Is Minnesota Getting Ready to T-Off?

Despite his disastrous decade and a half in Minnesota, coach Kevin McHale is leaving behind a team that has a chance to make a strong playoff run next season.

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Al Jefferson are you ready for your closeup?

That question is premature, but probably not by much. Jefferson is the all-star-caliber power forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and if you know his game well, then your Basketball Jones is certifiable. To casual basketball fans, he’s just another good player on a team that is going nowhere fast.

But the Timberwolves’ destination became much clearer and more promising on Wednesday when coach and former GM Kevin McHale announced he was leaving the team. McHale’s departure ends a catastrophic 15-year reign, but he leaves the Minnesota roster with a several gifted players and it isn’t wild-eyed to wonder if the T-Wolves might be next year’s surprise team.

Even though the off-season began in earnest just this week, a lot of smart money had already been placed on the Oklahoma City Thunder to be the improving team to watch next season. The Thunder have an emerging superstar in swingman Kevin Durant and two solid young players in guard Russell Westbrook and forward Jeff Green. The team owns the No. 3 and No. 25 picks in next week’s draft.

The T-Wolves may call the bets on the Thunder and raise them with what can only be described as addition by subtraction. McHale is a hoops legend in his native Minnesota. A native of Hibbing, he was a standout in high school then a force for the University of Minnesota. He had a Hall of Fame career with the Boston Celtics and began his executive career with the T-Wolves in 1994. In 1995, McHale took a gamble and drafted forward Kevin Garnett straight out of high school. At the time, such moves were unheard of, but Garnett’s place in the Hall of Fame is secure. The problem with the McHale era is that nothing else he did worked. The Garnett move was such an overwhelming positive that it obscured years of trades, draft picks and other personnel moves that reeked of guesswork.

Here’s a brief lowlight clip. In the 1999 draft Hale left stellar forward Andrei Kirilenko on the board and chose instead William Avery, the Duke University guard who washed out of the league in two seasons. Four years later, he chose Ndudi Ebi, whose career lasted a mere 19 games, ahead of solid NBA players such as Boston Celtics center Kendrick Perkins, Phoenix Suns guard Leandro Barbosa and Dallas Mavericks forward Josh Howard.

McHale’s signature move may have been offering swingman Latrell Sprewell a three-year, $21 million contract extension in 2005. Sprewell was 34 at the time, and his game had been in decline for several seasons. Sprewell, incredibly, rejected the offer, announcing that he “had a family to feed.” In a clear indication that McHale wasn’t bidding against any other team for Sprewell’s services, the offer was withdrawn and Sprewell never played a minute for another NBA team. People have joked about Sprewell’s response, but McHale’s offer was just as absurd.

Two years ago, McHale fired coach Dwane Casey, who was 20-20 at the time. Casey’s successor, Randy Wittman, went 12-30 with the same roster, yet Wittman received a lucrative contract extension. Early this season, with the Wolves bumbling along at 4-15, McHale was bumped down to coach. Although some of the Wolves’ ultimate 24-58 record can be blamed on Jefferson’s mid-season knee injury (reports are that he is fully recovered and ready to go for next season), no one considered McHale to be a future coaching great. The Wolves were inefficient on offense and porous on D.

Despite all the negatives, ambitious assistant coaches should be faxing their  résumés to the T-Wolves asap. In Jefferson, 23.1 points and 11 rebounds per game before his injury, and power forward Kevin Love, 15.8 points and 12.9 boards per 36 minutes in his rookie season, the Timberwolves have two capable interior players younger than 25. Few teams can boast that combination of size and youth in their nucleus. The T-Wolves need help on the wings and at point guard; forward Ryan Gomes took a step back this season. Guard Randy Foye has not developed as quickly as expected, and point guard Sebastian Telfair was never as good as his press clips suggested. However, this draft is overflowing with perimeter players, and the Wolves have three picks in the first round: Nos. 6, 18 and 28. In addition, they are in position to be very aggressive in off-season personnel moves. Their salary cap situation is manageable, and they may be able to add a veteran or two from teams looking to cut their payroll.

The downside is that the Timberwolves play in a very difficult Northwest Division. The Portland Trail Blazers figure to improve, and neither the Denver Nuggets nor the Utah Jazz are showing any signs of decline. But in losing McHale, and adding some rookies to a solid young nucleus, the Wolves look to be moving in the right direction for the first time in years.