Timberwolves start fresh on the long climb back

Ryan Gomes, Al Jefferson and all those other former Boston Celtics saw what their old team did, in large part by getting rid of them. Boston swapped them out en masse last summer for Kevin Garnett — in bubble-gum card terms, trading a bunch of Gus Zernials and Bob Buhls for one Mickey Mantle — then parlayed Garnett and several other shrewd roster moves into an NBA championship 10 months later.

“That’s where they wanted to go,” said Gomes, a gregarious 6-8 forward with a New England bent — he grew up in Waterbury, Conn., and spent four years at Providence before being drafted by the Celtics in 2005. “I said with the trade, that was for them to win now. And they got it done the first year.”

The message in Boston’s revival, though, seemed mixed. On the one hand, GM Danny Ainge transformed a 24-58 team in a single calendar year, suggesting that NBA champions can be built as swiftly as Minnesota interstate bridges (and finished way faster than a Big Dig project. That ought to encourage the Wolves, who went 22-60 in a season in which they peddled lots of “new,” minus the usual “and improved” part.

On the other hand, Ainge rounded up three superstars, adding Ray Allen to Paul Pierce before enticing Garnett to OK his trade. That could discourage the Wolves, who still have three of the five former Celtics around but no one who qualifies as a superstar.

Gomes sort of voted for both. “I don’t want to say you have to have superstars, but you need the right pieces,” he said. “I don’t want to say they started from scratch, because they had guys who were established and, at one time in their careers, were superstars on their own teams.”

So where are Wolves heading?
So where does that leave the Wolves, as they headed to owner Glen Taylor’s hometown of Mankato for a weekend of training camp, followed by three weeks of preseason, followed by six months of the franchise’s 20th regular season, followed almost certainly by its fifth consecutive year out of the playoffs?

At this point, with better pieces at least. 

Gone is the flotsam and jetsam that clogged last season’s roster, the unavoidable residue of demolition that required a jumbo dumpster in the Wolves’ driveway through the entire 2007-08 season. Juwan Howard, Ricky Davis, Mark Blount, Antoine Walker, Gerald Green, Marko Jaric, Trenton Hassell, Theo Ratliff, Michael Doleac, Kirk Snyder — they’re all gone. Some at various points played hard, some tried to help the situation and some just treated the Wolves like an ATM with no limit on the zeroes. Players started lining up like investment banks and newspaper journalists, hoping for buyouts.

Now the Wolves who are back and in camp want and deserve to be there. Or they’ll be gone, dispatched for basketball rather than business reasons. Two new guys — rookie Kevin Love and veteran swingman Mike Miller — have generated some buzz, and a few others — Rodney Carney, Jason Collins, Brian Cardinal — could plug holes of differing sizes.

Pre-season evaluation
We’ll have plenty of time this month, and beyond, to introduce or evaluate them. So we’ll go with a quick summary for the team at large:

Offensively, guard Randy Foye is the key. He missed the first 43 games with a knee injury, during which Minnesota went 8-35; once he was available, they were 14-25. Foye played on raw ability and confidence for that half-season. The challenge to him now is to perform like a real point guard, to get teammates shots before he goes looking for his, rather than as a release valve when his own maneuvers fail.

The rest of the attack — Miller’s shooting range to spread the floor, Love’s passing and high-post play potentially giving Jefferson more room to work on the block, Rashad McCants scoring in bunches — is promising. “I think we’re going to score points” coach Randy Wittman said. “I think the X factor is how we perform defensively.”

That means, first and foremost, Jefferson, a heavy lifter on offense who was permitted to lighten his load too often at the other end. How he and Love man their battle stations will determine how much time they spend on the court together, which in turn could determine how successful this Wolves team will be. “The last half of [last season], we challenged Al to make strides in that,” Wittman said. “The bad thing for him was, he showed us he could do it at certain times. Now, if he can do it at certain times, he can do it more often than not.”

If not, it could fall to Jason Collins or one of several Clydesdales in the Wolves’ front court (Mark Madsen, Craig Smith, Chris Richard, camp tryout Rafael Araujo) to handle opposing big men. But none of the above is likely to score enough, or even function offensively well enough, to lure double-teaming defenders away from Jefferson. So Big Al has an offensive stake in his defensive improvement.

How much improvement can the Wolves offer overall? Basketball boss Kevin McHale talked this offseason as if they could be a .500 team, which means almost doubling their 22 victories. But Wittman wasn’t drinking any of that Kool-Aid.

“That’s Kevin. That’s not me. I can’t sit here and give you a [number],” the coach said. “I don’t think you heard, when the Celtics got Kevin Garnett, that they said they should win 60. We’ve got to be better. How we played at the end of the year, once Randy got back, we’ve got to start right from that spot and spring forward. We can’t start lower than that, then work our way back.”

Wittman sees the climb up from 22 to come, maybe, in rungs of a dozen victories or so. That makes the playoffs possible in two or three years, by which time, he said, some traditional West powers — Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas — could be mired in their own rebuilding projects. In this best-case scenario, the Wolves will have some stockpiled draft picks and future salary-cap space, along with the growth of the current core, on their side.

At that point, the issue will be which of them — most of all, Wittman — is still around.

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Comments (1)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/01/2008 - 04:16 pm.

    I don’t think Wittman has ever proved that he can coach, nor even that he can teach young kids (the opportunity to teach McCants to harness his athleticism and play defense and within a team concept has surely been wasted.) With this young a squad, the Wolves would be better served by a strong and fundamentally sound coach, like Avery Johnson. Too bad they’re saddled with Witt and his “reputation” as a good young coach (based upon his play for Bobby Knight years ago and nothing he has ever done in the NBA.)

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