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Steve Aschburner

Kurt Rambis, left, was 32-132 in his brief stay in Minnesota, including 17-65 this past season.
Hannah Foslien/NBAE/Getty Images

Wolves' firing of Rambis a bungling of highest order

Posted Jul 12 2011 9:45PM

For as badly as the Minnesota Timberwolves and team president David Kahn botched the firing of head coach Kurt Rambis, they did manage to pull off something remarkable: Never before in the history of pro sports has a coach who steered his team to a whopping 100 games below .500 in a mere two seasons been made to look so sympathetic.

Remarkable is a step up at this point for the Wolves, who generally have worked in the range between forgettable and regrettable.

Firing Rambis was Kahn's prerogative, sure. Frankly -- given Minnesota's 32-132 record since 2009-10, Rambis' adherence to a triangle-based offense, sieve-worthy results on defense and the longtime Lakers assistant's palpable disdain for youthful (and repeated) mistakes -- it probably was the right thing to do. If only it had been done on April 15 or even May 14.

But letting the situation lie there like roadkill for almost three months -- or maybe two months for the decision to fire, with the third unspooling needlessly before Tuesday's official announcement -- was a bungling of the highest order. This was a team whose season effectively ended in January; there should have been nothing in basketball or emotional terms to reconcile before pulling Rambis' plug.

And yet, it was all of a piece with Wolfian ways before and particularly during Kahn's regime.

This was a team that was every bit as bad last season (17-65) -- with a roster built according to Kahn's specifications and with a slightly more experienced head coach -- as it had been the year before (15-67) with what Kahn and Rambis considered to be the mess they inherited and constantly distanced themselves from.

Back then the job was all about demolition. A year later, right up through Tuesday, the Wolves mostly have been demoralizing. Within their ranks and up in the stands at Target Center.

The theater of the absurd continued with Kahn's news conference, in which he made it clear early that allowing Rambis to twist in the wind so long was a by-product simply of the team president's thoroughness and fairness.

"To the extent that this took some time, that's on me," Kahn said. "I wanted to make absolutely certain though that as we went through this process with Kurt, we felt we were making the absolute right decision, because we had made a long-term commitment to him two years ago."

No kidding. Rambis landed a four-year contract with the Wolves in August 2009 precisely to avoid the situation in which he found himself. Kahn said the idea of a front-office job was floated to Rambis, an embarrassment straight out of owner Glen Taylor's playbook dating back to Flip Saunders' firing -- and attempted reassignment -- in February 2005.

Then the Wolves president said five words that ought to strike fear into fans' hearts: "And now we move on."

Given the course of the franchise so far under Kahn, that has an ominous tone to it. Move on? Move on to what? More of the same?

With the exception of Kevin Love's emergence as a double-double machine, the Wolves have been entertaining for all the wrong reasons over the past two years. There was the back-to-back drafting of point guards Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn in 2009, the equivalent of sending two runners home to be tagged out at the plate when they should have sent none. Rubio stayed in Spain, Flynn got sideways over Rambis' love (of) triangle and then got hurt.

Next came the bidding-only-against-Europe, over-signing of center Darko Marko. The pursuit of other castoffs such as Anthony Randolph and Michael Beasley, who made the mistake late last month of not waiting until the lockout to exceed the speed limit while toting marijuana through Minnetonka. Rambis' staff of assistants worked at cross-purposes for two years and Rambis seemed at various times to lose both his players' ears and interest in digging out.

Even the bounce from Rubio's decision to join the Wolves next season (whenever next season starts) went flat when rumors about Rambis' firing leaked out days later. In the draft, the Wolves landed Arizona forward Derrick Williams in spite of themselves -- they had tried to trade the pick and got caught up in unflattering reports about Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.

Lately, Kahn has continued to defend the Flynn pick as a worthy one -- while trading the Syracuse guard to Houston right before firing the coach who allegedly impeded him. Now Minnesota is searching once again for a head coach, which at least means it isn't paying two in the lockout.

Who will it be? Kahn gave no hint of that Tuesday. Instead, he repeatedly invoked the term "up-tempo" as if Minnesota's problem was scoring enough points last season. It wasn't -- the Wolves' 101.1 ppg ranked 10th in the league, compared to their dead-last 107.7 points allowed. Besides, in the NBA, "up-tempo" is the last refuge of scoundrels who can't find anything else to sell to their fans.

Speaking of which, Kahn's devotion to "up-tempo" made it sound as if the apparently unsophisticated NBA fans in the Twin Cities would rather watch any ol' 130-128 game than an 81-80 victory.

So who will it be? Rick Adelman? (Actually that would make some of this bungling worthwhile.) Bernie Bickerstaff? J.B. Bickerstaff? Old Wolves Terry Porter or Sam Mitchell? Whoever Detroit doesn't hire? A college guy?

"I wish this were an exact science," Kahn told reporters. "I think we will cast a wider net than a narrow net. ... I think it's important that we find somebody whose DNA is up-tempo."

That rules out Mike Fratello, anyway.

Kahn shot down the suggestion that the Wolves' organizational dysfunction would scare off viable candidates, mentioning "seven or eight calls today" from coaches interested in the job. There are, after all, just 30 of those jobs, compared to the hundreds of coaches who could gussy up their resumes and bank accounts by landing this one. Not that they would be the best choice to actually improve the team.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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