With 2020 basketball off-limits for the time being, it’s easy to reminisce to better days where the sounds of hardwood squeaking and balls tickling the twine filled the air. Today at Canis Hoopus, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Instead of focusing on the drab aesthetics of the recent Minnesota Timberwolves renditions, we’re going to throw it back to the golden era.
Our supreme leader Kyle Theige has already gone in-depth about that famous 2003-04 team, a squad coached by Flip Saunders and led by peak-of-his-powers Kevin Garnett that won 58 games, eventually bowing out to the Kobe-Shaq Lakers juggernaut in the Western Conference Finals. He also touched on the impact Sam Cassell’s hip injury had on the team’s hope of winning it all, a heartache shared by all Timberwolves faithful that were unfortunate enough to experience it.
While we all know about the injury and its repercussions, it’s oft forgotten, or left unspoken, just how good Cassell was in that 2003-04 campaign. So, in a bid to remind, we hark back to one of the greatest seasons any point guard has had in Wolves colors.
After splitting the first 10 seasons of his career journeying between the Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, New Jersey Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, Cassell finally arrived in Minnesota at the ripe age of 34. He already had a pair of championship rings from his time in Houston, but he didn’t hit his individual apex until he joined the Wolves.
Despite his age, “Sam I Am” flourished in the Twin Cities, averaging a career-high 19.8 points to go along with his 7.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game. He also flew dangerously close to becoming a member of the illustrious 50/40/90 club, shooting 48.8 percent from the field, 39.8 percent from deep and 87.3 percent from the charity stripe.
“Sam Cassell, I think, is the guy who’s really taken this team over the top this year.” he said. “He’s got one of the prettiest jump shots in the league and probably will be in the All-Star game for the first time in his career ... If he’s not invited, it’s a sham,”
At that point in time, that’s how highly Cassell was thought of among his peers and elders. Simply put, he was one of the best point guards in the league at that time. He would go on to become an All-Star, as well as earning a place on the All-NBA Second Team and finishing 10th in MVP voting.
People often think of Latrell Sprewell as the player who flanked Garnett on those great teams, but, the truth is, Cassell was the true wingman and potentially the best player Garnett ever shared the floor with during his Timberwolves tenure. Of all the great lead guard’s in the league at that time — which was undoubtedly played at a slower pace and had less points scored than nowadays — only Allen Iverson (26.4 on 38% FG) and Stephon Marbury (20.3 on 43.1% FG) scored more on a per game basis than Cassell in ‘03-’04. Additionally, neither of them were nearly as efficient and both failed to help their teams to muster a winning record.
Cassell held a 106.7 offensive rating and a 97.3 defensive rating that season, which is elite given the era. Overall, that gave him a +9.8 net rating. Amazingly enough, not only was that the best number among all starting guards (minimum 30 MPG), but it also ranked behind only Tim Duncan (+11.4) and Brad Miller (+9.9) among all players who played more than 30 minutes a night. To top it off, only Vince Carter, Chauncey Billups, and Michael Redd scored more ‘clutch’ points than Cassell throughout the regular season, according to NBA.com’s clutch metric.
In the 3-point era that we exist in today, it’s easy to be enamored with the 39.8 percent clip he buried the long-ball at in this season, which is certainly impressive. However, in the early 2000’s, the game was still tailored toward the mid-range, and that’s where Cassell really thrived.
Generously listed at 6-foot-3 and weighing just 185 pounds, he was never one to put consistent pressure on the rim. Instead, Cassell would navigate his way around screens and get himself into pockets of space in the mid-range area, where he would showcase his deadly-accurate jumper. In his lone All-Star season, Cassell shot 9.4 mid-range jumpers a night, which was 59 percent of his overall shot attempts and the seventh most league-wide. He converted a scorching 47.3 percent of those shots, the highest clip of any player that attempted more than five a game.
Like a certain current Timberwolves point guard, Cassell could nail those mid-range delights going either direction, off the dribble or fading away with a hand in his face.
When he wasn’t pulling-up out of pick-and-roll action, Cassell loved to post-up his opponent, which, even in a vastly different era, was rare for someone his size. It wasn’t uncommon to see Saunders employ an inverted offense, where Garnett was lobbing the entry pass into Cassell, who was able to convert with drop-steps, fadeaways, fakes and floaters. His strong hips and knack for reading the defender and countering his actions made him extremely tough to guard.
If he didn’t feel like he could get a bucket himself, Sam I Am had no problem initiating offense out of both the high and low post. A special talent for someone who lacked the physical attributes of most guards.
In a TNT segment he ran back in 2007, Cassell expanded on his elite post-game.
“I consider myself one of the best post-up point guards in the game of basketball, for the simple fact that I know how to use my body,” he said. “I’m trying to create the same space I create on my mid-range jump shot. I try to get a solid base and take one strong dribble that’s going to take me into my shot.”
Cassell was clearly a talented scorer, a more-than-capable floor general and a player who didn’t sink a defense, but Kevin Garnett was still the heart, soul and motor of the 58-win squad. Garnett claimed the MVP that season, posting an unfathomable 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.2 blocks per game. Unlike Stephon Marbury before him, Cassell didn’t let that deflate him. Instead, he worked seamlessly with The Big Ticket.
The pair became a lethal combination, excelling in the pick-and-roll and, especially, in the pick-and-pop. At the time, Garnett was arguably the best pick-and-pop big in the league. He was able to set bone-crushing screens and still flare out to the 18-20 foot range. That drew the defense away from the ball and allowed Cassell to find space and fire away on his patented mid-range. Then, when the defense started to key in on Cassell, the wily point guard would draw the defense’s attention and feed Garnett easy jumpers all night long. Cassell would also constantly look for Garnett, who was in his prime athletically, out in transition, leading to plenty of highlight finishes from the hall of famer.
Ultimately, being able to enhance Garnett and play to his strengths was the best skill to possess and something the late, great head coach Flip Saunders was constantly searching for in a player. Unfortunately, the pair — along with Sprewell and a menagerie of role players — couldn’t bring Minnesota to the promised land, but it’s important to remember the joy, passion and flat-out talent that Cassell injected into the team during that 2003-2004 campaign.
Cassell would play one more season with the Timberwolves before being traded, and did go on to win his third ring with KG and the Boston Celtics in his final season as a pro. Man, it would have tasted a lot sweeter here in Minneapolis, though.
Nonetheless, it’s fun to look back on what he did and sit back almost 15 years later and reminisce on a crazy-good and extremely underrated season.