Imagine, if you will, you went into a coma back on May 22nd and awoke from it today. Also imagine that by some strange twist of fate you were a demented Wolves fan whose rabid obsession and supposed first thought after coming out of a four month coma is “What happened with the Wolves this summer?” Your family would try to convince you to talk about your emotions or them or your life, but you’d be unstoppably obsessed with talking some T-Wolves. Well, you’d definitely be a sick S.O.B. but I’ll be damned if I wouldn’t respect you for it. I’d sit you down and fill you in on the details but you’d probably have a hard time believing all that had gone down in one short summer. Sure, you’d recognize a few of the names but for the most part you’d be waking up to a whole new team.
Wrath of Kahn
It all started with the hiring of David Kahn. Before him, however, was a flirtation with Spurs Assistant GM, Dennis Lindsey. He has the pedigree to make him a no brainer pick for GM but in a moderate dis to the Timberwolves organization he essentially said he'd rather be an assistant with the Spurs than the main man with the Wolves. In vain, I sit here unable to think of a more cordial way to say ‘fuck him’. It's worth noting that he did the same thing with the Atlanta Hawks last offseason. Then there was Blazers Assistant GM, Tom Penn. Kevin Pritchard's (Blazers super-GM) right hand man is largely credited with being instrumental to the Blazers impressive youth movement. Penn was apparently ready to sign but at the last minute Paul Allen (Blazers uber rich owner) swept in and offered him a ridiculous pay raise to stay in Portland. This plus other illuminating details that came out in the wake of everything suggest that Penn never intended to leave Portland and was instead merely using Minnesota as leverage to get a new contract. They're only rumors, but based on the credibility of the rumors I believe every one of them, which of course earns an even more impressive and emphatic ‘double fuck him’.
And then there was Kahn. All anyone knew was that he was some ex-Pacers guy under Donnie Walsh who hadn't been in the NBA since 2002 and spent the last few years fiddling around in the NBDL and heading up a grassroots movement to get a Major League Baseball team in Oregon, which obviously never happened. Even worse, his reputation was as a business-minded man as oppose to a basketball-minded man. The story went that in Indiana Walsh was the personnel guy who put the championship contending teams together. Kahn was the finance guy who worked the cap. The prevailing thought amongst jaded fans was that Glen Taylor had gone ahead and hired a guy with the savvy to save him a few more Bucks, which was a somewhat deserved reaction considering the plethora of painfully frugal moves the Wolves have made over the past few years.
Anyways, it happens. Kahn shows up for his press conference. He's pasty white and looks to be maybe 5'7" at most. He's seems way too articulate and dainty to be a real sports guy. But then he starts to talk about his vision of the Wolves future. He talks big. He promises change. A change in organizational philosophy. A change in personnel. A change in the way the Wolves are perceived around the league. He says no team will work harder. He says no front office will be more diligent and persistent. He says once again the Target Center with be full of rambunctious and howling fans. I've got to admit, it was convincing. Only talk, but somewhat convincing. Of course, Wolves fans have heard plenty of talk over the years, much of it hollow and void of follow through, most of it from the previous man in charge, Kevin McHale.
McHale was no longer in charge but he was still the head coach. His presence in the organization was quite literally likened to a cancer. A little dramatic, yes, but I agree with the general principle of the analogy. No matter how small or potentially insignificant, he had to be removed. The team could not begin to rebuild until it was cleansed of his toxic presence and allowed to build a new image of its own. Sure, Kahn talked a big game but if he wouldn't/couldn't get rid of McHale then it would be apparent to everyone who still cared to pay attention that he was, in the end, just a Taylor pawn.
Kahn and McHale had a number of lunches and dinners and probably even a few brunches in which they reportedly discussed the future direction of the team and McHale's roll within it. The longer events transpired, the more likely it appeared that McHale would be retained. But then the axe suddenly fell and McHale was for all intents and purposes, decapitated. I can now empathize with the citizens of Baghdad who saw the oversized statue of Saddam Hussein ripped down by chains and drug off to a scrap heap somewhere. We knew the day would eventually have to come, but it still didn't seem possible that it would come in our lifetimes.
For the sake of bringing some order to the personnel chaos that ensued after McHale’s firing, I’ve organized the various transactions into three categories: the draft, trades and free agency. Behold.
One thing you can credit McHale with his a late-tenure run in which he unloaded many of the terrible contracts he had previously signed players to for future assets. So even though David Kahn has done an impressive job in a short amount of time, you’ve also got to remember that much of the flexibility that allowed him to do so much was inherited. But, as they say, it is what it is.
Heading into the 2009 NBA Draft the Timberwolves had an impressive four 1st Round Picks and two 2nd Round Picks. Two of those picks, the #5 and #6 overall selections (I’ll get into how that #5 pick was acquired later on), would/will define this draft. Those two picks represented the organizations opportunity to add significant pieces to the core of this team moving forward.
Blake Griffin is taken #1 by the Clippers. No surprise there. Hasheem Thabeet went #2 overall. Thank you, Memphis. James Harden goes #3 to Oklahoma City. A somewhat surprising pick because, you know, this team should be in Seattle. Sacramento drops the bomb when they take Tyreke Evans at #4. Evans is a very talented player but for a team with virtually no identity it seems like Rubio would have been the ideal player to build a team around. But perhaps they saw the writing on the wall. The Wolves were then up with two straight picks and the guy who seemed like a total pipe dream is there for the taking.
The following is the approximate inner monologue of a Wolves fan in the moments leading up to the #5 pick in this year’s draft: Would he want play in Minnesota? Is he going to stay in Europe? Can he even play against us big, bad Americans? Screw it, draft him. He’s the BPA, no doubt. Shit, here comes Stern. Why does he always have that stupid grin? We took Ricky Rubio! We took Ricky Rubio! Fans everywhere erupt! We, yes “we”, got the 2nd most talented player in the draft with the #5 pick. A star caliber talent, something all NBA championship teams are built around, just fell into our laps. There are a lot of logistics still to be worked out, but who cares. We got Rubio!
What can I say, I’m a Rubeo. Get it? Rube + Rubio. I made that up.
Then came the #6 pick. Stephen Curry seemed like a logical choice, although a Curry/Rubio backcourt would have been perhaps the smallest in the league. DeMar DeRozan made sense. But taking him at #6 would be a stretch even though the Wolves needed a shooting guard to pair with their new point guard of the future. So naturally, they took Jonny Flynn, the point guard.
It didn’t make much sense at the time. Some think it still doesn’t. Why take two point guards? Well, let me answer that self-imposed question. It’s my belief that there are four types of NBA teams. 1) Legitimate contenders who are stockpiling veteran talent in order to have the deepest and most ready to win team possible. 2) Mediocre pretenders who add whatever talent they can with the goal of winning a lot, but never winning the big one. 3) Rebuilding teams whose primary goal should be acquiring as much young talent as possible, regardless of position. #4) The New York Knicks. The Wolves are that #3 type of team. Right now, taking two point guards can’t make a lot of sense from the appearance of things but if Kahn & Co. believed that Rubio and Flynn were the two best players available then taking them both is so much better than being short sighted and taking a worse player just because it fills out a roster sheet better than the alternative. Then and today, drafting Ricky Rubio was the absolute right thing to do.
Obviously, the Rubio situation has played out with the conclusion that he will be playing in Spain for at least two more years. Do yourself a favor and don’t believe any of the tabloid nonsense that the Chad Fords and Rick Buchers of the world love to spew. Rubio has no qualms about playing in Minnesota. He is not demanding to be traded to a major market. He is not afraid of snow or of playing with Jonny Flynn. If any of it were remotely true he would have played that card by now so as to increase his leverage. He, nor his agent, has ever said anything of the sort. This is all about money. When Rubio wasn’t selected in the first three picks he not only lost out on quite a bit of money on the NBA rookie salary scale but he also triggered a clause in his Nike contract that would have paid him substantially more had he gone in those first three picks. Rubio and his people made the decision that they would not come to the NBA if it would put him at a major financial loss, even in just the short term.
So now he will play in Spain for two years and will most likely come over to the NBA when he is a mere 20 years old. He will either play for the Timberwolves or he will play for whoever the Timberwolves trade him to. The options in that regard are too many to speculate on. Flynn, on the other hand, will most likely spend those two years making Wolves fans forget about Rubio. Lost in all of the Rubio mess is just how good Flynn is. His game is extremely comparable to that of Chris Paul. He’s also a natural born leader with a sense of charisma that will quickly endear him to Wolves fans everywhere.
Finally, don’t sleep on Wayne Ellington. He was taken with the #29 overall pick (acquired via Boston in the KG trade). He’s not a huge upside guy but his game right now is very solid and he will get major minutes as a rookie.
The Timberwolves have made seven trades since Kahn arrived. Most have been financial chess moves in order to position themselves to be heavy free agent players in the 2010 offseason. A couple of the trades have actually been about acquiring talent. In chronological order they are…
1. Randy Foye and Mike Miller to Washington for Darius Songalia, Etan Thomas, Oleksiy Pecherov and the #5 pick in the 2009 draft. This was easily the most noteworthy of the trades made. I’ve already delved enough into the Rubio situation and the rest of the incoming assets can be summed up in the following statement: Etan Thomas was a salary chip, as was Darius Songalia, and Oleksiy Pecherov is a low-risk, low-salary Euro flier. The non-Rubio intriguing aspect of this trade was who the Wolves dealt: Randy Foye and Mike Miller. Foye, though not his fault, was the total embodiment of the McHale blunder years. People got over and even partially sympathized with the Joe Smith fiasco (thanks to Premier Stern and his resounding “FUCK YOU” to the people of Minnesota). Given the circumstances, no one could really blame McHale for letting Chauncey Billups go. Ndudi Ebi was a bust but he was also the 28th overall pick so it’s not like he passed on Michael Jordan or anything. But Foye, that was inexcusable. The Wolves had Brandon Roy in their possession. He was a Timberwolf for a few fleeting seconds and McHale let him go…for Randy Foye….and cash. Cheap and stupid. Double whammy. Roy goes on to become one of the top shooting guards in the league. Foye goes on to sustain a major injury, demonstrate the inability to play the position they drafted him to play, and struggles through unwatchable bouts of inconsistency. If Brandon Roy is on the Timberwolves, Kevin Garnett probably still is too. The Wolves are most likely legitimate contenders in the Western Conference. Target Center is undoubtedly packed with fans. But instead, the past plays out as it did, McHale goes into hiding, and the fans have no choice but to unleash their fury on the guy who represents what could have been, Randy Foye. Sad to say, trading him was trading more than a player. It was trading a scar. Mike Miller, to a lesser extent, was another McHale gem. Landing Miller when they did was the justification for trading OJ Mayo for Kevin Love. Sounded good at the time but Miller, like so many other skilled role players, failed to produce when a team actually needed him to be “the guy”. The difference here is that Kevin Love, unlike Foye, actually endeared himself to fans through hard work and definitive signs of potential. I would guess that up to 60-70% of Wolves fans today, if given the choice of Mayo or Love straight up, would go Love.
2. Ty Lawson to Denver for their 2010 1st Round Pick (via Charlotte, top 12 protected). He was the best player available on the board at the time of this pick but with Flynn and Rubio already selected he had no purpose in Minnesota. The national commentators erupted with laughter (3 point guards!) in response to this pick, but that’s mostly because they are irrational morons who either don’t know the facts or choose to ignore them in favor of sensationalism. Here’s hoping Charlotte just barely misses the playoffs this year.
3. Nick Calathes to Dallas for their 2010 2nd Pick. Solid player but he’ll be in Greece for as long as Rubio is in Spain.
4. Sebastian Telfair, Craig Smith and Mark Madsen to the Los Angeles Clippers for Quentin Richardson. Q-Rich is a very unlikeable player and so trading three likeable players for him seemed strange. But alas, this turned out to be one of those 2010 cap savers I mentioned before.
6. Quentin Richardson to Miami for Mark Blount. Whoa, did I say Q-Rich is unlikable? What does that make Blount? He’ll probably be cut or traded before you finish reading this sentence.
7. Darius Songalia and Bobby Brown to New Orleans for Antonio Daniels and a future 2nd Round Pick. This was a very savvy move to save five million dollars off next year’s cap. Daniels has a 0% chance of being on the roster come opening day.
The Wolves didn’t throw down any serious money on players but they did drop a fair amount on their next head coach. Unlike past hires, Dwayne Casey and Randy Wittman, who were given the job as much for their low salary demands as they were their skill and acumen, Kurt Rambis was the most high profile assistant on the market. When his name came up it didn’t seem like a real possibility because that’s just not what the Wolves do. They don’t go after the big names, they go after the big bargains. Right? Well, apparently not anymore. Hiring Rambis, who has two hands full of championship rings, both from his days as a coach and as a player, is sending a message that this thing is for real. He played the bulk of his career with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. He coached the better part of the last decade under Phil Jackson and for Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. When it comes to resume building, it doesn’t really get any better than that. And for those looking for the cosmic tie, he also famously clotheslined Kevin McHale in the 1984 NBA Finals.
Rambis continued the surprises by hiring an equally high profile team of assistants. Reggie Theus, Dave Wohl and Bill Laimbeer will join him on the bench this year and for the foreseeable future. Theus already has heading coaching experience from his short run with Sacramento. Wohl was with Boston when they drafted Al Jefferson and is credited with a lot of his development as a player. Laimbeer won three championships as head coach of the Detroit Shock (WNBA) and will be probably be good for humorous post game quotes.
As for the actual players, the Wolves added three guys that fit two criteria: 1) Young, talented and a healthy upside. 2) A financially low risk contract. Enter Ramon Sessions (23 years old, 4 year deal worth 16 million), Ryan Hollins (25 years old, 3 year deal worth 7 million) and Sasha Pavlovic (25 years old, 1 year contract worth 1.5 million).
Sessions is the most talented of the three and will see the most minutes on the court. Some people questioned why the Wolves would bring him in, even with the knowledge that Rubio won’t be here for a couple of years. I tend to believe that Sessions is part of the long-term plan, as oppose to the other theory which is that he’s merely keeping Rubio’s seat warm. He’s both insurance incase they trade Rubio or a trade asset in case Rubio actually shows up someday. Sessions also lends merit to David Kahn’s claim that he wants to build an up tempo team that utilizes a two point guard system. Detractors claimed that he invented that idea after drafting both Ricky Rubio and Johnny Flynn in an attempt to answer critics who loudly and sarcastically questioned “Why would you draft two point guards in the 1st Round?!?!” Apparently, because he wants them to play together.
Hollins technically fits a major team need. He’s long, athletic, a true center and a great shot blocker. That’s all a technicality because he’s yet to put it together in a game that matters for any sustained amount of time. He’s been buried on Dallas’ depth chart but in very limited action has shown some big time potential. Ultimately, however, he’s completely unproven and still very raw despite two years in the league. He could easily boom or bust but for a guy they only need about 10 minutes a game out of he’s a solid prospect.
Sasha’s role on the team isn’t entirely clear but I do expect him to get a fair amount of playing time. The obvious reasons for that include he can play the 2 or the 3, he’s one of the few players on the team that can shoot from long range, they don’t have many other alternatives on roster and they need to showcase his talents. With only a one year contract he’s unlikely to be on this team beyond this one year. That means he’ll be a prime candidate for a deadline deal to some playoff bound team looking for an experienced shooter with the added bonus of being an expiring contract.
The Season Begins
That about sums it up. The season opener is less than two weeks away. Leading up to that, we all witnessed one of the two most eventful offseasons in Timberwolves history. The other being the 2003-04 season, in which they stockpiled talent for a championship run. This year is equally as momentous but for the opposite reason. This offseason was about building a core that will one day contend not just for one championship, but for several, year after year. The answer is yes, Wolves fans, you can say that with a straight face and not be embarrassed.