One Meeting Changed The Wolves' 2003-04 Season
Looking back on the 2003-04 campaign, one meeting in coach Flip Saunders' office changed the mindset—and the direction—of the team
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Editor’s Note: Throughout May, Timberwolves.com will pay tribute to the 2003-04 squad that finished the regular season with a franchise-best 58-24 record and reached the Western Conference Finals. Part II focuses on the moment when that Wolves team learned the difference between being good and elite.
Flip Saunders called a meeting in his office that features Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell late in November during the 2003-04 season. This group featuring a “big 3,” which was brought together with such anticipation in the offseason, was floundering. The Wolves were 9-8 after a Nov. 29 loss to Dallas, in their first 17 games they’d essentially treaded water. Minnesota never won more than three straight, and they lost two in a row twice.
Something wasn’t quite right, and it wasn’t the personnel. The people on the roster seemed to be the right mix—KG was the leader, of course, and Cassell and Sprewell were the hired help thanks to offseason acquisitions. The role players were doing what Saunders and the coaching staff wanted, but the “big 3” seemed a bit lost. Timid. Unwilling to take charge.
That needed to change.
“We didn’t want to step on no one’s toes,” Cassell said. “Flip pulled us in the office one day and said we won’t be successful until you guys hold each other accountable. You guys yell at each other. The three of us burst out laughing, because it was the truth. After that, it was over.”
It was a simple as bringing the truth out in the open.
Minnesota went on a roll through the rest of the season. After that loss to the Mavs, the Timberwolves rallied off 25 wins in their next 30 games. They went 49-16 from Nov. 30 through April 14, pulling themselves up from mediocrity to the top of the Western Conference. The Wolves won their lone Midwest Division championship and held the top seed in the West going into the postseason.
It all exploded on Dec. 5 at Arco Arena in Sacramento. The Wolves had won on Dec. 3 over Phoenix—their first game after the Nov. 29 loss to Dallas. Against the Kings, the Wolves pulled out a 112-109 overtime victory against a talented Sacramento squad—and the Wolves’ “big 3” led the way. Together. Sprewell (37), Garnett (33) and Cassell (26) scored 96 of the team’s 112 points on the night.
“The game that stands out to me was a Friday night game in Sacramento,” said Steve Aschburner, who covered the team for the Star Tribune in 2003-04. “To me, that was their breakthrough game. We sort of saw, whoa, these three are getting close to getting it done at a high level.”
It seems so easy looking back, but that was an enlightening conversation that wasn’t exactly visible by the Wolves’ stars at that point in time. Remember the scenario: Garnett had gone to seven straight postseasons as the team’s star but had not yet delivered a playoff series win. He was in need of a pair of players who could take some of the load off his shoulders which, in return, actually opened up more opportunities for all three of them.
For Sprewell and Cassell, they had been top-tier players on their previous teams with incredible success. Cassell learned how to win from Day 1, winning a pair of titles with the Rockets in his first two seasons as part of those Clutch City squads. He became a guy during stops in Phoenix, Dallas, New Jersey and Milwaukee who would take big shots in big moments. He made the playoffs in eight of his first 10 seasons. Sprewell, a four-time All-Star, had made a run to the NBA Finals with the Knicks in 1999 and had four playoff appearances under his belt.
But this was Garnett’s team, and there was too much deferring going on from all three players. None of them wanted to do too much.
Saunders needed to step in.
“I brought them all together and I said, ‘This isn’t going to work unless you all play your game at your highest level, and then everyone else will adjust to that,’” Saunders said this spring. “You’re trying to adjust before you even play. And what happened then is they started playing like that, and we went on that huge roll prior to the All-Star Break and through the All-Star Break.”
Garnett and Cassell made the All-Star team that year, and the Wolves’ coaching staff was there to coach the Western Conference.
After that initial rough patch, the Timberwolves learned how to use each other’s strengths for the advantage of the whole.
“Before it was KG and a bunch of other role players, and I think those three had to figure out what it was going to take for them to still play their game and not worry about stepping on other guys’ toes,” said Don Zierden, an assistant on the 2003-04 team. “Once the three of them figured that out, the role players were already doing what we expected of them, then we were able to go on some nice rolls.”
Suddenly, the team was working just as the team expected going in. Randy Wittman, another assistant on the 2003-04 team, said the playoff experience Cassell and Sprewell brought gave Minnesota a chance to go far. That’s the type of All-Star talent who had been through it all before that the Wolves needed to place next to Garnett.
Wittman said once Cassell and Sprewell realized Garnett was one of the easiest guys with which to work—that they needed to play their game instead of taking a backseat to KG—everything clicked. They all got on the same page, held each other accountable, and became a close-knit group.
“The momentum started building,” center Mark Madsen said. “KG had an MVP-type season. Sam Cassell started directing things from the point….There was a cast of players, a cast of characters, and it was a fun year.”
In the end, that meeting helped pave the way for an unforgettable season that still bonds the members of the 2003-04 Timberwolves to this day.
“Very special, because I learned a lot not just about myself but made two great friends in Latrell and Sam Cassell,” Garnett said. “It was a great time for us, great time for the city, man.”