By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst
Posted Jan 22 2009 8:40AM
There are levels to the NBA ocean.
The glittering jewels on top of the water are the premier franchises, the ones that win championships and get on television. They have superstars of immense talent and drive, whose nightly exploits keep their fans happy and fill their buildings. And even if they don't win, they're still fortunate enough to be in cities that are rabid for the pro game. They are usually models of stability, with top-down hierarchies that don't brook dissent: the coach has carte blanche, the general manager is creative and the owner is willing to spend.
Here float the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs; the Cavs and Magic and Pistons; the Suns and Mavericks, Hornets and Rockets.
And it's not a surprise that many of the league's elite play here: Kobe, LeBron, KG, CP3, Superman, The Bigs (Fundamental and Cactus), Yao, Nasty Nash, Dirk Diggler.
Right under the surface lie the once-great franchises and the hoping-to-be great again. They may reach the top if they continue to do things the right way. Or they're treading water, and hope not to sink further. Or they're dropping fast, and need someone to throw them a preserver. They may have had bad luck with injuries, or picked the wrong coach, or are just suffering in a rough economy, with owners who can spend to a certain point, but no further.
Here swim the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Warriors; the Jazz and Heat; the Bulls, Pacers and Bucks, the Raptors and Hawks; the Sixers, Nets and Knicks. And many have stars. But are they superstars, capable of lifting a team on their own or with little help? Guys like Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Brandon Roy, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, Danny Granger, Chris Bosh, Devin Harris and Derrick Rose wait for the cavalry here.
Then there are the NBA's algae eaters. The bottom feeders.
They're stuck at the ocean floor, moored there by some combo of poor drafts, silly trades, revolving door coaching and indifferent ownership. They haven't made much noise for decades, other than a faint pulse of playoff heart here and there. They need something, a miracle maybe, to get off the bottom and start toward the surface.
'Cause right now, they're plankton.
We bring you the league's lessers: the Timberwolves, Wizards, Clippers, Kings, Bobcats, Grizzlies and Thunder.
You hear every day about the Lakers and Celtics and Cavs. I want to spend a few days (news cycles permitting) looking at each of the NBA's also-rans, to not only see where it went wrong, but how it might yet be made right. Is there a fan base that can be convinced better times are ahead? Is there someone in the front office with vision, or a coach on the court with passion and charisma? Is there an emerging star player, or the promise of getting one down the road?
Let's start with Minnesota, which had a decade in the sun when Kevin Garnett was doing work, then appeared doomed to at least that long in the wilderness after KG finally was traded to Boston last year. Even though the Wolves got a low-post beast in Al Jefferson from Boston, there was no way Jefferson alone was going to be able to overcome years of botched first-rounders (Paul Grant, William Avery, Ndudi Ebi lead the trail of tears) by then-GM Kevin McHale, who also seemed to undercut the authority of coach after coach with generous contemplation of player complaints.
As the team's record plunged, so did its attendance, to the point where Minnesota is currently 28th in the league in average attendance (13,374 per game) and last in percentage of capacity used, 69.1 percent. (By contrast, Dallas is currently at 104.3 percent of its capacity at American Airlines Center). It's been a tough sell for the Wolves' marketing department, especially in a recession.
"We're trying to relate to the consumer dealing with the current economy," said team president Chris Wright, "looking for value because of their own economic circumstances."
But two things have happened.
One, while McHale may have been a draft cooler for a long time, he ended his slump in a big way.
The Garnett-Jefferson deal gave Minnesota a legit low-post option (though the Wolves would be even further along if they'd held out for Rajon Rondo, who they'd initially insisted be in the deal).
And last June, McHale sent the draft rights to O.J. Mayo to Memphis for the rights to rookie forward Kevin Love. In addition, though, McHale pawned off his stable of ridiculous contracts (Marco Jaric, Antoine Walker) for a lights-out shooter in Mike Miller and role players with soon-to-be expiring deals (Brian Cardinal, Jason Collins). Just like that, Minnesota went from a bloated, capped-out team to one that currently has only $49.9 million committed in salaries for next season before dropping all the way down to $27.2 million in 2009-10.
Two, owner Glen Taylor made McHale ultimately accountable for the current team by insisting he step down from the front office and replace the fired Randy Wittman as head coach in December.
And just as when McHale temporarily took over after firing Flip Saunders in 2005, when he went 19-12 on the bench, he's gotten the Wolves to play pretty good basketball of late. They won five in a row beginning the day after Christmas and seven of eight before losing in Utah Tuesday night. (Granted, McHale lost his first eight out of the gate, part of a 13-game losing skid, before starting the win streak, but you take your improvements where you find them.)
"The guys are out there playing with confidence again," assistant general manager Fred Hoiberg said, and he gives McHale all the credit. The Mayor is in a unique position to judge, having played for McHale for those 31 games at the end of his playing career in '05, and having played in Indiana for Larry Bird for two seasons in the late '90s.
McHale "has such a unique ability for getting inside your head and figuring out what makes you tick," Hoiberg said. "He and Bird are a lot alike in that area...he has such a good demeanor about him. He handles discipline behind closed doors. And confidence in our league is such a big thing. He had a great meeting with the team his first day. He told them exactly what he expected of them. He said, 'I'm not going to be able to keep 15 guys happy.' And guys in our league, I think they react to that better than if you leave them in the dark."
Jefferson (22.2 points, 10.6 rebounds) is a double-double machine. McHale took guard Randy Foye off the ball and Foye has blossomed at shooting guard. And after a slow start in which he had to get in better shape, Love is coming on strong, displaying the rebounding prowess that he showed in leading the Pac-10 in boards last year for UCLA.
Love's defense has improved as well; he guarded Shaquille O'Neal and Andrew Bogut down the stretch in recent games. His basketball IQ, Hoiberg believes, is off the charts. And eventually, Love and Jefferson could play more together, with Love dissecting defenses from the high post while Jefferson attacks in the paint.
The Wolves also expect Miller, a career 40.3 percent three-point shooter entering this season, to do better than his current 33 percent clip behind the arc before the year's out.
But most intriguing about Minnesota is that the Timberwolves can run this year's draft.
The Wolves traded their 2009 first-rounder to the Clippers, but it's protected for Minnesota through the 10th pick, meaning Minnesota gets to keep it this year if the Wolves wind up with one of the first 10 picks in the draft. Minnesota's current record: 13-27. Check.
Minnesota has Boston's first-rounder as part of the Garnett deal. It's protected for the Celtics, but only through the third pick. Not likely the 34-9 Celtics will have one of the top three picks next June. Check.
Miami included an '09 first in the trade with Minnesota that sent Ricky Davis to the Heat for Walker and Mark Blount two years ago. It's protected for Miami through 10. But the Heat's surprising season thus far makes it unlikely Miami's going to be in the lottery. Check.
Minnesota also got Philadelphia's first-rounder in '09 as part of a trade last summer where the Wolves took Rodney Carney and Calvin Booth off the 76ers' hands so Philly could clear maximum cap room to sign Elton Brand. But the pick originally belonged to Utah, which sent it to Philly as part of the Kyle Korver trade. It's protected for next year through 22, so if the Jazz have their typical 50-win season, there's a reasonable chance Minnesota could get it.
However, through a series of what-ifs involving Utah, New York and Philly that are way too complicated to get into here, the Wolves may not get the pick for '09. But whether it's three picks or four, Minnesota will be on everyone's speed dial, able to combine the likely picks with players like Cardinal, Mark Madsen and Craig Smith all entering the final years of their contracts to add to their nucleus.
If Kevin McHale chooses to stick around, Minnesota could turn things around soon.
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
But Minnesota still has a long way to go to get back into the Western Conference picture.
Is McHale committed to being the full-time coach, for example? And if not, what will Taylor do with his longtime favorite employee?
Will Taylor leave the current, seemingly unwieldy post-McHale management arrangement in place--with Jim Stack as GM and Hoiberg and Rob Babcock as his assistants?
Will the Wolves be able to entice free agents to come to what Garnett used to call "the North Pole?"
And how does the team improve that ghastly attendance?
"We're not going to throw in the towel," Wright said. "We're going to continue to be aggressive."
Like many other teams, the Wolves have "Guys Night Out" and "Girls Night Out" packages, discounted "Meal Deal" tickets that add in free hot dogs, sodas and chips with a $20 ticket, and "Buy Three, Get One Free" offers.
The Wolves have a partnership with Pepsi for discounted upper level tickets as part of the franchise's 20th anniversary celebration. Wednesday night is "Student Night," where the first 100 students who buy upper bowl tickets are moved to the lower bowl, with additional potential savings for non-students on Wednesdays with "Dollar Dog Night."
Wright believes people will still come out on cold Midwest winter nights if they think there's value in it. To that end, he's pushing a "50-win ready" mentality now among his staff for that day when--if--Minnesota turns the corner on the court.
"All our data indicates that people are in fear of their jobs," he said. "But if they have their jobs on payday, people are still looking to be entertained on a Friday or Saturday night. We want to place our product in that environment...Minnesotans are a pretty hearty bunch. And it is true that when you hibernate for a long period of time, you do get to a point even in Minnesota where you've just gotta get outside."
There have been signs of life since the team started its recent streak. A Saturday night game against Milwaukee earlier this month, Wright said, had a walk-up of 1,200 fans in 90 minutes--the most since the team's 2003-04 season when it made the West finals--as part of a "True Blue" promotion that cut ticket prices in half for anyone who wore blue to the game, as the team did in wearing its nominal blue road jerseys. There will be more True Blue nights later this season.
"It's helped them to see how the team has played lately," Hoiberg said. "They're starting to see that the pieces and the players we've acquired have the potential to be pretty good."
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