Runnin' Fives: Minnesota Timberwolves

A Daily Babble Production

Welcome to the latest edition of the CelticsBlog NBA page's newest feature, Runnin' Fives.  Over the course of the next few months, we'll be picking a five-man all-time team for each of the Association's thirty currently active franchises.  The rules are simple: The goal is to put together the best possible standard five-man line-up (two guards, two forwards, one center, with some room for finagling if need be) for each team based on the performance of the players while with said team.  For instance, it's hard to imagine Michael Jordan making the Washington squad or Karl Malone or Gary Payton challenging for spots in Los Angeles (or Mark Blount making any team, anywhere).  We'll be progressing from youngest franchise to oldest at the rate of one to two teams per week, pursuant to the workings of the NBA's news cycle and availability of sources as we'll be checking in with bloggers, beat writers, fans and anybody else we can get a hold of for insight on their teams.  And of course, we're alwayslooking for your input, and we invite all readers to submit their own line-ups, honorable mentions, dishonorable mentions and everything in between in the comments section below.  We eagerly look forward to hearing from you!

We continued Runnin' Fives last Friday with a recount of the storied history of the Grizzlies, thus completing our trip through the NBA's 1995 expansion.  We're on to our next step backward in time, which takes us to 1989 and the inception of the Minnesota Timberwolves.  It's been a story of streaks in Minny: Seven straight lottery seasons, seven straight first-round exits, one trip to the Western Conference Finals, four more lottery seasons.  Not much team success to write home about, but fortunately, the Wolves have had a few players worthy of some recognition on an individual basis, and perhaps if we got them all together in their Wolves primes, they would win a few games and hike their way on out of the first round, too.  Let's run fives with the Minnesota Timberwolves:

Point Guard: Sam Cassell - The only point guard to make the All-Star team with Minny as well as the floor general who was a major reason why the Wolves had the best season in team history in 2003-04.  No, Cassell's 6.4 assists per game with the Wolves don't match the gaudier 8-plus figures posted by the other three players in this discussion (Stephon Marbury, Terrell Brandon and Pooh Richardson), but that statistic was belied by his overall contribution in Minnesota. 

Cassell added another major scoring option (17.2 points per game with Minnesota), and he did so with efficiency, going for 56.6 percent true shooting in 2003-04.  The other three big-time Wolves point guards combined for exactly one season out of nearly ten between them in town with a true shooting so high as 53 percent (Brandon in 1992-93).

But of even greater significance were the intangibles that Cassell brought to the table.  He came in as a veteran point guard and leader, and he immediately provided the presence of a man not scared to take a huge shot, a man who could be counted on by his teammates at all times.  Cassell was at least partially responsible for the increase in the team's poise and for improvements in its mental fortitude, and he was a major steadying influence on Kevin Garnett and those around him as the team went on to win 58 games in 2003-04.  TWolvesBlog's Jeremy "the Old Logo" Knutson also reminds us that Cassell facilitated the top-ranked offense in team history, and he even goes so far as to assert, "In a non-numerical sense, Cassell was easily the most clutch player in Wolves history." 

Wolves reporter Mike Trudell, who writes for the team's official site, concurs with on the issue of clutchness: "It was his confidence that MAY have led Minnesota to a championship if he could JUST have stayed healthy for the Lakers. Just a few more games, Sam!!!! (sigh). Watching almost every Wolves game as a senior in college on the NBA Season Pass, I can’t remember Cassell missing one jump shot. Not one. It was absurd. That cold-blooded swagger – not KG’s energy, which was a staple in every game for his whole career – was what made that team great."  But it's also worth mentioning that Mike pairs Cassell with Terrell Brandon in the back-court and then notes, "If this starting five had to play one game or series together, I’d put [Tony] Campbell in for Cassell, have Brandon initiate everything and Sam come in off the pine to shoot daggers."  So Cassell gets some love from Mike but loses out on the starting spot.

Of course, the major argument against Cassell here is likely to be his lack of longevity, having played just two seasons and 140 games with the Wolves.  That being said, it's worth noting that Marbury's tenure was only 27 games longer, and Brandon's four years in town were marred by injuries throughout.  Cassell led the best Wolves unit of all time, and he made All-Star in the process.  No other point guard for this franchise can lay claim to those achievements.

Honorable mentions: Marbury, Brandon, Richardson - All put up admirable numbers as Wolves, averaging better than 15 points and 8 assists per game.  Of course, Marbury was a head case, Brandon a constant injury concern and Richardson a guy piling up good stats on abominable teams.  Stop-n-Pop of Canis Hoopus tries to sell us on Marbury with the amusing point that "A broken brain is preferable over a broken knee/ankle/hip/etc."  Problem is, I'm not buying: Like the other teams that have dumped him, the Wolves almost immediately saw their record improve after Steph was shown the door. 

Of course, Second Jumpability's Big Ticket (of CelticsBlog member fame as well) sums up the three runners-up far more succinctly than I can: "There was a guy who threw a fit and broke up one of the most promising duos of the 90s, one with ankles made of glass and some dude named Pooh."  All three folks put up comparable individual figures, so Brandon gets the nod for the bench spot (if it existed, of course), with Marbury and Richardson left vying for the scrub slot.

Read More..All of Steve's daily posts can be found in the CelticsBlog: NBA blog.  Check him out!
 

Shooting Guard: Tony Campbell - Prior to this season, Campbell was the top average scorer in team history (and still is if there is any qualifying requirement for games played, given that Al Jefferson has only been with the team for one year).  As Stop-n-Pop notes, Campbell was the team's initial star acquired through the expansion draft, and though he wasn't the world's most efficient scorer (top scorers on expansion teams rarely are), he certainly filled it up for the early Wolves, averaging 23.2 and 21.8 points per game in his two seasons as a starter and culminating his three-year Wolves tenure at 20.6 points per game for his time in town. 

Campbell logged big minutes in those first two seasons (38.6 and 37.6 per game) and still played more than 30 minutes per game the year in which he began coming off the bench.  Standing 6-foot-7 and getting time at both swing spots, TC also pulled down his share of rebounds, nabbing five per game in his first two campaigns.

Ultimately, while Campbell played for the most putrid of the Wolves' teams, he was responsible for carrying most of the load early on, and he did an admirable job of it. But it's also worth noting that, as Stop-n-Pop notes, there isn't a ton of competition for the spot: "The Wolves have never had a shooting guard to write home about.  It's been Spree, [J.R.] Rider, Ricky Davis, and Tony Campbell.  A lot of people bemoan the fact that the Wolves have always lacked a consistent point or a big time center, but when you're wings are this ineffective, it's pretty hard to get stuff done."  Big Ticket agrees: "There really was just no other viable candidate. (Please, don't say Sprewell)."

TWolvesBlog doesn't want us to forget Rider entirely: "I will remember Rider as the first Timberwolf to infuse some excitement into the game with earth-shattering dunks and some much needed swagger.  One determining factor between Rider and Campbell is promises to fans kept.  Rider was drafted and, in one of his first press conferences, he made a promise to the fans that he would win the slam dunk competition.  One east bay funk later, he was the slam dunk champ."  But there is no denying that the guy was also one of the league-leading boneheads of the last two decades, and that combined with the fact that Campbell's production was slightly superior costs Rider a chance at this spot.

Small Forward: Wally Szczerbiak - You read that correctly: It's Wally World!  For all the ill will that Szczerbiak has engendered from both Wolves and Celtics fans (self undoubtedly included) over the years for certain flaws -- lack of defense, perceived softness, squabbles with the Sizable Ticket -- the guy not only performed at an All-Star level while with Minnesota but was also tremendously efficient from the field.

Wally averaged a solid 15.5 points per game in six and a half seasons with the team, but it was his accuracy that was most praiseworthy.  The man hit half his shots from the field and shot better than 40 percent from deep (and 85.5 percent from the foul line to boot).  Szczerbiak had just one season below 56 percent true shooting, posted three full seasons at 58 percent or better and was cruising at better than 60 percent prior to being traded to the Celtics in the midst of the 2005-06 season. 

It's hard to complain about a guy's affinity for shooting when he hits with such regularity.  Wally helps this team stretch the floor in a big way, which will only make slashing easier for Campbell.

TWolvesBlog agrees that Szczerbiak should have a spot on the squad, although Jeremy puts him at the two thanks to an interesting plan in the front-court that we'll address shortly.  But once again, it's the lack of historical depth at the wing spot that stands out the most in our panelists' comments: "Wally is one of the four Wolves to ever make the all-star game.  Even though he did so as a small forward, I'm still giving him this spot, as he played SG on and off with the Wolves.  Other than Wally, the shooting guard position is another in many mediocre, 'who's the best in Wolves history' battles."  While that's the case, we're happier here with Campbell and Szczerbiak than any other two-three pairing, and it helps that, as Jeremy concedes, Wally was largely a small forward with the team.

Power Forward: Kevin Garnett - Here's hoping his selection to this team doesn't require too much explanation.  But just in case there was any need for a brief refresher...

One of the top power forwards of all-time.  One of the best players of all time.  A first ballot Hall of Famer.  The only MVP in team history.  An interior defensive force (six All-Defensive First Team selections while in town).  A 10-time All-Star with the Wolves.  The team's all-time leader in games played, scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks and steals (averaging 20.5 points, 11.4 boards and 4.5 assists isn't too bad either).  The man responsible for the greatest playoff performance by anyone in a Wolves jersey (His 32-21 Game 7 against Sacramento in the 2004 semis).  One of the most intense and hardest-working players of his generation.  The heart, soul and face of the organization from virtually the moment he walked through the door in 1995.

This is the unquestioned greatest player in franchise history. 

Honorable mention: Tom Gugliotta - While there's no dispute from TWolvesBlog that the Big Ticket needs to be involved here, Jeremy chooses to give Googs the nod at the four.  Here's the logic: "I know KG just helped your squad win a championship as a power forward, but to trot out the best Wolves team of all time, we have to stick KG at small forward.  Granted, I think he is more of a power forward, but he spent many years at small forward and during those years the Wolves had a power forward make the All-Star Game.  When you only have four all-stars in team history, you have to make do with what you've got."  That other All-Star power forward is Gugliotta, who averaged 18.2 points and 8.5 boards per game in three and a half seasons with the team, making the ASG in 1997.  Jeremy continues, "Googs came in after the mess-that-was-Laettner exited, and along with KG and Marbury, the future for the Wolves looked bright in the mid-90s.  One fallout with Marbury later, and the Wolves' casts of characters switched so often that it wasn't hard to feel bad for KG over the years."

It's a convincing case on Jeremy's part, but ultimately, the problem here is that while KG was successful at the three, we're talking about a guy who is legitimately in the discussion (though he wouldn't get the nod here) for the greatest power forward of all time.  That being the case, I can't bring myself to push the guy out of position.  Further, having KG out at the three could mean his being less of a post presence defensively and thus less of a defensive anchor, and Gugliotta can't do a comparable job in that regard.  So while I was able to get one fellow Long Island native on this Minnesota team (Waly World and I share a home county), we'll have to lay off on the second.

Though we're leaving Googs off the team, Mike manages to give us a hearty laugh on his behalf as he throws one of our all-time least favorite players under the bus in defense of the power forward: "His two and a half years of just about 20, nine and four simply can’t be ignored. Unless your name is Stephon Marbury. He didn’t care a lot about that. Special thanks, Steph, for destroying any chance for Googs, KG and the Wolves to make a legitimate run. See you later, thanks for playing though."  Anyone with some good, ol'-fashioned Starbury venom will always be welcome here.  This is a guy who needs me to set him up with a few Knicks fan buddies with whom he can commiserate.  

Given his blog handle, let's go back to the best player in team history and give Big Ticket the last word on this one: "Picking KG to an all-time Wolves team is easier than picking Michael Jordan to an all-time Bulls team. That's right.  It doesn't take much more than the following statement: The Minnesota Timberwolves have yet to win 30 or more games in a season when Kevin Garnett was not part of the team."

(Can't question the factual clause there.  And let's just leave it at that.)  

Center: Al Jefferson - Jeremy encapsulates the bleakness of the Timberwolves' situation in the pivot over the course of their history in a nutshell: "Prior to Jefferson, if you gave me a sheet of loose leaf paper and asked me to fill out all of the great Wolves centers over the seasons, it would remain blank, all due respect to Randy Breuer, Felton Spencer, Luc Longley, Paul Grant, Stanley Roberts, Mike 'Big Brown Bear' Brown, Andrew Lang, Reggie Slater, Rosho Nesterovic, Michael Olowakandi, Oliver Miller, Mark Blount and Theo Ratliff."

Jefferson was highly productive in his first season in Minnesota, standing as one of only four players across the Association to average better than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in 2007-08 (Dwight Howard, Carlos Boozer and Antawn Jamison make pretty good company).  In just his fourth season in the league, the youngster from Prentiss High School in Mississippi went for 21 and 11 and shot an even 50 percent from the field (nice drafting work, Mr. Ainge).  Jefferson is fast gaining mastery of the so-called herky-jerky moves in the paint and loves to go to the baby hook with his right hand.  He has also improved his mid-range game and can knock down the 15-footer if left unattended.

Mike is a believer, too: "It’s tough to include a guy who’s only worn a Wolves’ jersey for one season … Oh wait. No it’s not. It’s exceedingly easy.  By immediately demanding a double-team and changing the way your squad can play for years to come, signing an incredibly reasonable contract for your skill level to make a future championship possible and making any truly informed basketball mind actually support the death of the Big Ticket in Minny, your place in the starting five is secured. Nay. Demanded."

In the interest of full disclosure, the man once thought of as the future of the Celtics (and still paid homage by CelticsBlog member 'BigAltheFuture' among others) still has plenty of room to improve, particularly on the defensive end.  He is fast gaining a reputation around the league as a putrid defender, and for a player who has worked as hard as Jefferson has at improving his offensive game, he needs to put the same type of commitment into the other end of the floor.  But the fact remains that no other center in team history has come anywhere close to putting up the production that Jefferson did last season, and with Kevin Garnett beside him in the paint, his defensive flaws might be bearable for this team.  Further, the high-low combination of Big Al and KG in the front-court could be dynamite for this unit.

Of course, we would be remiss to discuss Jefferson's candidacy for this team without addressing the elephant on the room here: the issue of position.  Big Al came into the league as a power forward, and there is still a case to be made that it is his natural position.  But as TWolvesBlog says, "I still consider Al more of a power forward, but the fact is that Ratliff got injured after seven games, and, aside from starting Madsen or Doleac in a few games, Jefferson played center last season."  The numbers bear that out: Jefferson played exactly three percent of the team's total minutes at power forward in 2007-08 and 69 percent of total Wolves minutes at center.  It appears that won't be changing much as TWolvesBlog points out that newly acquired draftee Kevin Love is likely to guard opposing power forwards this season.

Stop-n-Pop keeps it real short and sweet: "Big Al is a center is a center is a center."  But he does have two prior posts on the matter that are worth a look.

Perhaps this would be more of a concern if the Wolves had another center to rival Jefferson's production, but that simply isn't the case. 

So there you have it: The all-time Timberwolves team features four players with Celtics ties, and it's too bad Gerald Green couldn't have just been a tad better in his Minny days (perhaps making it through a season in town would have been a start).  But KG and Big Al could make a dream front-court together, and with SamIAm and Wally World in their respective heydays, this team certainly looks like a possible favorite for the top spot of our four so far.

*    *    *    *    *

Special thanks again to all our Wolves contributors:  Stop-n-Pop at Canis Hoopus, Jeremy and the fantastic gang over at TWolvesBlog, Wolves reporter Mike Trudell and devoted CB member and Second Jumpability co-founder Big Ticket.  All four were incredibly insightful, and once again, I felt like I was stealing free team history education from a group of knowledgeable observers.  Much appreciated, folks.

Big Ticket already has a wonderfully entertaining post up with his own nominations for this team.  Check it out here

*    *    *    *    *

Previously on Runnin' Fives:

Charlotte Bobcats

Toronto Raptors

Memphis Grizzlies  

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