Will T’wolves limp into their 20th-anniversary season?

The San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan and the Timberwolves' Al Jefferson battle for the ball during a February game.
REUTERS/Eric Miller
The San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan and the Timberwolves’ Al Jefferson battle for the ball during a February game.

Al Jefferson missed the Timberwolves’ ceremonial tipoff Thursday with what apparently is a ceremonial knee sprain. Or so it is hoped.

Jefferson, the Wolves’ forward/center and lone prime-time, popcorn, All-Star worthy player, went down in a heap Tuesday on the team’s practice court at Target Center. He was grabbing at his right knee, which took the brunt of a collision with a teammate in an informal scrimmage.

The reaction: Major uh-oh.

The verdict: A sprained medial collateral ligament, with a projected recovery time of two to three weeks. That — assuming the prognosis is more realistic than optimistic — would get Jefferson back on the court in time for most, if not all, of the NBA team’s preseason games. Their regular season doesn’t begin until Oct. 29 vs. Sacramento at Target Center.

Disconcerting ceremonial tipoff
Still, there was something disconcerting and even more symbolic about Jefferson being sidelined for the photo op Thursday on the arena’s main court. To tip off what will be a season-long commemoration of their 20th regular season, the Wolves had rounded up roster alumnus Randy Breuer, the former Lake City and Gophers star, to represent the inaugural 1989-90 squad. Team President Chris Wright sat next to Breuer at the head table, with a group of longtime season-ticket holders as the audience.

Rookie Kevin Love, the UCLA forward acquired in a swap with Memphis on draft night, filled in for Jefferson as the current Wolves rep. The marketing plan includes a logo, a patch on the players’ jerseys, a “Wall of Fame” for diehard fans, photos of Wolves alumni on the season tickets, anniversary features and tie-ins on the franchise’s various media outlets and a series of designated tribute games featuring guests from the club’s past.

After the ceremony, Wright commiserated with emcee Jim Petersen, Wolves TV analyst and a veteran of eight NBA seasons, about their respective knee surgeries. The exec’s is more recent, the player’s longer ago, but that chat, too, was a reminder of the role injuries play in sports generally and in this league particularly.

Don’t forget, Jason Collins — the newly acquired center who was supposed to cut Jefferson’s long minutes at that spot — will miss all of the preseason after injuring an arm in a golf cart accident. Both Randy Foye and Rashad McCants, the Wolves’ lottery draft picks in 2006 and 2005 respectively, had their second pro seasons and overall development hobbled by knee problems. The Minnesota coaches are even evaluating former Clippers guard Shaun Livingston as a backup option, despite the gruesome instant in February 2007, when Livingston shredded three of four ligaments in his left knee and gave the YouTube universe a video as cringeworthy as Joe Theismann’s “Monday Night Football” moment.

Injuries always lurking to wreck a team’s dreams
Injuries lurk just below the surface of every team’s greatest hopes and wishes. The Wolves, historically, have fared about average in setbacks suffered vs. bullets dodged in the training room. Things surely would have been worse, for instance, had Kevin Garnett been stuck with Grant Hill’s durability. When Wally Szczerbiak, Michael Olowokandi and Troy Hudson — two anticipated starters and a sixth-man candidate — played only 100 games, combined, of a possible 246 in 2003-04, their ailments actually helped to thin the herd and impose a pecking order free of egos or emotions. The Wolves wound up with their best season ever, a 58-24 record and a playoff run to the Western Conference finals.

It’s rare, though, that injuries are a good thing. This franchise has had its share of doozies, too, physical mishaps that altered its destiny either right then or over time.

The countdown
Here is a countdown of the Five Worst Injuries in Timberwolves History:

5. Fred Hoiberg’s heart condtion.
Hoiberg, whose worth to the Wolves increased with others rehabbed in the aforementioned 2003-04 season, was even better in 2004-05, leading the league by hitting 48.3 percent of his three-point attempts. But a routine physical exam revealed an enlarged aortic root, requiring heart surgery in June and, by April 2006, the realization that his NBA playing days were over. Hoiberg is being groomed as Kevin McHale’s replacement atop the club’s basketball operations, but neither he (at age 33) nor the roster was ready for his first career to end when it did.

4. Micheal Williams’ plantar fasciitis. Not only did Williams teach us all a spelling variation of his first name, he taught us how to spell “fasciitis,” too — along with what it meant in medical terms. http://pre-pg.blogspot.com/2008/06/plantar-fasciitis.html  A lean, crafty point guard who still holds the NBA record for consecutive free throws made (97), Williams played in 182 games and sat out 310 over six seasons with Minnesota from 1992 to 1998 (his contract called for $15 million over seven years). His primary problem: inflammation and pain in tissues in his left foot. It barely had a name in locker rooms at that time — “We had guys with a ‘bad foot’ or a ‘sore heel,’ ” former Wolves coach Flip Saunders said — but it quickly joined the ranks of torn rotator cuffs and the more-recent microfracture surgery as the malady du jour among designer sports injuries.

The ultimate irony of Williams’ situation was that, after the Wolves got accustomed to playing without him and even drafted Stephon Marbury as his replacement, they missed his contributions in their 1998 playoff elimination game against Seattle. Williams had returned to make 25 backup appearances late that season and chipped in 5.0 points per game in the first-round series but wasn’t available for the clincher — because he had gotten suspended for stepping onto the court during a minor altercation in the previous game.

3. Tom Gugliotta’s ankle surgery. Gugliotta was the Wolves’ first All-Star, a cornerstone of their first playoff-contending team and just 28 when his 1997-98 season ended with surgery for bone chips and bone spurs in his right ankle. The impact wasn’t felt immediately — the Wolves were pleased at simply pushing Seattle to that elimination game — but the versatile 6-10 forward never suited up for them again. The 1998 lockout interrupted his free-agent negotiating period, and when business resumed in January 1999, Gugliotta abruptly signed with Phoenix. The Wolves seemed content to add Joe Smith — and we all know how that (and Smith’s illegal contracts) went. Worse, it handed more responsibility and clout to Marbury, who flexed it by forcing a trade just 18 games into that shortened season. By the way, this probably ranks no higher than third on Gugliotta’s personal injury list as well; he suffered a near-fatal seizure early in 1999-2000, followed by career-altering knee surgery later that season.

2. Terrell Brandon’s knee injury. Brandon was a pretty solid save, acquired in the Marbury trade to replace the New Yorker at point guard. A smallish but heady player, Brandon lacked Marbury’s outward fire but ran Saunders’ offense like a technician. The Wolves were desperate and, after his 21 games in 1999, gave him a six-year, $60 million contract. They got basically 1 1/2 years out of it, Brandon going down in February 2002 with a cartilage fracture on his left femur. Featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated just a few years earlier while with Cleveland as the NBA’s “best” point guard — the magazine used a dubious stats system — the two-time All-Star never recovered. But it wasn’t just his lost services that hurt. In Brandon’s absence, Chauncey Billups had blossomed from backup to starter. He was a free agent eager to re-sign with the Wolves in 2002, and Garnett’s best friend to boot. But Saunders wasn’t entirely sold on Billups and the prospect of Brandon’s return — or, at least, the amount of money they would be paying him — kept the injured veteran atop the depth chart at point guard. Billups signed instead with Detroit, where he became an All-Star and, as Finals MVP in 2004, led the Pistons to an NBA title. And Brandon retired, collecting the $33 million remaining on his contract without playing again.

1. Sam Cassell’s aching back and hip. Cassell was 34 but playing younger, going to his first All-Star game in his first season with Minnesota. He, Garnett and Latrell Sprewell carried the club to new heights, with the mouthy Cassell averaging 19.8 points and 7.3 assists. He already was banged up in playoff series against Denver and Sacramento, and by the time the Wolves faced the Lakers in the West finals, Cassell was barely functional. He tried and failed to perform in Game 2, then got burned defensively by Gary Payton despite scoring 18 points in 26 minutes in Game 3. “I’ve never seen him play that way,” said Payton, a former teammate. “He’s trying to play. He’s gutsy. I feel bad for him.”‘

Feel bad for the Wolves — they wound up using retread Darrick Martin and out-of-position Hoiberg as point guard options late in the series, against a Lakers team that was ready to be toppled (as Detroit did in the Finals). It remains the Wolves’ best, last chance at an NBA championship. (Oh, and Troy Hudson’s severe ankle sprain that cost him 52 games and wiped out his playoff availability that spring probably should rank as Wolves’ all-time injury No. 1A.)

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Twiggs on 09/22/2008 - 01:21 pm.

    Twenty years of McHale mediocrity

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