Posted at 8:00 AM on December 13, 2008
by David Zingler
Stephen Litel is a freelance writer in Minneapolis where he covers the Timberwolves and Lynx for The Downtown Journal. As a contributing writer for SLAM Online, Litel also covers the NBA and WNBA leagues as a whole. With previous experience writing for Hoopsworld, Balls! Sports Blogs for City Pages and SPMSportspage.com. Litel has also made appearances on TimberwolvesToday.com's pod cast, KFAN and WCCO.
I contacted Litel earlier this week to get his thoughts on the state of the Timberwolves.
DZ: Randy Wittman is out and Kevin McHale is in. What kind of effect (if any) will this have on the court?
Litel: As we have already seen in the first two games since McHale took over, the Timberwolves are playing with a different intensity and fire. Most importantly for a young team such as this, they are playing with a love for the game and are having fun. It's been odd to see the players enjoying their jobs and, quite honestly, it's also quite refreshing. The atmosphere inside the Target Center in the team's loss to the Utah Jazz was the most fun I've had at a game since Kevin Garnett hit a game winner against Portland a couple years back.
They are now playing as I expected them to play coming into the season. Although they remain deficient in many areas, the depth of youth can keep fresh, eager legs on the court at all times. Of course, that keeps the opposition on their toes and although the Timberwolves record isn't and won't be anything special, they're officially taking the next step in the rebuilding process by not allowing teams to "overlook" them.
DZ: What does this say about McHale's future with the organization?
Litel: Essentially, moving Kevin McHale back to the bench is a win-win situation for team owner, Glen Taylor. McHale is the "mastermind" behind the product the organization puts out on the floor and they've undoubtedly performed below all expectations. Therefore, by relinquishing front office responsibilities to focus on coaching, McHale can show his one and only "boss" his vision for the squad. Either he will proceed to lead the team into a fine season according to expectations...or Taylor finally has McHale in position to leave the franchise.
Everyone who follows or covers this team in the slightest knows McHale should have lost his stranglehold on the franchise years ago. Taylor's loyalty is staggering. It seems as if Taylor's loyalty is about to wear out and he's provided McHale his final chance to remain a part of the team. How the team progresses between now and the end of the year now determine whether he remains.
DZ: When I talked to you last summer, you were high on Randy Foye. He struggled early, but seems to be improving, what kind of NBA player can he be?
Litel: I wouldn't necessarily say I was high on Randy Foye. However, he is a likable person whom you want to see succeed. My thought was we shouldn't pass judgment on him as a player until he's given a fair chance to showcase his abilities. After a fine rookie season, Foye missed more than half of his sophomore campaign with a knee injury. Throughout the end of last season, Foye showed flashes of great play, sprinkled with games of mind-numbing stupidity. This was never more evident than when I spoke with him one-on-one and he attempted to make the comparison between himself and two-time Most Valuable Player, Steve Nash.
That's why this season is of such high importance to Foye. It's now time for him to "put up or shut up" and have his play on the court back up his high opinion of himself. To start the year, his play remains inconsistent, but the final judgment must come when looking at the entire 82 game season as a whole and his growth during that time.
DZ: Many fans were unhappy about the O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love/Mike Miller trade. How would you assess it thus far?
Litel: Grading the O.J. Mayo/Kevin Love trade now is pointless. It may seem as if Mayo is running away from Love in certain aspects of the game, but I wouldn't be surprised if Love has a longer career. Mayo is a scoring machine for the Grizzlies, as he should be on a team with few offensive options. Yet, Love is slowly showing he was worth such a high draft pick.
Personally, I'm very curious to see how Love develops with Kevin McHale as his head coach now. He knows the game, studies the history of the game and is a great admirer of McHale's former abilities. Throughout the rollercoaster ride of his rookie season, he will now have one of his childhood idols teaching him about the NBA.
DZ: Al Jefferson has emerged as the face of the franchise in the post Kevin Garnett era, how is he holding up in light of all of the losing?
Litel: Quite simply, Al Jefferson is a professional and is handling the situation as best he can. To begin the season, Jefferson's excitement over the additions was nothing but genuine. When the long stretches of losing began, you could tell some of his love for the game was waning, but his production remained that of a franchise cornerstone.
After McHale took over, Jefferson--like the rest of the team--received a welcome jolt and he is having fun again. Although the Timberwolves have started 0-2 under McHale, they are undoubtedly playing better basketball. Looking at Jefferson individually, this is shown in his willingness to attempt to play defense now. Watch Jefferson closely to see if he continues to want to play on both sides of the court.
DZ: We all know the team is not playing well, give us something to be optimistic about.
Litel: Since McHale took over, the team is actually competing. The joy of playing a game for a living has returned and the Timberwolves will be more entertaining for the remainder of the year. The players that make up the roster are easy to root for as a whole, so watching their development is enjoying for diehards.
Another fun thing to watch may very well be the final days of McHale's stranglehold on this franchise. If he's unable to get the team to perform, I'm under the belief he will finally be sent packing at season's end. Glen Taylor may have finally decided enough is enough...although "enough" was actually years ago.
DZ: We've now endured 20 years of Timberwolves basketball. What memories stand out in your mind?
Litel: My favorite memories of the first 20 years of Minnesota Timberwolves basketball are both personal and professional. Growing up in Northern Iowa, I attended my first NBA game inside the Target Center when the Timberwolves hosted Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls during the season in which they set the NBA record for wins in a season at 72. During that game, the Wolves gave one of the greatest teams in history a run for their money, eventually losing a tight contest.
Not long before I began covering the team, I sat way up in nosebleed seats for the Game 7 with the Sacramento Kings in the second round of the playoffs. On Kevin Garnett's birthday, I witnessed one of the best games in Timberwolves history, smiling as KG jumped on the scorer's table with joy when the game was over.
Then, professionally, the first time I ever stepped foot inside the team's locker room and having the wonderful opportunity to cover the team during KG's final season in Minnesota will always be special. There are so many small things that equal up to great masses of amazing memories...and that's all while covering bad teams.
I'm curious to see if the memories are any more special when they're memories from a winning team, a playoff team and, in a perfect world, a championship team. Whether or not those potential memories occur are now up to those in charge in the expensive suits.
You can reach Stephen Litel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Foye and Jefferson photos by Getty Images)