Kevin Garnett's future in Minnesota may depend on this season.
Timberwolves 2006-2007 Season Preview
As the NBA season tips off on November 1st, it will mark the Minnesota Timberwolves' 18th quest for a championship. While many would argue (myself included) that expecting an NBA title from a team who finished with the sixth worst record in the league last season is asking a bit much, the fact remains that this eighteenth foray into the regular season will be the most important in franchise history. Because as much as anyone can speculate from the tight-lipped Kevin Garnett, the outcome of this season will play a big role in whether KG decides to punch his big ticket for a trip to another NBA city.
There have been many other Timberwolves seasons in the past, where the expectations on the team were much higher. Yet even the franchise-best 2003-2004 year didn't carry with it the amount of pressure that's been placed upon this '06-07 squad. Because in each and every one of those seasons the collective expectations placed upon the Timberwolves were within their abilities to reach. For the most part, a season was considered a success if the team just made a run at the second round, never mind actually getting that far.
Not so, this time around. Because for the first time ever, the Minnesota Timberwolves will need to meet expectations that have been set higher than their abilities appear on paper. And when they step onto the hardwood for the first time on Wednesday night, they won't be playing for pride or public opinion. They will be playing for the future of this franchise, and perhaps as equally as important, Kevin Garnett's legacy.
Think about what Kevin Garnett means to this franchise, and how debilitating his loss would be to professional basketball in Minnesota. Then consider what winning a title as a career Timberwolf would mean to KG's legacy, as opposed to capturing a championship as, for example, an afterthought to "His Airness", should he end up being swapped to the oft-mentioned Chicago Bulls. With those two ideas in mind, it becomes painfully clear that the stakes have never been higher heading into a season for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Unfortunately, it also begs the question as to how this mismatched group of misfits is going to be able to turn things around and keep the next 82 games from becoming a complete disaster - a question without an obvious answer. But being the eternal optimist that I am, I'm not willing to just sit back and accept the fact that this franchise is a ticking time bomb. And so I've come up with a reasonable plan on how the 2006-2007 Timberwolves can go from being hopeless underdogs to heralded saviors.
How to Save a Season:
It's the underlying goal of every team to make this year a memorable one. Whether that means a trip to the Finals or just a playoff berth, no team wants to be sitting around watching ping pong balls when they could be playing post-season basketball. Here's what needs to happen for the Timberwolves to avoid a third straight trip to the lottery:
1. Mike I Am - Kevin Garnett has never had a teammate who has complemented him as well as Sam Cassell. Kevin Garnett has never had a teammate as similar to Sam Cassell as Mike James. During the early part of the 2005-2006 Season, before everything fell to pieces, the Wolves' Achilles' heel was their inability to hang tough in the fourth quarter. Having a player with the gunslinger reputation of Mike James should go a long way in recapturing the swagger that took the team to the conference finals. Of course, Mike James will have to live up to that reputation for any of the hype to matter.
2. Find a third option - Everyone knows that the pecking order on this squad goes KG, then MJ. But this season is going to be a long one if somebody doesn't step into place and take a firm position as the third option. Randy Foye is the player everyone is banking on for this spot. But expecting a big contribution like that from a rookie, especially early on, is perhaps asking too much. My blackhorse candidate for this role is Marko Jaric, who should spend a lot more time in the small forward position. It's a role that I feel should suit him much better than point guard, and I'm expecting to see a big turnaround from last year's disappointment. Ricky Davis is probably the frontrunner for this spot, but if starter Trenton Hassell's three-point shot is as good as I've heard, he could also make a play for the position.
3. Find a banger - The glaring weakness of this team is its lack of front court depth. KG can't shoulder the load all by himself, so somebody, whether it be Mark Blount, Eddie Griffin, Craig Smith, Mark Madsen, or Vin Baker, is going to have to step it up big time. If Eddie can keep his head on straight, he's the odds on favorite to be that person. But rookie Craig Smith has turned more than a few heads with his pre-season play, a big comfort given Griffin's history of inconsistency.
How to Save a Franchise:
There's only one real answer to this part of the equation, and that's Randy Foye. Absolute best case scenario, the Wolves sneak through to the second round this year. While a success of that magnitude may be enough to make Kevin Garnett think twice about moving on, the more likely result of this year will be a first round exit, or a high lottery pick. With either of those outcomes, The Big Ticket is going to need to see some real potential for future growth if he's going to stick things out in a Wolves uniform. Randy Foye is that potential personified. Should this season tank or end in mediocrity, it will be Randy's flashes of brilliance left as the only rays of hope for the Timberwolves franchise.
How to Save a Life:
I've spent a lot of time talking about what many of his teammates need to do, but now it's time to put the weight of this season on the strongest shoulders in the Wolves locker room, Kevin Garnett's. If this truly is the season that will determine the path that KG takes for the remainder of his NBA career, then he needs to do everything in his power to ensure that he points himself toward the road to Minnesota. I've belabored the point multiple times, so I won't delve into paragraphs explaining why playing in any other city would paint a huge black mark over Garnett's career. I can go on and on about how his teammates need to step it up and help save their leader. But ultimately, Kevin Garnett needs to save himself.
For his entire career, we've allowed him the excuse of having a lackluster cast as a means explain away the team's shortcomings. While they were valid observations, those claims simply wont' do this time - not when the stakes are as high as they are this year. If Kevin Garnett is going to excel in Minnesota and avoid the label of being the best "second-banana" in NBA history, then he needs to prove once and for all that he really is an alpha dog. If this team takes its game to a new level, it will ultimately be because Garnett took his own game to a new level. And so the responsibility for this season, this franchise, and ultimately the path he's going to map out for his life, rests with him.
Life or death, black or white, all or nothing situations are usually reserved for dramatic moments like Game 7's. So it's unfortunate that Kevin Garnett's moment of truth will come during a season where most people don't even expect him to make the playoffs. But now is not the time to think about the situation, but rather the time to go out and get results. If KG can shoulder the burden of the Timberwolves nation one last time, he can take this less than ideal ultimatum and use it to save us all. And maybe, just maybe, the Game 7 of the NBA Finals moment of truth we've all dreamed about will become a reality some day.
1. New Jersey
4. New York
2. Los Angeles Clippers
3. Golden State
4. Los Angeles Lakers
2. San Antonio
3. New Orleans
3. New Jersey
Miami over Orlando
Detroit over Indiana
New Jersey over Washington
Cleveland over Chicago
Miami over Cleveland
Detroit over New Jersey
Miami over Detroit
4. San Antonio
5. Los Angeles Clippers
7. New Orleans
Dallas over Houston
Phoenix over New Orleans
Minnesota over Utah
San Antonio over Los Angeles Clippers
Dallas over Minnesota
San Antonio over Phoenix
Dallas over San Antonio
Dallas over Miami