When we last left our early-millenial Wolves, their hearts had been broken in Los Angeles. It was now May of 2004, just over a year later and a whole lot has changed. Rasho, Kendall Gill, Rod Strickland and Anthony Peeler had all blessedly moved on, replaced by Sam Cassell, Professor Sprewell, Trenton Hassell and Ervin Johnson. Wally Szczerbiak and Troy Hudson had both missed significant portions of the season with injury. The team was still potent offensively, but with the addition of those veteran scorers their attack was craftier, more deliberate, and better balanced.
But the team’s real improvement was defensive, where they improved from 88 points allowed per 100 possessions in ’02/’03 to 84.2 the next year. Hassell’s manic on-ball D, Johnson’s stoic rim protection and even Spree’s boundless energy all had a galvanizing effect on the team’s defensive culture and particularly on their star. Because that year, KG was on a different plane of existence. He led the league in PER, win share and defensive rebound rate (he was third in overall rebound rate). Ron Artest was the official Defensive POY that season (please), but defensively KG was out of his effing mind. He was, rightfully, the league’s MVP. As a result of all of this, the Wolves had the league’s second best record (behind the Pacers of all teams–bet you’d forgotten that) with 58 wins and earned home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs.
So the fellows over at ESPN are asking us all to choose the Timberwolves’ all-time starting five. Sounds like fun right? the kind of idle thought experiment that’s so good at whiling away those long workday afternoon, right? Wrong. Here’s my take:
On the face of things, it would seem that the only clear choices are: the very young, very confident, very skilled Stephon Marbury; Sam Cassell, who hit some seriously huge jumpers and then did the testicle dance; Terrell Brandon, who was actually really productive in his Minnesota years. Of course, Brandon’s career was prematurely ended by injuries (and anyway, he was never the dynamic backcourt player the Wolves needed during those years) and Sammy’s two ill-starred seasons are still killing the Pups (see: the Marko Jaric trade). As for Marbury: he got us really excited and then he broke our hearts; he gave some insane interviews, he ate vaseline on the internet, he went to China. It was all over so quickly.
So I could choose those guys, or I could choose the guy with the Finals MVP trophy and the World Championship gold medal, the guy who resurrects struggling teams upon arrival, the guy who is clearly (if you ask me) the best PG the Wolves have ever had on their roster. Do I care that Lord Chauncey Billups was only a backup for the Wolves and that his best years came after he went on his merry way? I do not.
And anyway, anytime we anthologize the Minnesota Timberwolves we should make some mention of one or more of their many terrible, terrible decisions. Letting Chauncey go was one of the worst.
Answer: Chauncey Billups
It’s ironic and appropriate that the little ESPN voting gizmo lists Randy Foye as a shooting guard. Foye actually manned the point for most of his time as a Wolf but you would never have known it from watching him play; the way he overdribbled and jacked contested threes, he certainly looked for all the world like a shooting guard. ‘Course he couldn’t defend the two or any other position for that matter.
As for Latrell Sprewell, I have always dearly loved the Professor for his utterly fearless, utterly brazen scoring as a Knick and Warrior, and for his role in the best season in Wolves history. But one year of fading glory and another of dead-legged jumpers and pure locker room poison just aren’t cutting it.
Rashad McCants? Ricky Davis? Can I vote for Gerald Glass?
Answer: I dunno, Doug West I guess? See how hard this is?
The offensive stats tell me I should choose Wally Szczerbiak or Tony Campbell. Campbell scored 20.6 points per game as a Wolf and Wally hit more than 45% of his three pointers one year, but I’m not going to go with either of these guys. I’m going to go with Sam Mitchell because he gave the best years of his career to some godforsaken teams, because he defended and rebounded with passion on those unwatchably bad squads, because he played professional basketball in the Metrodome, because he mentored KG and countless others, because he was a completely righteous dude.
Answer: Sam Mitchell
Clearly, there is only one player who can fill this spot and that player is, of course, Joe Smith. I’m sorry, that wasn’t funny.
Answer: the best defender and rebounder of the last decade, who is still the best reason, geography aside, to love the Wolves, who (along with Flip Saunders) was the only reason the Wolves ever won more than 40 games, whose throbbing heart still pounds inexorably under the Target Center parquet, I don’t care what his uniform says.
By the way, wasn’t Trent Tucker the best?
I have three observations about this:
1) I have a soft spot for Rasho Neterovic, don’t get me wrong. But the fact that Rasho and Michael Olowakandi are candidates for anyone’s list of the best of anything pro basketball related is hilarious.
2) Did the Wolves just trade the best center in their history, at age 25, for two first-round draft picks?
3) This is getting depressing.
Answer: Al Jefferson
This starting five–Chauncey, West, Mitchell, KG and Big Al–is pretty good. Throw in a solid crew of all time Wolves bench players–maybe like Kevin Love, Pooh Richardson and Trenton Hassell for example–and you just might have a contender (although I wouldn’t put any money on them beating last year’s Lakers). You heard me: the best team 20 years of Timberwolves history can produce, might conceivably have had a chance to win last season’s Western Conference. Sigh.