It was a rough week for the Minnesota Timberwolves. First LeBron James served them up on the contraction platter, hypothetically suggesting how much better the NBA would be if Kevin Love just went and played somewhere better. Then, after his Lakers got drubbed by LeBron's Heat on Christmas Day, Kobe Bryant piled on, saying the Lakers need to pay attention to every opponent. Even Minnesota.
"Yeah, I said it," Bryant said, the lone moment of levity in an otherwise grim holiday postmortem.
|Michael Beasley's contributions can't make up for what the Timberwolves lack at other positions. (Getty Images)|
The atmosphere in Minnesota is decidedly unfunny, with frustration building because moves are not being made to improve the team. Despite all the point guards that general manager David Kahn has drafted and acquired, the Wolves still don't have one of bona fide starting caliber. Rather than using cap space to get one, Kahn seems content to wait for the mythical Ricky Rubio to leave Barcelona and join the Wolves in Minneapolis next season. Instead of adding a much-needed defensive presence to the frontcourt, Kahn is opting to maintain payroll flexibility due to the uncertainty of a new collective bargaining agreement.
Such a strategy suggests this season is being written off in the name of better days ahead. Sometimes, that's the right strategy. But for a team that hasn't been to the playoffs since 2004 and hasn't had a winning record since the 2004-'05 season, haven't enough seasons been written off?
With the Wolves' payroll among the lowest in the league at $46 million, and with no veteran leadership on the roster, coach Kurt Rambis is facing an uphill fight with a young team. Two of the more experienced players on the roster, Corey Brewer and Sebastian Telfair, are seeking trades, and the promise of Rubio someday coming to Minneapolis hasn't been enough to sustain anything close to a positive vibe.
No wonder the Wolves are the butt of contraction jokes. They haven't won more than 33 games during the entirety of the current CBA, which was ratified in 2005.
Kahn, speaking to CBSSports.com on Tuesday, said he is still evaluating the roster but isn't under any restrictions from owner Glen Taylor that prohibit him from making trades to improve the team.
"Money's not an issue," Kahn said. "Glen's been very clear and he's allowed me full latitude to do what we need to do. We're operating the way we're operating because I felt it was the right thing to do with the uncertain labor agreement. I like having the number low so we have flexibility when the new labor agreement comes out."
Kahn said due to injuries to Jonny Flynn and Martell Webster, he needs more time to evaluate the roster before making changes and doesn't foresee completing that evaluation for another three or four weeks.
"We've lost a lot of games that a team that was older, more cohesive and more experienced would've closed out, but we're none of those things yet," Kahn said. "Also, I think both coaches and players have fought through and it kept spirits up."
But given Kahn's often head-scratching track record -- such as trading Al Jefferson for picks and a trade exception, signing yet another point guard, Luke Ridnour, and acquiring the talented but headstrong Michael Beasley from the Heat -- pointing to the future isn't likely to quell the angst. Rambis has coaxed surprising contributions from Love -- including his vaunted 31-point, 31-rebound game in November -- as well as Beasley and Darko Milicic. But there are signs that once Kahn's three- to four-week evaluation period is up, there could be more help on the way.
CBSSports.com has learned that the Wolves plan to make a push to acquire Memphis guard O.J. Mayo, whose rights they traded to the Grizzlies on draft night in 2008 in the deal that brought Love to Minnesota. Mayo is frustrated coming off the bench in Memphis and "needs a change," according to one person familiar with the situation. The Wolves envision Mayo playing in the backcourt next season alongside Rubio, who according to a person familiar with the situation has given team officials his word that he will join the Wolves next season. The buyout that Minnesota must pay FC Barcelona is down to $1 million, but it's not clear how Rubio's decision could be affected by a lockout. Even if Rubio comes to Minnesota, there's no guarantee he'll thrive immediately.
Sources say the Wolves also are targeting Anthony Randolph, who is languishing on the Knicks' bench after being acquired from Golden State as part of the sign-and-trade arrangement that landed David Lee in the Bay Area. Minnesota officials will not part with Ridnour in the deal, according to an executive familiar with the team's strategy, but instead hope that Telfair would be enough to solve the Knicks' backup point guard dilemma.
Still, those moves wouldn't upgrade the experience or veteran leadership that are lacking and wouldn't necessarily fix the composition of a roster with too many wing players and point guards. They would fit with Kahn's plan to assemble as many draft picks and former high draft picks as possible and let them grow together. But for how much longer?
"The fact that I said we're waiting doesn't mean that we're not having discussions," Kahn said. "We've had a lot of change here in the last 17 or 18 months. We've had a lot of roster moves, some of which were for cap flexibility and some of which were to make the team better. Sometimes you need to stabilize and see what you have."
Kahn said he and Rambis have had several conversations about personnel recently and added, "We both understand what we're missing. Some of what we're missing may actually be addressed from within. It just depends on how the young players develop, and it's still too early to determine that.
"I've enjoyed working with Kurt from the moment I hired him," Kahn said. "It's very hard for all the coaches when you have a young team. It's just a different animal. One of the things I believed in him when I hired him is he's really, really sound in player development. He has a good feel for it and I think he's the right person to be coaching this team right now."
As for when Rambis will have the right players to coach, that's going to require another heavy dose of patience -- for him and for Wolves fans.
"I do see this thing turning soon," Kahn said. "I just don't know when. ... Over time, we have a really bright future here."