Wolves wise to avoid spending Spree

Updated: February 12, 2005, 5:03 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Editor's note: Flip Saunders was replaced by Kevin McHale as coach on Feb. 12.

It doesn't matter if this season is irretrievable. Doesn't even matter if they crater all the way from the Western Conference finals to actually missing the playoffs.

Sacrificing a whole season, painful as that's proving to be, would be better for the Minnesota Timberwolves than had they awarded contract extensions to Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell.

Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell
Because Cassell and Sprewell think of themselves first, the Wolves are far from first.
Blame Flip Saunders and Kevin McHale all you want for Minnesota's ongoing malaise, but your frustrations would be misplaced. Spree and Sam are the forces that have triggered the energy drain at Target Center, all because -- according to team sources -- they feel as though they deserved extensions and Kevin Garnett-sized input with the coach, based on the premise that KG never got past the first round without them.

Which might be the most ridiculous thing I've heard out of Minny this season -- and that includes Latrell Sprewell's feed-my-family soliloquy.

I can (almost) accept Spree's post-soliloquy contention that he was speaking metaphorically about providing for his family when he tried to explain his reluctance to accept a three-year extension worth roughly $21 million. (A deal, incidentally, that seems ridiculously generous now.)

It's a lot tougher to understand how Spree and Sam and other Wolves could actually complain about Flip giving KG the freedom to motion for the occasional timeout or suggest a substitution here or there. Yet we've been hearing it all season. Various veterans, sources say, are bothered by the leeway Saunders gives Garnett.

Say what?

Dare we say Garnett has earned a few privileges by threatening a triple-double -- and playing harder than anyone else -- every single time he steps on the floor.

"It's KG," one fellow All-Star told me last week. "He deserves to do whatever he wants."

He certainly deserves special treatment more than Spree and Sam, who have quickly forgotten that Garnett -- as much as he needed their help in reaching the West finals -- made those two better than ever. Especially Cassell, who became an All-Star for the first time playing at KG's side.

Re-signing them might have made sense if Spree and Sam could be counted on to be reasonable, but they've long since distanced themselves from reason.

And their sulking has spread throughout the team, often leaving Garnett, as he said the other day, feeling like he's back in high school, trying to guard everyone himself. The Wolves' hunger has been substandard for months, and the result is a club that routinely gets outrebounded or shredded defensively. Minnesota sits near the bottom of the league in steals and free-throw attempts and has more home losses already (12) than it did all of last season (10). When a second-round playoff series was still a dream, Minnesota's volatile cast united in hunger. While far healthier this season compared to last season, the cast has splintered.

Observers used to focus on the frailties of the Wally Szczerbiak-Garnett relationship, but team insiders report that they get along fine, largely because Szczerbiak's effort is never in question. Garnett was said to be far more upset earlier in the season, when Trenton Hassell followed the Spree-and-Sam lead by withdrawing in response to Szczerbiak's presence in the starting lineup. Hassell and Szczerbiak have since swapped roles, but Garnett was nonetheless irked, having personally lobbied Wolves owner Glen Taylor to match a six-year, $26 million offer sheet from Portland to Hassell in the offseason.

It's thus fair to ask if one season of the good Spree and Sam was worth what the Wolves, a hard-to-believe ninth in the West, are going through now. It's also inevitable that the job security of Saunders and McHale will be questioned, because Flip has been there for nine-plus seasons (an eternity in the current coaching environment) and because McHale (after more disappointments than successes) is not going to have an easy time retooling an over-the-cap team when Sprewell and Cassell have such limited trade value. If they can't trade Spree before the Feb. 24 -- and they've tried repeatedly, sources report -- McHale and Taylor could opt to just let him walk in free agency with his contract (which pays $14.6 million this season) about to expire.

What you can't question is the Wolves' good fortune. They're lucky Spree didn't accept their extension proposals in October, and that Cassell, at 35, has only one season left on his deal. The Wolves might be stuck with this bad mix for a few more seasons had they extended either one. At least now Minnesota will have the chance to start over this summer, whether or not this season can be salvaged.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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