’t have an obligation to tell the players they’re good when they’re bad,” he said. “Your job is to represent the fans and be honest and be fair. I know I do that.

“But the media, they’re the ones who’ve got some idiots working for them. If they don’t like a guy, they crucify him. If they like a guy, they’ll give him a pass on certain things.”

Using Miami coach Pat Riley as an example, and Riley’s decision to leave his sputtering team to personally scout some NCAA draft prospects, Barkley said: “Pat Riley is a great coach, I like him as a person. But what he did late in the season, if [Knicks coach] Isiah Thomas would have did that, y’all would have hung him up in New York. But y’all gave Pat Riley a pass. That’s a bull [expletive] double standard.

“Certain GMs get a pass. Isiah Thomas has not done a good job as a GM. Neither has Danny Ainge until this year. Neither has Kevin McHale. There are some other bad GMs. But people went out of their way to criticize Isiah. That’s the problem I have with the media.”

A pass from the boss
Barkley is both right and wrong, at least in Timberwolves terms. McHale, who took over a franchise that routinely lost 60 games a year and, 13 years later, is back to losing 60 games a year, has not gotten a pass from the media. He has gotten a pass from his boss, team owner Glen Taylor, who has declined to hold his vice president of basketball operations accountable by the most basic standards of professional sports (continuous improvement, shrewd personnel decisions, fan satisfaction, the ability to contend for a championship in windows open for three-to-five years). But the media, locally and nationally, have been loud and clear on McHale at least since 2005.

Where they have been guilty of a double standard has been with Wittman, in the way that almost all mainstream sports media are guilty in their coverage of coaches.

Wittman, a Wolves assistant coach for 10 years in three stints before taking over for Dwane Casey in January 2007, is a likable guy. He’s honest and self-deprecating, with a sense of humor and an openness about not having the answer to every question, basketball or otherwise. That makes him harder to criticize, if you know him, and downright Teflon-like, if you need him.

“Need” is a big part of this. In an era of diminishing access to the players, across all major sports, reporters lean more heavily on the availability of their teams’ head coaches. The coach, in turn, becomes not only the spokesperson for the on-court or on-field activities of the team but also a lifeline for the club’s beat writers through, in the NBA, the grind of an 82-game season. And the more a team struggles, the more essential good rapport with the coach becomes to the writer — players grow impatient and run out of words expressing their frustration and disappointment en route to, say, 60 defeats. The coach? That’s part of his job, often meeting with reporters three times daily on game days (post-shootaround in the morning, both pre-game and post-game in the evening).

It becomes almost impossible for a beat writer to do his job if he blasts the coach long and hard, because he needs the guy tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. Columnists are supposed to fill the void, serving as unofficial hit men thanks to their freedom to dip in and out of any one team’s coverage. Fans and bloggers certainly can vent, but few of them ever get close enough to know the intricacies of a team’s player-coach relationships or sample the locker-room mood.

For all of those reasons, Wittman is the one who largely has gotten a pass in this dismal Wolves season.

Some needed changes
The beat writers at both Twin Cities papers have maintained their rapport with him, scarcely criticizing his job performance while permitting him too often to set the daily story’s agenda. The columnists from both shops tuned out on the Wolves months ago, seeking more interesting or at least more popular fare. Nationally, the team isn’t even a blip on big media’s radar. And to his credit, Wittman — either by nature or owing to job security now approaching the Civil Service protection of his boss McHale — has remained affable as ever.

That needs to change now, as surely as the Wolves’ roster needs to change. It is true that the talent needs upgrading; these guys need a workmanlike center to play defense and generally show up often enough to allow Al Jefferson to play his natural spot of power forward. In the draft, they need someone like Memphis point guard Derrick Rose to run the offense and say no to certain teammates at certain times, more than they need Kansas State’s Michael Beasley, who would overlap Jefferson’s game and force one of them to play out of position.

The Wolves need to come up with a sleeper pick later in the draft, a guy who can earn a spot in the rotation and (for once) was scouted beyond his March Madness performances. They need to re-sign Ryan Gomes, plumb the depths of Randy Foye’s point guard skills and bulk up Corey Brewer with a milkshake IV, if that’s what it takes. They need to shed unhappy veterans like Antoine Walker, Greg Buckner and Marko Jaric who don’t fit the rebuilding plan anyway, and think seriously about shedding unpleasant young player Rashad McCants, who rarely fits whatever the team is running on the floor.

But the Wolves also need to hold Wittman accountable now, after a season and a half of prep work and team reconstitution. He will begin the 2008-09 season with 124 games as Minnesota head coach, more than three of the six Wolves coaches who have been fired; Bill Blair got 102 (a 27-75 record), Jimmy Rodgers got 111 (21-90) and Casey got 122 (53-69).

Even if this year — with Kevin Garnett gone, with a bushel of Boston players to sort through, with a beeline to the draft lottery the only apparent goal — was written off before it began, it’s worth remembering that the 20-20 team that got Casey fired went 12-30 for Wittman the rest of way in 2006-07. Add in Wittman’s 62-102 record in two full seasons at Cleveland (1999-2001), decisions that let Jefferson linger too long at center and Foye too long at off-guard and a “tough love” style that typically has a short shelf life in this players’ league, and McHale needs to go back to evaluating the season in 20-game chunks, with Wittman getting one (like Blair) or maybe two (like Casey) to prove himself.

Beyond that, barring improvement, Wittman should face Isiah Thomas criticism, no media passes allowed. 

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