January 26, 2006

Seven Players, No Hope

I had the usual Link-O-Rama entry ready for today, but everything gets put on hold when the Wolves make a horrible trade. I have been very critical of Kevin McHale in the past, both for his inability to surround Kevin Garnett with talent and his maddening tendency to award mediocre players with long-term contracts worth way too much money. Yesterday's seven-player swap with the Celtics cements my view of McHale as, at the very least, the wrong man to rebuild the team back into a contender.

Since advancing to the conference finals, the Wolves' problems have boiled down to a simple lack of top-line talent. Garnett is an elite player and Wally Szczerbiak is a capable second or third option, but the rest of the roster has been filled with role players forced into too-big roles. A team that counts Marko Jaric, Eddie Griffin, Trenton Hassell and Troy Hudson among its six best players isn't going anywhere unless it has two superstars leading the way, and Szczerbiak fell well short of that.

All of which makes yesterday's trade such a disaster. Rather than trying to acquire draft picks to help provide the roster with some much-needed long-term potential or finding a way to trade a couple of those spare parts for another Szczerbiak-like borderline star, McHale chose to unload one of two players on the entire team who have performed at a high level.

As I showed here last week, take a look at how Garnett and Szczerbiak stuck out from the rest of the team when it comes to True Shooting Percentage (a measure of offensive efficiency that goes beyond field goal percentage by accounting for free throws and three-pointers):

Wally Szczerbiak      60.8
Kevin Garnett 58.4


Trenton Hassell 53.1
Marko Jaric 48.7
Troy Hudson 48.7
Michael Olowokandi 46.1
Anthony Carter 45.7
Rashad McCants 45.1
Eddie Griffin 41.4

Szczerbiak has his flaws and is not what I consider to be a great player, but he has consistently been one of the most efficient offensive players in basketball. On a team that is among the worst in the league offensively, that made him the equivalent of the last canteen full of water for a man trapped in the desert. Now he's in Boston, hitting mid-range jumpers alongside Paul Pierce and a promising young core, and Garnett's supporting cast is even weaker.

To make matters worse, for the privilege of essentially swapping Szczerbiak for Ricky Davis (at best a push, and likely a downgrade), McHale gave up a future first-round pick and the cap room that comes along with Michael Olowokandi's expiring contract, and took on Mark Blount's bloated long-term deal. Blount will fit right in with Hudson, Jaric, Hassell, and Mark Madsen on the Wolves' roster full of overpaid players, and the lack of a first rounder is certainly something the Wolves are used to.

A combination of the Joe Smith debacle, including first-round picks in trades, and McHale's inability to find talent in the draft of late leaves the team with a future that doesn't look much better than the present. Next year's first-round pick (lottery protected) is already property of the Clippers thanks to the misguided Sam Cassell-for-Jaric swap and McHale used the only two first rounders he's had this decade on Ndudi Ebi (since cut) and Rashad McCants (a poor pick bound for a mediocre career).

There is no light at the end of this tunnel. Garnett turns 30 years old in May, the team has no hope for any meaningful salary cap room to pursue free agents, and McCants represents the best (and perhaps only) long-term building block the Wolves have. It doesn't get much worse than that, which is why a trade like yesterday's that fails to make things better now or in the future is maddening.

Davis is the type of player the Wolves should have been trying to add, but doing so at the expense of losing Szczerbiak makes absolutely no sense. Marcus Banks was one of my favorite college players while at UNLV and is one hell of an athlete, but he's shown little ability to be a quality NBA point guard. Blount is a stiff center who rebounds like a guard, and Justin Reed is Ronald Dupree without the cool-sounding name.

With each forfeited draft pick, botched trade, and uninspired free-agent decision McHale and the Wolves move one step closer to wasting the career of one of the greatest big men in NBA history. I see no way for the team to provide Garnett with a championship-caliber supporting cast in the next three years, and even if a minor miracle allows them to get their act together to do so soon after that, it'll be just in time for his decline.

The Wolves are a train bound for nowhere, and they're heading there fast.

UPDATE: John Hollinger, who is my favorite basketball writer, opines on ESPN.com that the trade is "slightly in favor of Minnesota." He makes some fair points, but the fact that Davis' defense is better than Szczerbiak's likely doesn't offset the offensive dropoff for a team that was already doing well defensively while struggling to score.

The Wolves are well past the point of "slightly in favor" doing them any good regardless of if it's true, and Szczerbiak has a significant edge in Hollinger's all-encompassing pet stat, Player Efficiency Rating:

                TS%     AST%    REB%      TO%       PER
Szczerbiak 60.1 12.9 7.4 9.9 18.67
Davis 52.9 19.8 6.5 10.3 16.06

UPDATE #2: I keep hearing that Davis is "a slasher" and "the type of aggressive scorer Garnett needs." That's all fine, but if he's so aggressive and can get to the basket so well, why is he averaging a measly 3.9 free-throw attempts in 41.7 minutes?

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