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