Posted at 8:00 AM on February 16, 2009
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.
DZ: Al Jefferson is out for the season with a torn ACL, who stands to benefit the most in his absence?
Litel: Obviously, the rest of the players on the Timberwolves roster each have a great opportunity now to step up in Jefferson's absence. It's difficult to figure out how the team continues to progress without their cornerstone. It's difficult, but not impossible. However, there are two individuals with monstrous opportunities...Randy Foye and Kevin Love.
Coming into the year, there were still many questions about Randy Foye's status as a main player on this team. Would he become the point guard for the Timberwolves on a full-time basis or would he play the position in only spot minutes? Foye is in the midst of his best NBA season, yet he's been most productive at the two-guard spot. Whether that means he will never receive the point guard duties full-time remains to be seen, but he has shown he can be an important part of the team. Now with Jefferson out, Foye has the chance to lead a team in need of an on-court leader and solidify his standing.
On the other hand, Kevin Love receives a huge increase in playing time for the remainder of the year, as many have called for even before the injury to Big Al. Fighting through a few rough moments, Love is also having a fine season for a 20-year old rookie and the significant bump in playing time is only going to be a positive. Because his conditioning has come into question, he will work on that on the fly, while getting the opportunity to play against the opposition's first team players. Love has proven to be a quick learner, so playing against top tier talent for the rest of the year will only benefit him going into next season.
DZ: The team has played much better since Kevin McHale has taken over as coach. What are the main reasons for that?
Litel: Quite simply, Kevin McHale made the atmosphere around the team a much more positive one. When players do something well, it is pointed out and applauded by the head man, slowly building the confidence of the players. As young players are in the process of learning how to play, as well as how to play the game together, confidence in their abilities is of the utmost importance. McHale's greatest strength as a coach to this point is not allowing his players to put their heads down when things are going badly and to find the desire within to continue fighting.
DZ: Does McHale have a future with the organization and, if so, what?
Litel: This is always a delicate subject, as opinions vary greatly on McHale's status with the team. If you believe team owner Glen Taylor's words, McHale wasn't hired as an interim coach...the job is his for as long as he wants it. The question is if McHale does decide he's had enough travel--as he's stated on many occasions--would he be allowed back "upstairs?"
To many, McHale moving back upstairs would be an unforgivable PR hit for the team, but the team's play before Jefferson's injury may have calmed the bad feelings some. Yet, it's tough to imagine that a couple good months of play from an eventual non-playoff team would forgive years of miscues.
Personally, I would hope McHale would stick around as the coach for a few years. There have been many coaching changes on this team in recent years and it's time to keep the same guy--a productive guy--on the bench for a while.
DZ: What happened to Rashad McCants?
Litel: What happened to Rashad McCants? The answer to that is Rodney Carney. When they split minutes earlier in the year, Carney was much more of a team player, all while providing roughly the same stats. As Carney's minutes increased, he grabbed the opportunity by the throat and took off, pushing McCants further down the bench for long periods of time.
Essentially, the loss of Al Jefferson can also be the final opportunity for McCants to show he wants to be a member of the Timberwolves after this season. McHale's substitutions are out of whack right now, so playing time is up for grabs. If McCants wants to remain a member of the Wolves in the future, he'll need to play well, play within the framework of the team and work on his attitude.
McCants claims he's misunderstood, even sporting tattoos stating "Born to be hated. Dying to be loved" on his arms. At what point does the young man need to realize if he's been misunderstood his entire life, he should look within rather than blaming the outside world. This really is his final chance.
DZ: After being buried on the bench early in the season, Rodney Carney has emerged as a factor off the bench. A free agent following this season, does the 24-year-old figure in Wolves future?
Litel: In addition to my above response regarding Rashad McCants, my personal opinion is that the Timberwolves should move forward with Carney instead of McCants, if choosing between the two. McCants may have a greater upside, showing he has the ability to dominate games at times on the offensive end, but Carney is the more complete player.
Carney has a fine outside shot and seems able to drive to the hoop with the same ease as Shaddy. On paper, they bring the same things to the mix. The difference is Carney's athleticism, his willingness to play defense and his team first attitude. The young man is impressive and willing to accept any role given to him.
DZ: If this is McHale's last season with the franchise, who would you like to see coaching the team and making personnel, decisions next season?
Litel: This is a question that is nearly impossible to answer because it is unknown right now what coaches will be available at season's end. At this time, if McHale would choose not to coach, the only things I can really provide are generalities of the coach needed for this team.
This theoretical coach needs to be a "player's coach" more than a dictator, although that doesn't mean he's buddies with his players at all times. This coach needs to have the ability to both praise his players when they've played well and point out to them the weaknesses in their individual and team games. The team seems to have enough firepower on the offensive end of the court--and should only get better with this summer's draft--so the next coach would need to emphasize growth on the defensive end of the floor as well.
DZ: Any second half predictions for the Wolves and/or the league in general?
Litel: Outside of watching for growth in individual players on the Timberwolves, it's relatively pointless to make any predictions on the hometown team. The rest of the season will be long, as winning ways of late will probably dwindle. They aren't going to make the playoffs, but that shouldn't come as a surprise, so the point is now to build individual games and confidence, while the executives make decisions on which players to move forward with in the future.
For the league, I expect the NBA Finals to be a rematch of last year between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. The Cleveland Cavaliers have a much-improved team this year, as well as the MVP of the league in my opinion, but will still have to face the great Celtic defense in the playoffs.
With the Finals being a rematch, I also expect the outcome to be the same. The Boston Celtics should win again. It's unfortunate that Andrew Bynum is sidelined again for the Lakers, as his presence would make for a better championship series, but the reality is he's out. With or without Bynum, the Celtics are the better team and will repeat as champions.
(Photo by Robb Long)