When Minnesota hosts Portland in the teams’ season opener, the Northwest Division clubs will get the first real look at how their significant offseason moves have paid off.
Last season, the Timberwolves finished 44-38 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996. The Trail Blazers went 27-55 for their worst record since 1973-74, and also failed to make the postseason.
Both teams brought in new coaches and got rid of veterans in exchange for young players they hope will bring a revival.
The Timberwolves didn’t bring back Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, who both spent much of last season complaining about not getting contract extensions. Minnesota got Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers from the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Cassell, and also added first-round draft pick Rashad McCants.
“We made wholesale changes,” forward Wally Szczerbiak said. “Whole new coaching staff. It’s a fresh start for pretty much everyone. We had to get younger. We lost Sam and Spree, they were great players, All-Stars in this league, so we have to find a way to make up for those guys. I think we’re going to do it with hard work and playing our roles.”
Hard work is exactly what first-time head coach Dwane Casey is all about. Minnesota signed the longtime Seattle SuperSonics assistant to a five-year contract, with only three years guaranteed. Last season’s woes led to the midseason firing of longtime coach Flip Saunders, who is now in Detroit.
“There’s going to be no whining, no complaining about personal things,” Casey said. “It’s going to be about the team. A bunch of guys, jumping on the floor, playing hard and physical. Guys that are competing, playing hard, playing unselfish and doing things the right way.”
Jaric, who averaged 9.9 points and 6.1 assists per game last season for the Clippers, will lead the backcourt. The 6-foot-7 Jaric will pose a defensive matchup problem for opposing teams, while McCants brings athleticism and depth at shooting guard behind starter Trenton Hassell.
The Timberwolves veteran frontcourt, led by former MVP Kevin Garnett, will anchor the squad. Garnett, who averaged 22.2 points and a league-leading 13.5 rebounds last season, will play alongside Szczerbiak and center Michael Olowokandi.
Garnett, Szczerbiak, Jaric and Troy Hudson have all missed some time in the preseason with minor injuries but are expected to be available Wednesday.
The Trail Blazers didn’t re-sign free agents Damon Stoudamire and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, and waived Derek Anderson and Nick Van Exel. Abdur-Rahim and Stoudamire were Portland’s second and third leading scorers last season averaging 16.8 points and 15.8 points, respectively.
The Blazers also hired Nate McMillan, who previously spent five years as coach of the Seattle SuperSonics. Last season, McMillan led the Sonics to an unexpected 52 wins and Seattle took the San Antonio Spurs to six games in the Western Conference semifinals.
“I’m excited about this season,” McMillan said. “We’re going to have a young, energetic, enthusiastic group.”
Leading that young group will be point guard Sebastian Telfair, who was drafted by Portland in the first round in 2004. Telfair averaged 11.1 points and 6.0 assists as the starter over the final 26 games last season.
2004-05 STANDINGS: Trail Blazers - 4th place, 25 GB, Northwest Division. Timberwolves - 3rd place, 8 GB, Northwest Division.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Trail Blazers - F Miles, F Randolph, C Przybilla, G Telfair, G Dixon. Timberwolves - F Szczerbiak, F Garnett, C Olowokandi, G Hassell, G Jaric.
2004-05 TEAM LEADERS: Trail Blazers - Randolph, 18.9 ppg and 9.6 rpg; Stoudamire, 5.7 apg. Timberwolves - Garnett, 22.2 ppg, 13.5 rpg and 5.7 apg.
2004-05 SEASON SERIES: Timberwolves, 4-0.
LAST MEETING: Feb. 27; Timberwolves, 91-83. At Portland, Ore., Sprewell scored 27 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with just more than a minute left, to lead the Wolves.
2004-05 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Trail Blazers - 9-32 on the road. Timberwolves - 24-17 at home.