T'wolves succeeding in quest to join best in West

ON THE NBA

January 27, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS -- There's the predictable excitement out West, what with the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs all bunched atop the conference.

But look more closely, and another team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, is tucked right in there, battling with all the usual suspects for Western supremacy.

"Being respectful, I would say, `Thank you, but that's our goal,' " said forward Kevin Garnett. "We don't want to be one of the best, but the best. From a mental standpoint and from a physical standpoint, we go out every day in practice and try to reach that goal. And when we step out onto the court for games, we try to carry that energy over to the game."

The Timberwolves entered the weekend with the NBA's second-best record, and their coach, Flip Saunders, could become the leader of the Western All-Stars. The Kings have the league's best record, but an NBA rule prevents their coach, Rick Adelman, who coached last year's squad, from coaching in consecutive years.

Kevin McHale, the Timberwolves' architect, is a leading candidate for Executive of the Year.

"They've done a nice job with their team," said Washington coach Doug Collins, whose Wizards have dropped two games to Minnesota in the past two weeks. "Kevin McHale and Flip have really done well. This is a team that could do a lot of damage in the playoffs."

Indeed, the Timberwolves, tops in the NBA in field-goal percentage and third in scoring, are a really good team, particularly on the offensive end, where five players average in double figures.

Young players such as guard Wally Szczerbiak and center Radoslav Nesterovic have blossomed, and veterans Terrell Brandon, Chauncey Billups and original expansion selection Sam Mitchell have provided solid leadership.

As a result, the franchise, which not too long ago appeared to be en route to New Orleans and was later rocked by a scandal surrounding the free-agent signing of former Maryland star Joe Smith, is on solid ground. The Target Center in Minneapolis has become a nasty place for opponents -- the Timberwolves have an 18-2 home mark heading into last night's game with Atlanta.

At the core is Garnett, the sixth-year veteran ranked in the NBA's top 20 in an amazing 22 categories. The 6-foot-11 forward has boosted his rebounding and free-throw shooting and is on the short list of the league's best players.

Most importantly, Garnett, 25, who came to the NBA straight from a Chicago high school, has matured and assumed the mantle of leader in the Minnesota locker room, refusing to let the Wolves rest with the pack.

"I enjoy the competition, and I enjoy my teammates," Garnett said. "I don't want to look too far down the line, but I definitely try to prepare myself, on and off the court, for some day if I'm a little tired of things and I want to move on. I would love to play until I'm 50, but reality is another thing."

Quick quiz

Only two coaches have guided two different NBA teams to titles. One is Phil Jackson, who coached the Lakers and the Chicago Bulls. Can you name the other?

TV or not TV

There's something about the new television contract the NBA signed last week with ABC, ESPN and Turner that just doesn't add up.

Sure, the league got 25 percent more money than its current deal with NBC and Turner, which ends after this season. It also got half-ownership of a cable channel with Turner and a partnership with America Online, Turner's corporate parent.

But the new contract calls for ABC, the over-the-air carrier, to show only 15 regular-season games -- less than half the 33 that NBC will televise this season -- and only five playoff games before the finals. The All-Star Game will move from broadcast to cable (TNT), which 20 percent of the country isn't wired for, and the conference finals also will go to cable, split between TNT and ESPN.

And the league and Turner will have difficulty getting clearance for the new channel on most regular cable packages, meaning most basketball viewers will need to upgrade to the more expensive digital cable services.

"They've made an appeal to the basketball audience, because most of the basketball news is already on cable," said Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Lucas.

In other fallout from the contract, players association chief Billy Hunter has estimated that next year's salary cap figure, which is affected by television revenue, will not rise as much because the contract is backloaded to the end of the deal.

The competitive imbalance between the Eastern and Western conferences will have to be addressed, because ESPN and TNT each will get an exclusive conference final. Also, as a consequence of the deal, the league is expected to try to extend the best-of-five opening-round playoff series to a best-of-seven series, though doing so needs the union's approval.

And before you lose sleep worrying about the fate of NBA Inside Stuff host Ahmad Rashad, he comes with the deal, so there will still be someone around to ask Michael Jordan silly questions.

Quiz answer

Alex Hannum, who died Jan. 18, coached the then-St. Louis Hawks (1958) and Philadelphia 76ers (1967) to NBA crowns. Oddly enough, the Hawks and Sixers were the only teams other than the Boston Celtics to win titles from 1957 to 1969.

Quote of the week

"Two losses in a row, two rings in a row. It's a long season. You take the good with the bad."-- Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, after the defending champions lost a second straight game last week, to the Los Angeles Clippers, the fourth time this year the Lakers have dropped consecutive games.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers..

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