Wolves growing old, growing apart

Originally Published: January 5, 2005
By Mitch Lawrence | Special to ESPN.com

To start 2005, it's not hard to imagine what New Year's resolutions should be coming out of the Minnesota Timberwolves' locker room:

  • Fix our "Land of 10,000 Leaks" defense;

  • Stop pouting about the fact that there were no contract extensions in our Christmas stockings;

  • Don't wait for Jason Kidd to bail us out of this disastrous season, because he's not coming;

  • And cash in on the fact that the team that KO'd us from the playoffs the last two seasons did us a huge favor by dealing Shaquille O'Neal to Miami.

    Sam Cassell
    Assorted injuries have slowed Cassell, now 35 years old.
    Kevin Garnett and the Wolves are now 16-13 after Tuesday's 122-115 loss to the 1996 Chicago Bulls, er, the Phoenix Suns. Minnesota has lost seven of its last 10 contests.

    "When things are down and you go through a little adversity, that's when you start to see true colors," Garnett said after last Saturday's 104-95 defeat to Memphis that further exposed some big trouble for the Big Ticket and Co. "One thing about this team is that we're all real with each other and we're like brothers. Even though we're going through a difficult thing right now, it's not the end of the world."

    Maybe not, but the Wolves hardly resemble the team that won a franchise-record 58 games last season and advanced to the Western Conference finals. Then, on July 14, VP Kevin McHale led the cheers when he got the news: The Lakers had shipped the Big Obstacle out of L.A. While the Spurs still loomed, that removed what McHale and others in the organization saw as the biggest barrier between their team and the Finals.

    Wrong.

    Defensively, the Wolves are a mess. With Sam Cassell, 35, and Latrell Sprewell, 34, aging before everyone's eyes, the perimeter defense has been woeful. That largely has accounted for the fact that they've already allowed 100 points on nine different occasions, compared to only 11 times all of last season. Even scouts have noticed that Garnett hasn't been his normal dominant self on the defensive end.

    "When we're passive and not aggressive," said coach Flip Saunders, "that's when our defense is bad. We've got to get a more consistent, aggressive approach."

    In four losses in the last 13 days -- to Cleveland, New York, Memphis and Phoenix -- the Wolves allowed all three opponents to shoot 50 percent or better from the field. Overall, the defensive numbers are ugly. Opponents are averaging more than 95 ppg -- way up from last year's 89.1 ppg, seventh-best in the NBA. Just as troubling, opponents have made more than 44 percent of their shots, up from 41.4 percent last season, fourth best in the league.

    "It's not just that their perimeter guys are getting eaten alive by quicker players," said one Eastern Conference scout. "There are times when Cassell and Sprewell look like they don't even care out there."

    One theory is that both players are still fuming about owner Glen Taylor's refusal to give them extensions. Sprewell doesn't want to take a pay cut off his current $14.6 million, because, as we all know, he wants to make sure that he can afford the groceries for his family. Cassell started the season in a snit over the fact that the Wolves aren't extending him, even as he has another season left on his contract. For his part, Taylor reportedly is still miffed that the two blew off mandatory team functions involving corporate sponsorships at the start of the season. One person with knowledge the situation called it "the kiss of death" for the two players.

    There are other issues. Backup Troy Hudson has been singled out for his poor play, while Saunders rarely speaks ill of Cassell or Sprewell or Attila the Hun. Wally Szczerbiak has been the subject of constant trade rumors to New York or Portland. Michael Olowokandi was arrested at a club in Indianapolis and has been the subject of Garnett's wrath on the court.

    Kevin Garnett
    Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty ImagesDespite averages of 23 ppg, 14 rpg, 6 apg and 2 bpg, Garnett is unlikely to repeat as MVP.
    Taylor calls those "little distractions that can keep your team from being as good as it should be." But they sure seem bigger, what with the Wolves sporting a 4-7 record against the East, compared to 24-6 last season.

    "We could have a better record," Taylor told Minneapolis reporters last week. "We've lost some games [we should not have]. I think we've got to take care of whatever it takes to get there. We have too good of a team to keep going the way we are."

    Taylor also said he didn't foresee any trades. While they've tried to get Kidd, the Timberwolves don't have anything the Nets want. With New Jersey recently acquiring Vince Carter, they hope Kidd will change his mind and not look to get traded to a Western Conference contender by the February deadline. As McHale told a business associate last week about a possible deal for Kidd: "It's not gonna happen."

    That's bad news for Garnett, who has taken the losing harder than ever. While the schedule is favorable -- 11 of 17 games this month are at home, and the T-wolves are 57-21 in January the last five years -- his "band of brothers" comment is certainly being put to the test.

    "It's like a family," Cassell said. "No one has a perfect family. If they do, I want to be a part of that family."

    Better yet, they all just need to resolve to be the Timberwolves of last season -- if that's still possible.

    Mitch Lawrence, who covers the NBA for the New York Daily News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.