As Wizards Visit Wolves, Cassell And Wittman Reminisce About Special 2003-04 Season
The Washington Wizards’ coaching staff is a walking, talking, coaching representation of the Timberwolves’ 2003-04 squad that won 58 games, was the top seed in the West and reached the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers. It was by far the most successful and memorable season in team history, and it still is very vivid in fans’ memories nine years later.
As the Wolves prepare to host the Wizards tonight at Target Center, Washington head coach Randy Wittman and assistants Don Zierden, Jerry Sichting and Sam Cassell all served on that ’03-04 Wolves team. Wittman, Zierden and Sichting were all assistants, and Cassell was a crucial offseason signing that helped springboard the Wolves from a perennial first-round exit squad into a title contender.
When Cassell and Latrell Sprewell joined the club in the offseason, big expectations emerged. But it wasn’t an easy road. With those two high-profile players teaming up with Kevin Garnett, the eventual league MVP in 2004, it took some time to really get adjusted to one another.
The result was a 9-8 start right out of the gate.
“We were trying to not step on each other’s toes,” Cassell said. “And Flip (Saunders) called us into his office one day, and he said we won’t be successful until we hold each other accountable. ‘You guys yell at each other.’ When he said that, the three of us just busted out laughing because it was true. It was the truth.”
Wittman said that’s not uncommon for players of that talent level to assimilate into a situation and have trouble adjusting immediately. It was Garnett’s team, and Sprewell and Cassell were concerned about getting in one another’s way.
“I think Kevin is one of the easiest guys to have the understanding that you are doing your thing and I do my thing,” Wittman said.
From that point forward, the Wolves went 49-16. They won their first and only Midwest Division title, rolled through Denver in the first round and won a memorable Game 7 victory over the Kings at Target Center in the Western Conference semifinals.
Troy Hudson said earlier this year that if he and Cassell hadn’t suffered injuries down the stretch, he felt the Wolves could have gotten past the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals and matched up better with the eventual champion Pistons.
“No doubt about it,” Cassell said. “Troy was hurt the whole year with his ankle. We had that year, I was playing 41 minutes a night. That’s way too many minutes. If we had Huddy for 21 minutes, the way he could score, no doubt about it. I just wore myself out.”
It wasn’t known then, but the Lakers were about to disassemble their three-time champion roster by letting Shaquille O’Neal go to Miami and rebuilding around Kobe Bryant. At the time, the Lakers were the powerful juggernaut that, as anticipated by many, found a way to reach the Finals. But the Wolves were right there that season and had the pieces in place to put together a special run.
“What ifs, you know?” Wittman said. “A lot of people live on that. We weren’t afraid to face anyone team in the playoffs because we matched up pretty well against anybody.”
Tonight, nine years later, this group of coaches returns to Target Center—a building in which they made a lot of fond memories together that still resonate with Wolves fans in the stands and a banner that hangs in the rafters. It’s something both Cassell and Wittman still carry with them.
“It was a great time to be a Timberwolf and a Timberwolves fan,” Cassell said.
“The way we competed all year long, we didn’t have a situation until the end of the year when we had some injuries in the playoffs that cost us from going even further,” Wittman added. “It was as consistent a team I’ve been associated with for 82 games.”