Change I Don’t Believe In

by December 09, 2008

by Myles Brown

For the past few years, between Glen Taylor, Kevin McHale and Jim Stack, the Minnesota Timberwolves front office has uttered mischaracterizations and miscalculations that I dare not repeat out of a legitimate fear that some of you may die laughing. But as Taylor and McHale took to the podium Monday afternoon to discuss Randy Wittman’s ousting, I found myself in agreement with their assessments. This team does have more talent than it’s record indicates. This team has been beaten down, failed to coalesce, establish an identity or fulfill expectations.

However, Taylor and McHale also hired Wittman-who exhibited little capability of doing much other than yelling-to coach this team during a vital rebuilding phase. They hailed Frankenstienhim as a taskmaster and a disciplinarian. Of course, they didn’t mention his sub .400 career winning percentage, but that’s okay, this team was expected to lose. They were also expected to learn and it was clear very early into this experiment that Wittman didn’t have much to teach, as his ‘specialty’ of defense was wasted on a roster that couldn’t defend if Jesu….well, we’ve already been there.

So unqualified as he was, it was still somewhat disingenuous of management to complain of players being demeaned and dejected when that’s essentially what he was brought in here to do. What else could one expect from a former player and coaching disciple of Bobby Knight? Patience? Compassion? Nevertheless, it was a mistake corrected, even if one wasn’t admitted. So why compound things and replace our inept coach with our inept General Manager? Why not fire them both and clean house?

Because that’s just not how things are done around here. It’s not Minnesota Nice.

It happens quite often I suppose, but I don’t understand why a team would fire a coach one quarter into a season and then have an ‘interim’ for the remainder. Even if a consistency in offensive/defensive sets and gameplans is taken into consideration that may be compromised under another coach, why should that matter? Weren’t they proven to be flawed since a coach had to be fired? Wouldn’t the remainder of a lost season be better spent with a new coach implementing a new system? In this particular instance, why not search for a permanent fix now when there’s two qualified candidates available with close ties to the franchise? It would be better than competing with the rest of the league for their services this summer and while those coaches may rather bide their time, one could never be certain until an offer is made.

But McHale wasn’t even given an interim title. He is the “new” head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, despite his thin resume. Why? Because in his own way, Glen Taylor is being nice. He definitely doesn’t have to be and probably shouldn’t be, but the question is whether his act of civility will set his teams development back even further, if not permanently. Just as being demeaned creates a malaise amongst players, so do unstable situations and prolonged failure. It’s what slowly robs players of their joy, making them the jaded overpaid athletes they’re perceived to be.

Taylor and McHale were asked if there was any excuse for the listless millionaires he employs and while they refused to offer any given the state of this economy, I can sympathize. The corporate barons who’ve carpetbombed our economy into oblivion have rightfully earned our disdain. But as they’re jettisoned with golden parachutes, they safely land on their feet to walk among us in near anonymity. Plenty of other people with exorbitant salaries under perform in their chosen fields, but the public doesn’t show up en masse to tell them about it. For players driven by a cycle of losing that is in many ways beyond their control, sometimes the only joy may come on payday. But I digress.

Back to the point. Randy Wittman was obviously fired, but what was just as clear-unspoken as it was-is that Kevin McHale has been demoted and is on his way out the door. He should’ve been fired numerous times. But he and Taylor share an inexplicable bond that has maintained the owners confidence through the years. As long as Taylor has owned this franchise, Minnesotas native son has managed it. I don’t believe there are any naked pictures or buried bodies, just a mutual respect and admiration. After all, maybe it’s easier for Taylor to take the word of a basketball legend over a host of naysayers.

But now too many coaches have compiled too many losses in failing to crystalize McHale’s vision. It’s time for him to show us what his predecessors failed to see. He built this team. He spoke of smashmouth basketball when acquiring Al Jefferson and he talked of getting out and igniting breaks with Kevin Love’s outlet passes. He talked of an inside/out game fueled by Mike Miller’s shooting. Let’s see if he can make it work. Let’s see if he can make Love a rebounder to throw those outlets and if he can get his shooter to shoot. I think in many ways he can. As bad a GM as he may be, that still shouldn’t affect the level of respect he commands from his players considering that they’re the very mistakes he’s been purported to have made. A lack of confidence in him is a lack of confidence in themselves. He’s still a champion and knows this game. They should be willing to absorb some of that knowledge.

Effort should be the clearest indicator of change with this club, if only because they’re happy to see Wittman and his histrionics gone. The offense will be tinkered with over time, but rotations should be immediately aligned and shortened, as players will be substituted with more of a purpose than to save Wittman’s job. The same could be said of McHale, but since this is his baby I’d assume he’d be more inclined to be patient with it.

While I don’t think he would sabotage this team, I do wonder how badly he wants to coach it. This wasn’t the look and sound of a captain determined to right a ships course, but a conductor committed to completing his playlist as the ship sinks. He’s resigned to his fate. Shortly after speaking of how it is unacceptable for millionaire players to lethargically report to work, he reiterated how little he wanted to do with the jobs travel. He continues to believe that “anything can happen”, but it’s unclear whether he wants to be the one to do it. He’s merely accepting responsibility.

As is Glen Taylor. Tight as his bond may be with McHale, it’s been coming at the expense of his franchises credibility. Fans and crictics alike have called for McHale’s head for some time now, but things have finally reached the breaking point. As it was noted, this team has the opportunity for four first round picks in the upcoming draft and will have a ton of cap space in 2010. But as I’ve also noted, this team already has enough going against it. Small, Midwestern, cold weather city with a questionable roster. Blundering management can’t be the final straw. Another inept coach can’t be one more complaint. So all this has been is one final chance for McHale to prove his worth to his dear friend.

After a series of increasingly direct questions leading to the point, I asked him overtly whether they even discussed the possibility of his returning upstairs. McHale dodged the query as expected, which confirmed all suspicions that this was a demotion until further notice.

Which brings us to the question of what success can be defined as from this point forward. Though it’s not solely to be measured in wins and losses, that is the goal. To win. So how many? 20? 30? It may merely be whatever allows Taylor to spare his buddy while keeping torches and pitchforks from crashing the gates. But failure is certainly an inability to even slightly alter the culture of losing that has plagued this team for years.

Regardless, Kevin McHale is not a permanent solution to this teams problems. He is an improvement over Wittman, but not the teacher this team needs to guide it through a rebuilding process. And that may ultimately be what costs him this job, and any other at 600 First Avenue.