The frenzy of phone activity by new Wolves personnel guru David Kahn has been the constant buzz of the NBA gossip boards. Tonight, there is a solid report that Kahn has broken through on his desire to raze the roster and point hard toward the future, unloading Minnesota's only legitimate two-guards, Randy Foye and Mike Miller, in exchange for a trio of Washington Wizards big men--6-9 Darius Songaila, 6-10 Etan Thomas and 7-footer Oleksiy Pecherov--plus, most importantly, the #5 overall pick in Thursday's NBA draft.
A few things stand out. First, Kahn wants to make an immediate impression and scrap the past ASAP. The keys to the deal are Miller and the #5 pick. The Wizards have got to be doing jumping jacks over their result. And the Wolves have taken the blinders off their perpetually sanguine view of two players who fans had every right to expect would perform better in Minnesota than what they actually delivered. Last but not least, there's also chatter that the Wolves could keep leveraging in their effort to move up to #2 and grab point guard Ricky Rubio.
Whether or not Rubio is part of the final equation, however, you can underline Thursday as "perimeter scoring day" at Wolves headquarters. Kahn stressed this flaw more than once during the informal breakfast I attended where he backgrounded the media on his evolving impressions and plans for the team. And he's right: Even with one of the league's top six low-post scorers drawing double-teams in the paint, the Wolves shot a league-worst 44.1% from the field last season. After scanning hours of video from last season, Kahn obviously felt the problem was the talent more than the scheme--he just dumped two of the ballclub's top three perimeter scorers in Foye and Miller (and the third, Ryan Gomes, is a 240-pound forward). How bare is the cupboard now? Well, if the Wolves had to open the 2009-10 season with the personnel currently on their roster, the starting backcourt would be Sebastian Telfair (a 38.9% shooter over his 5-year NBA career, including 31.6% from three-point range) and Corey Brewer (38% from the field, 25% from trey during his two years in the league). So we know what's on the docket for the draft and free agency: guards, guards, guards who can shoot straight.
The trade is probably good news for the chances of Rodney Carney re-upping. And, unless Rubio is the ultimate prize--and you wouldn't hear any flak from me if that's the endgame--it means Stephen Curry has a much better chance of becoming a Timberwolf in about 48 hours. Because from what I have read and youtubed (as I frequently have stated, almost all of my college smarts are received wisdom), despite a wealth of other beguiling skills, neither Tyreke Evans nor James Harden is particularly adept at perimeter shooting. Certainly we know that after the Clips take Blake Griffin first overall, three players go before the Wolves pick twice, and that two of them are likely to be Rubio and Thabeet. That means there will be will be two "quality" backcourt players available at #5 and #6, most likely from among Harden, Evans and Curry, and the glut of point guards after Rubio, including Flynn, Jennings, Holiday and Lawson. Either Rubio or two of those other names will likely be Wolves in the very near future.
Mulling over draft picks is the most exciting activity for Wolves fans in the wake of this trade, because the trio of bigs Washington is sending our way are hardly gamechangers, and could simply become more deadwood to pile on the logjam up front. The Wolves already have three power forwards in Jefferson, Love, and Smith, plus a 6-9 center in Madsen, and a pair of smart 3/4 forward swingmen in the 6-8 Cardinal and the 6-7 Gomes. You'll notice Madsen is the only center, and he's a pipsqueak 6-9 to boot, better known for his cheerleading and his tanking clanking than his rebounding, which elevates Thomas, who goes 6-10, 260, and plays the pivot. Thomas is also a fascinating character, a staunch lefty poltiically, a poet (falling somewhere on the continuum between James Tate and Shaddy McCants) and a tough customer who has battled back from career-threatening heart problems and an assortment of other injuries. He also traded fisticuffs more than once with the Wizards' other center, Brendan Haywood--if the beat writers can't spin all this stuff into a bevy of featurettes, journalism really is comatose. Not since the Madsen trifecta--who else on earth has an advanced degree from Stanford, has been a Mormon missionary and is nicknamed Mad Dog?--has a resume been written with such neon crayons.
As a staunch lefty and published poet (waaaaay back in the day) myself, I wish I could report Thomas is a world-beater on the court. Nope. In fact the Wizards have got to be ecstatic that they beefed up their backcourt and rid themselves of an expensive draft pick they didn't want without having to dislodge the four guys in their frontcourt they most wanted to keep--Antawn Jamison, Haywood, Jarvis Mcgee and the confounding manchild Andray Blatche. That means Thomas, Songalila and the European dude dubbed "Big Oily" are 5, 6 and 7 at best, on the big man depth chart for the Wiz. That doesn't mean they are useless. In fact Songaila in particular is a grinder who knows how to rebound, foul, foster ball movement and get out of the way at the right time. Both he and Oily could also be classified as centers in McHale-speak.
But nobody is kidding anybody here. Thomas, Songaila and Pecherov are the bubble wrap around the #5 pick--Wolves fans want to move past them and see what the ballclub really got come Thursday. And, sub-mediocre bigs (literally) aside, they'll be judging if the pick is worth Mike Miller and Randy Foye.
The answer to that is tricky. When the draft day deal with Memphis went down almost exactly a year ago, I was heartily on board for the Wolves precisely because of Miller's inclusion. He seemed like the perfect Jefferson enabler, a former ROY and 6th man of the year, a dead-eye jump-shooter who didn't mind dishing but didn't hesitate to plunge in the long-range dagger, and, as a cinching coup, a floppy-haired gym rat from the corn palace capital of Mitchell, South Dakota, which made him a flesh-and-blood answer to the much asked but rarely satisfied question: How corny can you get? But the writers of CSI should set to work on a script that explains Miller's lone season in Minnesota, which was one of the most perverse, distasteful wastes of a player's tailor-made role on a ballclub that I've ever witnessed. Instead of Mike Miller, the Wolves got a second-rate Jason Kidd, a guy who played like he wanted to patent the no-look inbounds pass; who frequently drove through three opponents in traffic so that he could leap at the hoop and then suddenly contort-spin himself for a zip-pass to an increasingly less surprised Telfair for a clanked trey; who angrily cited the fundamentals of hoops inventor James Naismith to a hapless beat writer who dared to ask why one of the game's best shooters wasn't shooting; who lay on the court in writhing agony at least 20 times during the course of the season (I don't think I'm exaggerating), then would either crawl on his belly to the bench, get helped off by teammates, or, most frequently, move as if walking on glass shards for a good two or three minutes, yet never allow himself to be taken out of the game. Miller was TOUGH and he was UNSELFISH, goddammit, and the more I watched him chew the scenery like Nicholas Cage as Macbeth while the triple-teamed Jefferson and the Wolves sank to the bottom of the league in FG%, the bigger the shingle I hung out as a Mike Miller hater. Ahem. Regular readers are probably already aware of this.
But no matter what I think of Miller, it is sobering to consider what he might have brought if Kahn had been more patient. There are plenty of reasons why his market value is much inflated compared to what he demonstrated here in Minnesota. There are the rookie of the year and 6th man trophies, of course, and there is his reputation, just slightly tarnished, as a cold-blooded long-range shooter who cannot be left alone on the perimeter. The fact is, Miller's numbers on paper were a lot more impressive than his play on the court last year, and anyone looking at the career in toto of this historically stand-up guy and comparing it to a franchise that has long been regarded as something of a train wreck, might plausibly conclude that the Wolves somehow screwed up Mike Miller rather than the other way around. Then there is that little matter of Miller's $10 million expiring contract. You don't think of a player of his caliber might be a nice little chip to dangle around the trading deadline next season?
But Kahn couldn't wait. Having already deep-sixed the reviled and revered McHale, he probably figured there was no sense in dilly-dallying. And if he was wrong to bum-rush Miller instead of waiting for a more propitious moment to deal him, he was absolutely right in his timing with Foye. If the kid who's heart is on the wrong side of his body can ever make another deal with the devil that is longer than the month of January--if he can display that dazzling blend of clutch shooting setting up daredevil drives setting up beautiful feeds setting up more clutch jumpers for longer than 30 days--than the Wizards have depantsed David Kahn and all the snickers about his lack of genuine front office decision-making will turn into a shaming din. But that's not the way I'd bet on it happening. Randy Foye has been in the league three years now and will be 26 when the 2009-10 season opens. He has played with Kevin Garnett and Al Jefferson and he has been given the benefit of every doubt by a braintrust desperately hoping to save a little remaining face from the disastrous Roy for Foye swap on draft night 2006. He has been force-fed point guard duties and he has then grudgingly been taken off the ball as a two-guard. Wolves fans have learned that if a player lacks a sure-fire handle and possesses non-peripheral court vision, he too frequently strives for greatness by calling his own number, and otherwise plays risk-averse, unconfidently conservative basketball, until he builds up enough success and momentum to commit foolish mistakes and re-recognize his limitations. That's the Randy Foye experiment at the point. At the two-guard, on the other hand, it became striking exactly how many off-guards in this league are 6-7 to 6-9 in height, and how difficult it is to contain them defensively if you're 6-4.
More succinctly, Foye is a classic 'tweener, which is much different than a combo. Some nights he'll flourish, as will Miller, surrounded by the superior talent and firepower of a Wizards team that has to be healthy someday. As stated, Washington didn't sacrifice anything it wanted to keep. Meanwhile, David Kahn has dropped another rock into the apathetic pond that is the Wolves' fan base. A couple more will be unloaded on Thursday, another after that with the naming of a new coach. Kahn understands that courtship is necessary, and that under these circumstances, courtship means acknowledging to the former faithful that recent history was by turns traumatic and sleep-inducing, and then not only vowing to turn the page, but walking that talk.
The other thing about courtship is the fine line between being dashing and being a dunce, between being bold and thrill-seeking and being reckless and endangering. Even those of us enjoying Kahn's nerve and understanding the logic of his response to circumstances--I completely endorse the McHale dumping and gingerly agree with this trade, pending the draft bounty--are keeping the knives sharpened. This is a courtship, not a honeymoon.
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