Hang Time: Wolves Season Preview, Part I
The season opener is upon us and I won't be able to deliver an entire preview by this evening's tilt with the Kings. But here's the first part, which, including the Taylor interview and a three-pointer on the opener later tonight, will keep everyone sated until I can finish up. Thanks for your patience.
For those of you who like to skip to the end of the story, I believe the Minnesota Timberwolves will miss the playoffs for the third straight year. There will be more suspense over their playoff prospects than occurred last year, primarily because they will contend for first place in their weak divison until fairly late in the season.
Before anyone starts searching for the razor blades, remember, I'm the guy who incorrectly predicted the Wolves would make the playoffs last season. And although before then I was pretty accurate in my prognostications, my confidence in sizing up these post-Flip Saunders squads has been steadily on the wane the past two seasons.
Put simply, who and what are these Timberwolves? A defensive-oriented ballclub? A modified run and gun outfit? A team destined to live and mostly die on the merits of its superstar and his shoddy supporting cast? A ballclub in transition pretending to be oblivious to that fact? A squad without an identity? I'd answer yes to all of the above, and be more strongly affirmative on each succeeding question.
Right now the biggest wild card is new point guard Mike James. In what light do you want to look at James? He's a guy who pumped in more than 20 points per game for Toronto last season while nailing more than 44 percent of his treys, and dishing out more dimes than anyone of the Wolves registered. He's improved his points-per-games and his shooting percentage every season during his five-year career. But James is also a guy who took a long time getting established in the league--Ricky Davis is more than four years younger yet has played nearly 180 more NBA regular season games. At 31, James has never been a full-time starter on a playoff team. The Wolves overpaid (four years, $25 million) to get him because their resident superstar, Kevin Garnett, with visions of Sam Cassell dancing in his head, said an experienced point guard was his abiding priority request during this off-season and owner Glen Taylor obliged.
The clandestine rap on James was that he played selfishly, hindering an already moribund Toronto Raptors team, during his push for a new contract last season. That wasn't borne out during the Wolves' preseason, when, if anything, James passed up his own shot to a fault. He was continually alert for exploiting the explosiveness of Ricky Davis in transition, and took pains to set up KG in the half-court sets. On the other hand, his defense was spotty, and his shot was unreliable from both long range and when penetrating the lane.
Where there is this much evidence both pro and con, it seems most likely that James will do a workmanship job seasoned with enough highs and lows to tease the optimists and keep the rest of us equivocating. He'll almost certainly be an improvement over the hydra-headed point guard situation that sprung up last year, but won't be "money" like Cassell was two years ago, or even deliver the consistency of Terrell Brandon's best seasons in Minnesota. But it could also tilt either way. If James does indeed continue to blossom, sucking up his defense while demonstrating he can burn opponents with both his shot and his passing savvy, the Wolves could very well vanquish Denver and Utah and win the Northwest Division.
If James does a pratfall, however, things could get ugly in a hurry, because there are no good alternatives at the point, folks. Rookie Randy Foye has got a future that would put neon glow in any crystal ball, but he's not ready to be a starting NBA point guard--those who bemoaned the miscues and decision-making of Marcus Banks in the final two months of the season would endure that and worse watching Foye run the show. Troy Hudson? A very nice human being who may be even more pathetic the rare times he's healthy and apparently trying to enable others than he is during the more numerous times he's hobbled and making up lousy hip hop songs while sitting in the whirlpool. The notion of using spindly shooter Bracey Wright at the point has been predictibly discredited. And for those of you who took the off-season off, Marko Jaric is now a small forward instead of a very large and easily rattled point guard.
That's right, Foye, Hudson, Wright, and Jaric are all much better suited to be either "combo" guards or small forwards rather than pure point guards, meaning we can add them to the sizable pile of swingmen the Wolves have amassed. Right now, the starters at shooting guard and small forward are Ricky Davis and Trenton Hassell, respectively. And let's not forget last year's ultra-talented problem child, Rashad McCants, who is waylaid for at least half the season by a microfracture in his right knee, or the ever-hustling Lenin lookalike, Justin Reed, who would ply most of his sweat equity at small forward if the waiting line wasn't so long.
I'd start Hassell and Foye and bring Davis off the bench as a sixth man, followed closely by Jaric. Second-year coach Dwane Casey keeps claiming that defense is the first pillar in building a winning team identity, then not only starts Davis but gives him a leash as long as KG's. Davis is finally copping to the fact that he played horseshit defense most of last season, but the improvement was marginal in the preseason. On D, Davis seems the opposite of a team guy: He goes for steals that put him out of position, frequently suffers mental lapses that allow his man to break downcourt or penetrate into the lane without him, forcing his teammates to scramble and adjust. The guy's a fine scorer (albeit too fond of jacking up jumpers with more than 20 seconds on the shot clock) and a marvelous, though inconsistent, passer. He's also 6-7 and athletic, making it seem as if discipline is all he lacks to complement KG and Hassell as mobile, bulwalk defenders. And until he fosters that attitude, there are worse things than having a guy who flourished as a sixth man in Boston a couple of years ago being the first one off your bench.
Besides, there's no time like the present to begin scaling toward Foye's exciting upside. The most optimistic thing about the 2006-07 Wolves was the quality of their draft, with Foye and, in Craig Smith, the most promising second-rounder the team has chosen since Doug West. When Casey infers that Foye must sit because he's not up to speed defensively, he has it exactly backwards. Foye's defensive fundamentals already seem more developed than Davis's, and that should be rewarded with minutes, especially playing in a backcourt with the club's best ballhandler, reducing pressure in an area where he isn't quite ready for the NBA pace. Foye's jumper is also suspect. But the dude has a jones for getting to the rim, and the strength and savvy to draw fouls along the way. Yeah, he'll frequently get lunched, experiencing bruising growing pains. But on a team that has chronically had difficulty getting to the free throw line, Foye is a guy (a healthy McCants would be another) with the natural inclination to generate contact on drives to the hoop out of the half-court offense. That was also Davis's rep, but, like his defense, we didn't see it last season.
The biggest drawback of a Foye-James backcourt is obviously its diminutive size. Throw in Hassell and the 1-2-3 positions go 6-2, 6-4, and 6-5. If this is getting exploited early, Casey can respond with a pair of 6-7 swingmen, Davis and Jaric. Now that the Marko as point guard experiment has been officially deemed a disaster, we can hopefully appreciate his quick hands, shrewd sense of anticipation, rugged frame, and wide wingspan on defense. I'd pair him with Davis because they are complementary players. (Hassell complements everybody but he's got to sit some to mitigate all the aches and pains he acquires during the season.) The lesson of last season is that Jaric is valuable when he's put in a position to succeed enough to retain self-confidence. Davis will take some ball-handling and shot-taking pressure away from him even as Jaric helps cover Davis's defensive lapses.
Finally, don't count on Jaric to get you bundles of points. During the preseason he discovered it was much easier for him to drive on small forwards than quicker point guards, but scouting will catch up to that and force him to make outside shots, which ain't exactly Jaric's forte.
I'll delve into the Wolves frontcourt, coaching, and front office situation in Part II.