Memories of the Past, Visions of the Future

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The Minnesota Timberwolves have been in existence since 1989, and only once in all that time has the team ever been extraordinary.

2003-2004.

That was the year Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell arrived. The one and only year the Timberwolves have ever gone beyond the first round of the playoffs. In 03-04, Garnett, Sam and Spree formed what could be called the original "Big Three" of the modern basketball era, winning 58 games and propelling the Wolves into the Western Conference Finals.

2004 seems like a lifetime memory these days. Since the Big Three was unceremoniously broken apart during the summer of '05, the Wolves have lost over twice as many games as they've won. Yet this season, there's reason to be optimistic.

After 5 years of frustration and futility, the Wolves have collected a new Big Three who....although too painfully young and inexperienced to win like old Big Three....share some key traits with the best trio to have ever put on Wolves' uniforms.

Memories of the scorer:

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To be completely honest, one of my favorite all time memories of the Timberwolves is, in fact, a game we lost.

Game 1 of the 2004 NBA Western Conference Semi-finals. The Timberwolves were facing off against an incredibly powerful Sacramento Kings team, led by their own super-trio of Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, and Mike Bibby. Supporting them was a terrific cast of role players, including Vlade Divac, Doug Christie, Brad Miller, and former TWolves Anthony Peeler and Bobby Jackson....a group that far outclassed the Wolves own supporting cast of Ervin Johnson, Trenton Hassell, Fred Hoiberg, and Michael Olowokandi.

Garnett and Spree had terrible games. Combined, they scored just 21 points on 8-35 shooting. But Sam Cassell? Well, he decided that "miss" simply wasn't a part of his vocabulary.

As the game went on and the taller 2/3rds of the Big Three clanged shot after shot, Cassell finally did something I had never seen a Wolves player do before.

He said "Screw it, give me the ball and get out of my way".

The reason this game will forever be etched in my mind is because it was the first time I had ever watched a player with "Timberwolves" on his uni decide to flat out take over a game.

Cassell was blazing hot all night. 40 points on 15-25 shooting....7-11 from three. Even when it seemed like the game was out of hand, Sam kept everyone on the edge of their seats. My most vivid memory of the game is Cassell absolutely refusing to miss from three at the end....4 three pointers in the last 2 minutes.

It wasn't a hot hand strategy. It wasn't playcalling. It wasn't teammates deferring or a favorable matchup or any number of situational contexts. It was Sam Cassell deliberately deciding he was going to be The Man for his team, and then delivering.

And that's the core of the potential that lies inside Michael Beasley.

In the last two games, we've seen from Beasley the same thing we saw from Cassell on May 4th, 2004. Dominance. Alpha Dog-ism. Whatever you want to call it. It's there.

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Against Sacramento, it started early and happened often. Beasley simply could not be stopped, regardless of what the Kings did. 27 points at halftime. 42 by the end of the game. Beas attacked the Sacramento defense in every which way, and kept it up the entire game.

But perhaps more telling was his performance against the Knicks. On a night when the rest of his team was having major problems finding the bottom of the bucket (the Wolves minus Beasley shot just 37%) Beasley took it upon himself be the team's offense. Yes, the Wolves went down by 21 at one point. Yes, the comeback was keyed by Kevin Love's historic performance. But the fact remains that Beasley was the only thing happening for the team in the first half...and was the dagger that finished New York off at the end.

With about 8 minutes to go in the game and the score all but tied at 92-91, S-n-P made a relatively overlooked, yet incredibly insightful comment:

Alpha dog time for Beasley. Huge test time.

The meaning of it was clear: game is on the line and you, Mr. Beasley, are the guy who has the ability to take it over and win it. Are you up to the challenege?

Yessir.

Beasley scored 10 points in the last 7:52 of the game, and assisted on 5 others (both to Kevin Love, the two buckets that put his own scoring total above 30). 18 foot jumper. 19 foot jumper. Offensive rebound and assist. Driving dunk. Three pointer. Another assist, and finally, a free throw.

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But more important than how Beasley did it....or even that he did it at all....was the fact that he wanted to do it. He wasn't accepting the ball and the challenge because his team told him to. He was actively calling for it. Practically demanding it. Powering to his spots on the floor, yelling at his teammates, and clapping his hands for the ball. Beasley lit a competitive fire inside himself that carried him and his team when it needed it the most.

There is so much that could be said about Beas. What he can do, what he could become, what kind of player he will be. Wolves fans don't quite know what to make of him because....well, the Wolves have never had anyone like him. Garnett, for all the things he could do on the court, still wasn't a scorer at the level Beasley is. We're used to getting our points through smart ball movement, player movement, and efficient shooting....so much so that we've almost developed a mindset that any other way is simply bad basketball. It isn't. You just need the right players to do things differently.

I've said it before, but every good team needs a gunner. A player who can attack the defense. A player who can create his own shot. A player who can isolate on the floor, but the ball on the deck, and get the other team scrambling. And most of all, a player who can carry the team's offense and be the Alpha Dog when games get close.

This is what could make Beasley a special player in this league. The combination of desire to be The Man, and the progressing ability to actually be him. Love's 30-30 night is an incredible performance, and there's no taking away from that, but it is also something that we likely won't see again in his career. Beasley becoming an Alpha Dog player is something that will show up for us every night for a decade.

Memories of the Swiss Army Knife:

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I clearly remember when the Timberwolves acquired Latrell Sprewell from the New York Knicks, and that had as much to do with Kevin Garnett's excitement as my own.

Garnett could not have been happier. Sprewell was more than just a great basketball player. He was a strong personality and fierce competitor. Finally, someone who would match KG's competitive spirit. Finally, someone who would match KG's emotional intensity.

To Garnett, Sam Cassell was a welcome addition and fantastic friend, but Spree was so much more. KG and Spree were kindred spirits. Cut in the same pattern from the same cloth.

After all the controversy and years stuck on a languishing ballclub, people had forgotten...and still forget....just how talented, competitive, and flat out good a player Sprewell was. In his first five seasons....all with the Golden State Warriors....Sprewell averaged 20 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists, a remarkable display of his skill, athleticism, and versatility. His best individual year saw him push those numbers to 24-5-6. Granted his tenure with the Warriors came to a tragically infamous end when he assaulted then-head coach PJ Carlesimo at practice....the latest in a long string of physical confrontations Spree had with the rest of the Warriors....but even then, Spree's talent was too good for teams to not register interest in him

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In 1997, Sprewell was traded to the New York Knicks (after the lockout was concluded) and got back to work. He averaged 16 points, 4 rebounds, and 2.5 assists, all while playing out of position and quietly accepting his role as the #2 option behind Allen Houston. The Knicks stunned the basketball world that year, making the Finals as an 8th seed. In the seasons that followed, Spree's ability to do a little of everything on the court made him an integral part of the Knicks....and ultimately brought him to the attention of the Wolves.

In 2003-2004, Sprewell repeated his first year with the Knicks for the Wolves, averaging 16-3-3.5 while again playing out of position. Now the third option behind Garnett and Cassell, Spree kept things problem free for himself and his team. Yet even then, the only thing really keeping him from still being one of the game's elite was the 11 years of NBA basketball already on his legs.

But a broader, less intensive role suited Sprewell and his game perfectly. His versatility allowed him to fill in the gaps on any given night and become an indispensable part of Sota's Big Three. If the team needed points, Sprewell would score points. If it needed rebounds, he'd grab rebounds. He facilitated when it needed assists, he defended when it needed defense, and he played more minutes than anyone on the team except Kevin Garnett, as the Wolves adjusted to the absence of Wally Szczerbiak.

A swingman, playing out of position, who can score, rebound, facilitate, defend, and has a rather generous amount of athleticism. Sounds a lot like Wesley Johnson.

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None of us....myself included....were very enamored with Wes before the draft. He was athletic and could shoot, but there seemed to be critical gaps in his game. He didn't handle the ball very well. He wasn't dominating as a junior. He appeared to lack a killer instinct. Top that off with questions about his health and transitioning from Syracuse's zone defense, and Wes seemed to have all the ingredients to be a first round disaster.

Turns out we were very wrong.

Wes has been something of a revelation this season. Thus far, he has averaged 11 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists in just under 30 minutes a game. Further, there are aspects to his game that were never displayed in college.

His ballhandling, while still very much a work in progress, has been much better than advertised. He has shown flashes of some dynamic ability to attack the hoop. His offensive rebounding is also much better than expected...he averages nearly as many offensive boards as defensive boards, and consistently puts himself in the right place at the right time to grab more. His defense has been very good....suffocating at times. And his general court awareness and basketball IQ has been remarkable. Very rarely is he out of position. Very rarely does he make a bad pass, take a bad gamble, or force up a bad shot.

There are certainly things that he needs to work on, and things that will only come to him with experience. But already he's shown the ability to do just about anything the team needs him to.

He's the perfect player to play the do-everything role between the high-scoring Beasley and the frontcourt anchor of Love. Just like Sprewell was the perfect player to fill the gaps between Cassell and Garnett.

Memories of the anchor:

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There's really no need to go into details about Kevin Garnett. We know his history, as a player and a person. We saw him every day of it for twelves years. We followed it. We experienced it.

There are so many names Garnett wore in his years in Sota. The Kid. The Big Ticket. The Franchise. For the first two years, he was the most exciting new kid on the NBA block. For a decade after that, he was nothing short of Minnesota's all-everything.

Yet for all that Garnett accomplished and was able to do, the Wolves never found true success with him, and in retrospect, it's not hard to see why. The team built with him as the #1 option, when his aptitude was really that of a #2 or #3.

Garnett isn't a go-to scorer. He simply lacks that ability. He doesn't have the power post game of a Tim Duncan or Chris Webber, nor the screen-running ability or unlimited range of a Dirk Nowitzki or Larry Bird.

It isn't a coincidence and shouldn't come as a surprise that the one season the Wolves went deep into the playoffs with Garnett was also the one season they acquired a player (Cassell) with a true go-to scoring mentality.

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The greatest of KG's long list of accomplishments in a Wolves' uniform has to be his 6 year run as a 20 point, 10 rebound, 5 assist player. Only six other players in NBA history have ever averaged 20-10-5 more than once in their careers (Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Elgin Baylor, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and Garnett did it for more consecutive seasons than any of them.

But more than his versatility or talent, 20-10-5 spoke to KG's reliability. He put in 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists like clockwork. In a tenure that saw teammates arriving and departing on a constant basis, he was the Timberwolves' most consistent and reliable player, not just for his history with the team, but for the team's history as a whole. You knew what Garnett would get you before he even stepped on the floor.

Although scoring wasn't his forte (Larry Bird's career scoring average is more than Garnett ever put up in any one season), KG had two skills that absolutely were at the top of the league: he could rebound, and he could move the basketball. Garnett led the league in rebounding average 4 times, and pulled down over 10 a game for 9 seasons. He also averaged over 4 assists for a decade straight, including his six years of 20-10-5. His ability to facilitate from the power forward position was and is remarkable. Chris Webber, whom I consider the best passing big man of the modern era in terms of sheer passing talent, only averaged over 5 assists twice in his career, and only has a single 20-10-5 season.

Garnett's true talents lie in his ability to glue a team together. To get the pieces in the right place. To get the machine to run smoothly. What you get from him night-in and night-out is set in stone, regardless of who the other team is or how the rest of his own team is doing.

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Kevin Love will never have Kevin Garnett's athleticism. He will never have KG's height and length, and will never be the center a championship defense. But he does share some of Garnett's best qualities. He can move the ball. He's a better rebounder now than Garnett ever was or ever will be. And most importantly, he's extremely reliable on the floor.

In case you missed it, Kevin Love had an incredible night against the Knicks. Phenomenal. Historic. "Stupid" good, as coach Rambis put it. To put up over 30 points and 30 rebounds is something a very select, very elite group of players have accomplished. To put up 30-30-5 is even more remarkable. If any player has ever achieved that beside Love, it could only be Wilt Chamberlain. Even just a 30-30 game takes a rare talent....of all the players in the NBA today, only Love and Dwight Howard would appear capable of the feat. The fact it hadn't happened for 28 years prior to Friday says everything that needs to be said about the incredible performance a player has to have to make it happen.

But the broader, more important story with Love has been his consistency. Not necessarily in his actual numbers, but in his game. There are certain things that Love will always do when he steps on the floor. He will rebound. He will facilitate. He will give the team plenty of extra possessions....plenty of second chances.

He is the team's most consistent, most reliable player, and figures to always be. Even when Beasley's shot isn't falling, or Darko isn't rebounding, or Jonny isn't passing the ball, Love will be in there crashing the glass and fighting to keep the Wolves in it. He anchors the Wolves; no matter how crazy the rest of the team gets, Love is firmly planted on the floor, doing the same things he always does.

Like Garnett, Love lacks the scoring ability to be a #1 option. It simply isn't there. But his rebounding ability is a once in a generation talent.....it wouldn't be at all a surprise if he equals Dennis Rodman in that for the balance of his career....and his passing ability is pretty good too. With his catch-and-shoot and putback abilities, Love is certainly capable of being a 20-10-5 player himself someday, which would just be one more thing he has in common with the guy who's one of the top 50 players in NBA history.
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