Sometimes an NBA fan can get caught up in the Kobe-Shaq feud, the Qyntel Woods’ dog-fighting disgrace, the Phil Jackson book, the Michael Jordan comeback rumors, the Jason Kidd trade demand, the Vince Carter trade demand, the Baron Davis trade demand, the Peja-C-Webb rift, the Carmelo Anthony marijuana incident, the Gary Payton DUI, the Allen Iverson handicapped-parking fiasco and various tantrums involving anything from playing time to contract extensions to extra game tickets for auxiliary posse members and forget completely that they play an entire season of basketball, and somebody eventually wins the championship.
It’s understandable if that little detail fell underneath the radar. The NBA is a cornucopia of activity happening among colorful individuals, and the pursuit of the sport’s ultimate goal sometimes seems bland by comparison.
But if you’re old school, and you eschew the police blotter and focus on the standings and later the playoff bracket, this might be a good time to discuss the team that will be taking a champagne shower next June.
Let’s hear it for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
I’m not going out on a limb here, I’m hugging the tree trunk. If you gathered all the nation’s NBA pundits and polled them — and if you want to try that approach, you’ll discover the words “all you can eat” work wonders — the results will probably be Minnesota, San Antonio and Detroit as Nos. 1, 2 and 3, in varying combinations.
On paper, there are really no other contenders worth discussing. The Indiana Pacers are in the mix, but they did little in the offseason to suggest they’ll upset the East's balance of power, such as it is. The Miami Heat will be worth watching for the exploits of The Big Vendetta, but it is not a complete enough team to gain the NBA Finals.
In the West, the Lakers went from the penthouse to the outhouse to the place where they dump out the outhouse. Teams like Sacramento and Dallas are fading. Clubs like Denver, Phoenix, Utah, Memphis and New Orleans are rising, but none is strong enough yet. Houston could be a player, but again, it’s a reach to expect a team with a reconstituted roster to solidify in one season and contend for a championship.
That leaves the T-Wolves, Spurs and Pistons.
The Timberwolves will prevail because they’re ready. Their offense is loaded. Their defense is disciplined and consistent. They have a superstar leader with an MVP on his shelf and a rapacious desire for team glory. They’ve got the complete package, including the nagging torment left over from last spring that, if healthy, they should have eliminated the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
If you’ll recall, the T-Wolves, behind Kevin Garnett’s magnificent and powerful all-around game, gave the Lakers all they could handle. If not for some crafty, rugged and at times chippy defense by Karl Malone, Garnett would have decimated the Lakers. Instead, he was merely incredible.
Also, the T-Wolves suffered two major injuries, which held them back. Sam Cassell had a bad wheel and a sore back, and was effective early in games, and only in spots. And the T-Wolves played that series without shooting guard Troy Hudson, who had a bum ankle.
When the Timberwolves are at full strength, they’re a handful, even for defensive-minded clubs like San Antonio and Detroit. Minnesota can send out any combination of guns that includes Garnett, Cassell, Hudson, Wally Szczerbiak, Latrell Sprewell, Trenton Hassell, Fred Hoiberg and Eddie Griffin, with Michael Olowokandi, Ervin Johnson and Mark Madsen.
But coach Flip Saunders does not preside over a lopsided franchise. For most of last season the T-Wolves consistently ranked among the NBA’s top 10 in both offense and defense. Garnett is one of the league’s top shot-blockers, and considering that he has so many other duties, that’s worthy of kudos. When they need to, the Timberwolves can play clamp-down defense as well as anyone.
Their chief rivals in the West this year will be the San Antonio Spurs. To pick the Timberwolves is not to trash the Spurs. They are neck-and-neck, and it wouldn’t be even a mild surprise if San Antonio makes it to the Finals.
But while the Spurs are terrific defensively, they’re not as stocked on the offensive side as Minnesota. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and newcomer Brent Barry will get their share, but San Antonio’s margin of error on offense is slim. If any of them struggle on a given night, they don’t have much in reserve. Robert Horry is past his prime, and Bruce Bowen, Tony Massenburg and Malik Rose aren't the answers, either.
The Western Conference finals will likely see Minnesota and San Antonio battling in a doozy of a series, which will probably go the full seven. Detroit, mightier and more confident this year with the additions of Carlos Delfino and Antonio McDyess, won’t have much trouble emerging from the East.
As a result, the Timberwolves will play the Pistons in the NBA Finals, with Minnesota prevailing. That will make fans forget the days when the T-Wolves couldn’t get out of the first round. And it will cause them to ignore all the other issues that permeate the league, at least for a day or two.
PBT: San Antonio executed its game plan well in Game 1, shutting down Grizzlies star Zach Randolph.
Video: NBA from NBC Sports
Grizzlies ready for 'running' Spurs
DPS: Lionel Hollins tells us how he plans to play against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals.
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