McHale has Wolves pointing up
The Timberwolves have caught fire since the calendar flipped to 2009
The players are responding to interim coach (and former VP) Kevin McHale
Randy Foye is enjoying a hot streak, but Mike Miller is struggling to find his shot
Five things I've learned about the Timberwolves' turnaround ... OK, wait, that's probably too strong ... the Timberwolves' surprising 5-1 start to 2009:
1. Kevin McHale might have missed his calling.
A 5-1 stretch in any six games is nothing for anyone associated with this franchise to sneeze at (especially in minus-30 windchills, when sneezes arrive as ice crystals). Minnesota compiled a 24-59 record in calendar 2008, on the heels of a 23-61 mark in 2007 and 32-51 in 2006. How bad was it? The great Kevin Garnett was around for 86 of those 171 defeats, 50.3 percent of them, so the losing even predates the official rebuilding plan.
The tail end of '08 left like an especially cranky Father Time. McHale, long the team's vice president of basketball operations, stepped down from his executive perch, owner Glen Taylor all but twisting one of McHale's arms behind his back to replace Randy Wittman on the bench. Wittman's final game, a 107-84 home loss to the Clippers on Dec. 6, was bad, but Minnesota's final game of 2008 was worse: a 107-100 loss at Dallas in which it frittered away a 29-point third-quarter lead. In between, the Wolves dropped their first eight games with McHale, stemmed the bleeding for a night at New York, then split home games against Orlando and Memphis.
Baby New Year, by contrast, has been a bouncing bundle of joy. It helped that the first five opponents had a combined record of 58-116 (.333) when Minnesota faced them. Helped, too, that the schedule loosened up a bit -- six of McHale's first 12 games had come on the road in four separate trips, with four back-to-back sets mixed into 22 days, right through the holidays. If the pace and places weren't grueling enough, the lack of practice time, post-coaching change, was.
Mostly, though, McHale's handling of the team -- its rotation, its preparation and its temperament -- has helped to thaw its performance. He has a couple of distinct advantages on Wittman. First, the players have no court of appeals now, no backs behind which to go, now that they're playing directly for the guy who drafted, traded for or signed them. Second, the current head coach doesn't have the VP second-guessing him; there is a single voice.
But McHale also has been able to transfuse his roster with some of the basketball common sense and casual confidence that earned him three NBA championship rings and a Hall of Fame enshrinement. He works games with loose reins (sometimes too loose, sitting on timeouts during the collapse at Dallas), allows the locker room to breathe and has a don't-BS-a-BS-er rapport with his players.
"He's easy to play for,'' veteran swingman Mike Miller said recently."He always preaches that practice is his time, games are our time. He's always got your back and every shot's a good shot. Anytime you have a confident coach like that, it definitely helps.''
McHale -- currently the only Hall of Fame player among the 30 men working NBA sidelines -- has his personal record back above .500, his 7-11 mark heading into Friday's game at Phoenix combining with the 19-12 run he had after replacing Flip Saunders deep into 2004-05. That .531 percentage, frankly, is better than his average as a team builder, even counting the Garnett pick double. Or triple. What looked like a certain two-step exit strategy when McHale took over as coach -- 1) vacate glass office, 2) slip away come summer -- now might be more intriguing if he actually came back and ran his own training camp. But he hates the travel and still doesn't seem himself as a coach.
It's worth noting, too, that McHale isn't alone among former Celtics who could have made fine livings as coaches. Danny Ainge went 136-90 (.602) with three playoff berths with Phoenix before giving up the job. Then there's Larry Bird, who was 147-67 (.687) with three postseason appearances, a trip to the 2000 Finals and the 1998 Coach of the Year award before he, too, opted for a front-office job, with the Pacers.
OK, so maybe never. But at least Foye looks destined lately to become more than the guy swapped for Brandon Roy on draft night in 2006. Supremely confident even in rough times, Foye has brimmed with it under McHale, averaging 20.6 points in his past 12 games. That includes 32 points in just three quarters against the Thunder last week and 29 points -- 14 in the fourth quarter -- against Miami on Tuesday. It's ironic that, when McHale acquired Foye for Roy, the stated reason was Foye's superior point-guard potential, because his recent heroics have come at shooting guard.
"What Dwyane Wade is to their team, I feel like I can be that here,'' Foye said. "Pass the ball and make plays. The main thing for me is to be aggressive, regardless of what the situation is, 1 guard or 2 guard.''
It would help, of course, if he got half of the whistle respect Wade enjoys with the referees. In the Heat's 99-96 victory at Target Center, the Miami star made as many free throws (13) as Minnesota shot as a team. He got to the line five times in the final four minutes and was 13-of-16, compared to Foye's 0-of-0, including a no-call at the buzzer on Foye's attempt to draw contact on Wade beyond the arc.