The Minnesota Timberwolves are among the favorites in the Western Conference. However, as the regular season begins, there are a few distractions surrounding the team.
Minnesota looks to build off its run during last season’s playoffs as it starts the 2004-05 campaign with a matchup against the New York Knicks.
The Timberwolves’ “Big Three” of league MVP Kevin Garnett and guards Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell formed the NBA’s highest-scoring trio last season and led the Wolves to the Western Conference finals, where they lost in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Those three and all the key players are back from last season’s team, but Sprewell and Cassell have raised doubts about their long-term futures with the team. And Wally Szczerbiak has made it clear he wants a bigger role.
Sprewell says he’ll ask to be traded if Minnesota doesn’t sign him to a contract extension by Wednesday night’s opener.
“I think this thing is heading towards me leaving, personally,” Sprewell told reporters after practice Sunday.
Asked if he would play out the season and test the free-agent market, Sprewell said: “Why would I want to help them win a title? They’re not doing anything for me. I’m at risk. I have a lot of risk here. I got my family to feed. Anything could happen.”
Sprewell, due to make $14.6 million this year, has said he doesn’t want to take a pay cut. But at 34, the Wolves could be hesitant to oblige. Sprewell described the team’s latest offer, reported to be worth between $27 million and $30 million over three years, as “insulting.”
Cassell was upset enough about not getting an extension that he skipped the team’s media day and first day of training camp.
“Me and Spree, we deserve extensions,” Cassell said. “There’s no other way to say it. You can’t sugarcoat it.”
Szczerbiak has made it clear he wants his starting spot back. A foot injury sidelined him for the first 53 games last season, and the Wolves signed Trenton Hassell to take his place. Hassell made a name as a defensive specialist and earned a six-year, $27 million contract.
Szczerbiak said he wants to play a lot of minutes, even if it means being traded.
“I’ll play basketball anywhere, I don’t care,” Szczerbiak said. “It’s a business, if you get traded, no hard feelings either way, you’ve just got to play elsewhere.”
With Shaquille O’Neal now in the Eastern Conference with Miami, the Wolves’ chances of reaching the NBA Finals has increased. But an unhappy locker room may prevent that from happening.
Knicks guard Allan Houston missed the playoffs and 13 of the final 14 regular-season games due to soreness in his left knee, so team president Isiah Thomas went out and got Jamal Crawford from the Chicago Bulls.
Houston didn’t play this preseason, while Crawford emerged to lead New York with 12.9 points in playing in all eight games.
“I definitely think (Crawford) is All-Star caliber,” Thomas said. “He and Steph and Allan, those three in the backcourt, if they’re all healthy, they’re just about as good as you can get.”
Crawford led Chicago in scoring last season with 17.3 points per game, while Houston averaged 18.5 points in 50 games for New York.
“I’m trying to be smart, that’s kind of where I am,” Houston said. “I’ve been in this league 12 years, I’ll know when I’m ready. I just want to be surer than sure.”
Coach Lenny Wilkens came in at midseason after Don Chaney was fired, one of many shake-ups made by Thomas after he took over for Scott Layden in December. And with a month of training camp and exhibition games, the Knicks are more comfortable with each other after they were thrown together on the fly last season.
Marbury, who was left frustrated by his poor performance with the U.S. Olympic team in Athens, is comfortable raising expectations for himself and his team.
In his mind, the two biggest problems from last season—a lack of familiarity and the absence of an insurance policy behind Houston—have been solved.
“One, we’ve played with each other. And two, we have Jamal Crawford as an addition,” Marbury said. “He’s definitely a person who brings a lot to the team … We’ve all gotten better as a team.”
2003-04 STANDINGS: Knicks - 3rd place, 8 GB, Atlantic Division. Timberwolves - 1st place, Midwest Division.
2003-04 TEAM LEADERS: Knicks - Marbury, 20.2 ppg and 8.9 apg; Kurt Thomas, 8.3 rpg. Timberwolves - Garnett, 24.2 ppg and 13.9 rpg; Cassell, 7.3 apg.
2003-04 SEASON SERIES: 1-1.
LAST MEETING: Dec. 23, 2003; Timberwolves, 98-92. At New York, Sprewell cursed at the Knicks’ owner James Dolan, screamed at their bench and yelled in triumph after the best comeback game by any player to have spent at least five seasons in New York. He scored 31 points to break the record of 28 for an ex-Knick in his comeback game set by Walt Frazier when he played for Cleveland on Oct. 25, 1977.
2003-04 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Knicks - 16-25 on the road. Timberwolves - 31-10 at home.