Coaching upheaval reflects desperation

Originally Published: February 12, 2005
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Now we know. Now we all know how truly ugly it was up at the North Pole, as Kevin Garnett has been known to call Minneapolis.

Saunders
Saunders

First, KG's Timberwolves did Saturday what they never wanted to do in the middle of a season, firing Flip Saunders.

Then owner Glen Taylor asked Kevin McHale to do what McHale really never wanted to do.

Coach.

That's how desperate the Wolves have become just to make the playoffs, in a season that was supposed to see them contend for a championship. League sources told ESPN.com that the Wolves initially committed to make the change they didn't want to make earlier in the week, but management held off after a quality win Wednesday over Denver, hoping it was a sign Saunders' players hadn't totally tuned him out. By Friday, after an 18-point loss at struggling Utah, Taylor and McHale decided they could no longer stomach Minnesota's half-speed effort.

It doesn't matter to Taylor that McHale has no coaching experience. It doesn't matter that McHale, at Saturday's news conference, didn't hesitate to admit that the audience wasn't "looking at a guy who thinks coaching is the creme de la creme of occupations."

Even though McHale is only an interim solution -- he won't be on the bench past the end of the season -- Taylor saw McHale as the only voice in the organization with a chance to make these Wolves respond. Given the $70-plus million Taylor has invested in one of the league's deepest rosters, ranking Minnesota's payroll among the league's five richest, McHale had to say yes.

Not that he's any lock to spark a turnaround.

McHale will undoubtedly command more accountability from the players than Saunders did, but health and age could continue to be trouble spots even if the Wolves finally start playing as hard as they should.

That's because Garnett, according to sources, probably shouldn't even be playing these days. In what can't be a surprise to anyone, he has been playing on a seriously sore knee without complaining to anyone … or even talking about it. It's unclear if he's even well enough physically to be last season's KG -- the league's MVP, remember -- and anchor a second-half rally for a team that's worn down and getting almost nothing inside.

It's also true that attitude isn't the only category where Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell have fallen short of last season's standard.

As discussed in this cyberspace earlier in the week, the steady dwindling of energy at Target Center started with Spree and Sam. They sulked when management didn't meet their preseason demands for new contracts; both felt they deserved rich extensions and KG-sized input with the organization because KG never got past the first round without them. The sulking and jealousy, after role players Trenton Hassell and Troy Hudson were re-signed, soon afflicted others.

Since McHale is viewed in some precincts as the guy who made Spree and Sam mad to start with, attitudes won't necessarily improve instantly. And even if they do with McHale in charge, Spree and Sam won't be getting any younger. Sprewell is 34, and Cassell is 35 and coming off offseason hip surgery. Again we say: Minnesota's initial extension offer to Sprewell ($21 million over three years) was more than generous, given the state of his game these days. And we fully understand Minnesota's reluctance to extend Cassell, even after his first All-Star season, given his increasing lack of mobility on defense.

So nothing has changed here, no matter who's coaching. Painful as this season is proving to be for the Wolves -- for Flip more than anyone -- even cratering all the way out of the West's top eight would be better for them than had they awarded contract extensions to those two.

Reason being: Taylor and McHale can start over this summer and try again to build around Garnett, in part because their commitment to Spree and Sam wasn't extended.

Starting over has to start with a coaching search now, and who knows? Maybe the Wolves will decide to join the Knicks and Lakers in the Phil Jackson Sweepstakes. Maybe the Wolves will try to rescue Sam Mitchell from Toronto.

Either way, starting over has to appeal to McHale more than his new gig.

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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