Blazers (unlike Wolves) show you can win with youth
Posted: Tuesday January 8, 2008 2:27PM; Updated: Tuesday January 8, 2008 3:29PM
Whoever it was who first said, "Youth is wasted on the young'' -- George Bernard Shaw, songwriter Sammy Cahn or the nosy guy on the porch in that Jimmy Stewart movie -- must have had the NBA in mind.
With an occasional exception like the Portland Trail Blazers.
The San Antonio Spurs, the closest thing these days to an NBA dynasty, routinely start four players age 30 or older (Bruce Bowen, 36; Michael Finley, 34; Fabricio Oberto, 32; and Tim Duncan, 31). So will the perennially contending Detroit Pistons once Richard Hamilton hits that milestone age on Feb. 14 (Antonio McDyess, 33; Rasheed Wallace, 33; Chauncey Billups, 31; and Hamilton).
Denver, too, starts four 30-year-olds these days around Carmelo Anthony. Boston has gone from the bottom to the top relying on a trio of relative NBA/AARP straddlers. And the catalyst of the Western Conference's most successful team to date, Phoenix, is a point guard who soon will turn 34, with an aching back and more miles on his odometer than Ricky Rudd.
Then there's Minnesota, built from the ground down this season, with nine players who are age 25 or younger and as many skinned knees as you might expect from such a kiddie corps. Losers in 29 of their first 33 games, the Timberwolves seem to have regressed from training wheels to tricycles lately, lugging an eight-game losing streak into Tuesday night's clash with Miami (nearly as inept and admittedly older) that is longer than any endured in 12 seasons of the Kevin Garnett era.
Six of those eight losses were by 10 points or more, compared to 10 of their first 21. And get a load of this: As of tip-off against the Heat, the Wolves had trailed for nearly three consecutive games -- the final 44:09 against Portland on Jan. 2, followed by two wire-to-wire drubbings against Denver and Dallas -- and 315:45 of a possible 384 minutes in the eight losses.
"Right now, the issue is guys getting beat down and losing their competitive edge,'' Minnesota's VP of basketball operations, Kevin McHale, said after practice Monday. "You can't do that. You can do a lot of stuff, but you cannot not compete. The losses pile up, you knew it would be an up-and-down year, you knew there was going to be fluctuations. The problem is, you hit the bottom of that thing, you lose your 'thinking-you-should-win,' you lose all those things mentally that make you competitive.''
The Wolves, through their first 30 games, led or were tied at halftime 12 times; they lost 10 of those. Twelve times, they were up or even with 12 minutes left -- and lost. More recently, though, the close ones that got away have gone away.
McHale said he knew, by experience, that rebuilding so completely, shedding veterans (and salaries) and selling tickets to these unsightly practices-that-count would be a struggle. Yet he assembled the roster that way anyway, with key parts from a Celtics club that lost 58 times last season.
"If you have eight or nine young guys and you're trying to find a core group to move forward with,'' McHale said, "it's very seldom do all eight or nine guys just flourish and go.''
Wait. What's that stirring sound from the Pacific Northwest? Is that you, Sasquatch?
Nope, it's the bouncing baby Blazers, a team even younger than the Wolves but with five times their victory total.
Portland began the season with an average age of 24 years, 26 days. With 10 of 15 players age 24 or younger and five no more than 21 years old, they are the NBA's youngest team now and its third youngest ever. And yet, they ran off a 13-2 record in December, have built an impressive home-court advantage (16-3) and already have learned the valuable lesson of doing your work early (tied or ahead after the first quarter in 15 of their last 17 games) to lighten their load late.