Minnesota Timberwolves - A look at the first 20 years
On November 8, 1989, the Minnesota Timberwolves played their first home game against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The Wolves played well but dropped the game 96-84. Hey, the Wolves were still several years away from seeing talent on the floor that might one day be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
As the Timberwolves embark on their next 20 years it is difficult not to get a little nostalgic in remembering the times that we loved, laughed and cried.
While it is clear that the Timberwolves are again in the rebuilding phase it is a good time to take a look back at the overachievers, the underachievers, and a host of other players that brought smiles, looks of disbelief and tears to our eyes.
Most Disappointing First Round Pick
3rd place- Felton Spencer, 6th player drafted in 1990. Spencer played for the Wolves for three season averaging 6 points, 6.6 rebounds in 213 games. Spencer was slow and clearly destined for a career as a reserve player. Spencer's numbers are the lowest for any player drafted by the Wolves within the first 10 picks.
2nd place - Ndudi Ebi, 26th player drafted in the first round in 2003. The Wolves attempted to stretch by taking the highschool phenom before he was physically and mentally mature enough to handle the rigors of the NBA life. Ebi got into 19 games over 2 years grabbing a total of 19 rebounds and scoring 40 points. Because there were no expectations for Ebi to immediately contribute to the Wolves he does not take home the big prize.
First place - William Avery, 14th player drafted in the first round. Unlike Ebi the expectations for Avery were high as GM Kevin McHale thought he had found someone to replace the void of Stephon Marbury. Avery didn't live up to the hype and should have stayed at Duke for one more year. In 142 NBA games over 3 seasons, Avery averaged 2.7 points per game and 1.4 assists per game.
Best Draft Pick Other than Kevin Garnett
I have limited this category to players that have played at least 3 years with the Timberwolves. Yes, that substantially limits the number of players for consideration.
3rd place - Rasho Nesterovic,17th pick in the first round of 1998. Rasho at times looked lost in the up tempo game and occassionally would fail to switch quickly enough but overall he played well for the Wolves for several years.
2nd place - Wally Szczerbiak, 6th pick of the first round in 1999. Wally was a terrific spot up shooter who when hot could knock down 3 pointers with the best in the league. Unfortunately, Wally was not always willing to make the same commitment on the defensive end. His lack of defense keeps him from being number one along with the fact that he was a lottery pick that did not exceed expectations.
1st place - Doug West, 38th pick in the 2nd round in 1989. Doug played hard when there was no Big Ticket to go to. Christian Laettner would arrive until 1992. Doug's commitment to work hard every night on both ends made him an immediate fan favorite. West is still number three on the all-time list for steals and number four on the all-time list in points for the Wolves. West led the Timberwolves in scoring in the 1992-1993 season averaging 19.2 points a game.
The Coach that Got the Least out of the Wolves
There really is only one candidate. Bill Musselman did a remarkable job getting the franchise off to a solid start establishing a winning percentage of .311. The trio that followed (Bill Blair, Sidney Lowe and Jimmy Rodgers) were pretty awful but let's face it before Kevin Garnett arrived wins for the Timberwolves were few and far between.
No, the only choice is Randy Wittman. Yes, it's true Coach Witt did not have Garnett for his entire run at the helm but the team he took over had some talent. Coach Dwayne Casey was 20-20 with the Wolves when he was dismissed. Enter Coach Wittman who then took the Wolves home with a 12-30 record. The next season began as poorly as the last season ended requiring General Manager Kevin McHale to immediately step in to stop the bleeding.
You Got to Know When to Hold Them . . .
3rd place - Last year the Wolves traded the rights to O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love and Mike Miller. Many questioned the move given the obvious need for a scorer. Now that Miller has been traded more people are questioning why the Wolves made the deal. In fairness to Love, Love may have a longer career than Mayo.
2nd place - When the Wolves traded Ray Allen for Stephon Marbury in 1996, General Manager Kevin McHale was widely viewed as a genius. McHale had put together a dynamic duo that most believed would rival Stockton and Malone. The Wolves made the playoffs a year after Marbury's arrival and the future seemed bright. Unfortunately the green eyed monster got Marbury after Garnett signed a 6 year 126 million dollar deal. The partnership never recovered and Marbury demanded to be traded and eventually left town during the 1998-1999 season.
1st place - 10 years after Allen/Marbury, the Wolves swapped Brandon Roy for Randy Foye in 2006. The TImberwolves reportedly made the trade in part to save some money over the long run as the front office graded the players as being comparable talents. Foye is a very good player that I have enjoyed watching but he does not appear to have the skills to become an elite player in the league. Unfortunately, Roy appears (if he is not already there) to be on the verge of becoming one of the elite players in the league for a long time to come.
Three and a Show
In the early years of the franchise Pooh Richardson and Tony Campbell were always willing to let it fly from three point land. On makes, Richardson would bob his head up and down to let the fans know that he had no doubt after the ball left his hand. Campbell would pick up the pace of his back pedal on defense to suggest that the Wolves were ready to turn up the heat. However, the guy that would put on the best show was Chuck "the Rifleman" Person. On the really deep three pointers, the Rifleman would draw his imaginary pistols and shot the bad guys down.
The Original Wolves Bad Boy
Few players in the history of the Wolves franchise have had the ability to take away the breath of the crowd. The first for the Wolves was Isaiah "J.R." Rider.
Rider won the NBA All-Star Dunk Contest in 1994 as a rookie with his between the legs East Bay Funk Jam. At the time, Charles Barkley called it the best dunk that he had ever seen. Rider was a First Team selection to NBA's All Rookie Team.
Unfortunately, J.R. did care much for authority. Rider came 30 minutes late to his first Wolves practice. He reportedly constantly fueded with the coaching staff throughout his time with the Wolves. Rider also got into trouble off the court - convicted of assault, pled guilty to misdemeanor possession of marijuana and pled guilty to illegal possession of a cell phone.
Nothing was ever ordinary or plain with Rider.
Favorite Towel Waver
Sure, it is easy to be excited playing for a perennial championship team like the Los Angeles Lakers. At the Forum, when you get off the bench and start waving your towel - you will likely see famous movie stars and beautiful young women. On the road, you play before crazed energized fans because you are the hunted. Heck, you might even lose your mind and come up with a dance when you win it all.
Mad Dog impressed the Wolves faithful because he brought his same towel waving frenetic energy to the Wolves. Madsen sustained his passion for his teammates even when it was clear that the Wolves would not be going to the playoffs. While there have been times when the Target Center has gotten quiet, Mad Dog would do his best to keep the crowd's collective head up during the storm.
Expect to see Brian Cardinal this year to pick up where Mad Dog left off.
Wait, The Soup is not Ready . . .
Every franchise occassionally gives up on a player before they should. Three the Wolves wish they would have kept on the roster a little longer -
Bobby Jackson - Wolves traded for the Minnesota Gopher star and kept him on the squad for 2 years. Jackson was used sparodically off the bench but couldn't get out off of Flip's dog house. Jackson left for Sacramento and then went on to be a great sixth man scoring in double figures in 6 over the next 7 years.
Donyell Marshall - The Wolves draft Marshall in 1993 and only kept him for a year. Marshall had a solid rookie season but the decision was made to trade him for Tom Gugliotta. Googs wasn't bad but injuries cut his career short. Marshall had more productive years in the league helping the Warriors and 76ers make solid playoff runs.
Chauncey Billups - Mr. Big Shot was acquired prior to the 2000 season and played fvery briefly for the Wolves before seeking greener pastures in Detroit. Billups' leadership and willingness to play big in the moment has resulted in the Pistons winning the NBA championship and the Denver Nuggets making it to the Western Conference Finals.
Besides KG, Greatest Impact on the Team . . .
The one decision that will always haunt Wolves fans is when Kevin McHale decided to violate the collective bargaining agreement and sign Smith to an under the table multi-year deal for over 100 million dollars. The consequences of the deal were catastrophic for the Wolves. Commissioner Stern fined the franchise $3.5 million dollars and stripped the club of five Number 1 draft picks. Arguably, the most significant penalty imposed by a Commissioner on a team in all of professional sports. McHale was able to mitigate the damage he had caused to the Wolves when he was able to later ship Smith and Terrell Brandon's expiring contract in a multi-team deal to obtain Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell.
Players that Enjoyed Doing the Dirty Work . . . .
Every team needs at least one player that is willing to stick his nose in where it doesn't belong and do the dirty work of giving a hard foul, shutting the team's best offensive player down or setting a hard screen.
Most fans were not impressed with Craig Smith first arrived in the Twin Cities. Smith however won over fans by his hustle and willingness to go into the paint and get rebounds over much taller players. Gary "The Shaq of the MAC" Trent was another undersized player called upon to play the post that fans appreciated how hard he played in the paint. Opponents dreaded seeing Trent flex his biceps when setting a high screen away from the basket. Trent gave hard fouls that would have made Rick Mahorn proud.
However, Trenton Hassell is at the top of the list. Hassell was the best defender in the history of the franchise. Hassell always drew the assignment of playing the best offensive player on the other team. Unlike Bowen, Hassell would get under a player's skin without all of the histronics and flailing arms. Hassell was also willing to be a true team player in setting screen, diving for loose balls and grabbing rebounds.
The Next 20 Years . . . .
There is a new sheriff in town in David Kahn. Kahn has been busy in his first year moving pieces around trying to assemble a team that can contend for the playoffs. The star of the Wolves, Al Jefferson, is coming back from injury. Wolves fans will breathe easy (or is it again?) when they see the big man operate again in the low post in a few weeks.
Hopefully, the Wolves will soon be back in the playoffs making some noise.