TIMBERWOLVES • Q&A with randy wittman

Training camp opens Saturday • Preseason opener: at Istanbul, Turkey • 1 p.m. Oct. 6

Randy Wittman: Straight shooter

  • Article by: Jerry Zgoda
  • Star Tribune
  • September 27, 2007 - 10:12 PM

Hidden behind cabinet doors in Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman's office in Target Center is a fold-out grease board containing the names of an inflated 17-man roster that includes eight newcomers and so many unexplored possibilities. Earlier this week, before the Wolves gather today for media day and fly Saturday to Turkey for 10 days of practice and games overseas, Wittman discussed a franchise completely remade after July's Kevin Garnett trade and his ascension from last winter's interim head coach to this season's new head coach.

Q Eight new faces. Eight guys 25 years old or younger. Maybe two or fewer starters back from opening night last season. What's your aptitude for piecing together jigsaw puzzles?

A We're going to find out. Do we have eight new guys? Is that it? It seems like there's more. For me, it's going to be fun because I'm such a huge believer in teaching. When you have a veteran group, you don't always get the ability to teach as much. Now, obviously we have to have patience through this whole thing, myself included, because there's going to be some growing pains.

Q When the new players arrived in August, you said you lobbied for such a complete youth movement if the franchise traded Kevin Garnett. Knowing how young players can get a coach fired, why?

A Because that's the only way you're going to do it. If I were looking at this thing selfishly, I never would even have agreed to be part of the Garnett trade. Looking long term, I envision myself being here. The only thing you can do that makes sense when you trade a player like that is to stockpile a lot of young talent, draft picks and give yourself the ability over the next couple years to be in a good situation salary-capwise.

You hope in a couple years that 2½ or three of those young guys emerge to be really good players. You look at all the great players that teams have had: When Michael and Scottie left the Bulls, they started over, stockpiled some young talent and now they're back fighting in the East in the playoffs.

Q Really good, what's your definition of that?

A Players you look at and say, 'We're going to build around these guys.' Guys who can become All-Stars. These guys are going to have every opportunity to become that type of player. The competition we're going to have in training camp, forget about coaching, I'm just excited to watch that. I can't play all of them. I've got 16 guys right now. I'm a firm believer in trying to find an eight- or nine-man rotation.

Q Unlike last season, you will implement your philosophies and strategies from the first day of training. What one thing do you want to accomplish in the next month that you couldn't last season because of the circumstances?

A This team is going to compete every night. That's all I really want these guys to understand by the time we get back from Turkey. If we compete every night, if we're worried about each other and not ourselves, we've got enough talent that we're going to surprise a lot of people. If you're going to play, there's no going through the motions, there's no pouting that I'm not getting my shot. That's what I'll stress going into training camp. If we can do that, wins and losses I'm not worried about.

Q When you have such youth, what are your expectations for the season?

A The only expectation is that we're going to compete every night. If we can get them to play hard every night with the talent I think they have, then we can be competitive. I don't think I can put a win-loss record on it. Our goal is to make the playoffs. We're going out every night to win. That's what I want these guys to believe. They're going to hear from the media and everybody else that they're the worst team in the league. I don't believe that. I truly don't. I don't want any of these guys believing it. This is a chance for us to become a young team that grows together.

Q Do you instill that will to compete by having 16 guys on the roster and only eight or nine spots in your playing rotation?

A This is the thing: You're minus a KG, the face of this team, now. We don't have a set starting five. I have no idea who's going to be that sixth, seventh, eighth guy. When you have open competition, you truly find out who's competitive and who's not. Who's going to have the will to fight for what's theirs and who's not. They're going to tell me who the competitive ones are.

Q So ... who's your starting five?

A I don't know. I have no clue. I really don't. These guys are going to prove to me who should start.

Q Without rolling the first basketball out yet, what do you know definitively about this team already?

A We're bigger and much more athletic. Last year, I was really disappointed because we were a team that wouldn't run. You ask any player how they want to play and they say they want to run. OK, then, well, get out and run. Every time I watched, I saw my guys walking the wings. I've got guys -- [Corey] Brewer, [Rashad] McCants, [Gerald] Green, [Sebastian] Telfair, Randy [Foye] -- now who are going to fly. We're not going to be Phoenix, but I don't want to be a team that walks the ball down and plays 5-on-5 basketball. We've got to be able to learn to score as many easy baskets as we can. If you're playing the 1-2-3 positions, you better run. If you can't run, you're probably not going to play.

Q Considering your personality and philosophies, how well suited are you to coaching such a young team?

A It's going to be interesting. As I tell myself and tell management, we have to have patience. We've got to. I'm an extremely, extremely competitive guy. I love winning more than anybody, so that's going to be a test for me. If we get into a streak where it gets a little bumpy, where's my patience?

Q KG was this franchise's face for more than a decade. Who is it now?

A I think that will be painted for us. You can't make it somebody. That's got to be something that emerges. Nobody envisioned when KG came here as an 18-year-old rookie that he'd be what he turned out to be. You can't envision it. It might not be just one player.

Q What will this franchise miss most about KG?

A Oh, geez. We're going to miss everything. He's a Hall of Fame player. We'll miss his enthusiasm, his versatility, his smile. He played as hard as he possibly could every night, whether he had good games or bad games. His personality was just infectious. There were a lot of things that I think I'm going to find out I took for granted with him.

Q When your first head-coaching job in Cleveland ended six years ago, some players there said you didn't communicate well with them and they didn't know their roles. In hindsight, was that valid criticism?

A I was a player. You hear one of two things when guys are not playing: Either, 'There's no communication' or 'I don't know my role.' I'm a straight shooter. These guys will know their roles. I will tell you how it is and what my beliefs are. And I expect the same the other way, whether it's positive or negative. You never know when something is brewing if you keep it inside.

Q This team was 20-20 when you were named head coach last January. It was 12-30 thereafter. Why didn't it play better?

A I don't know, a combination of things. I don't ever want to take over in the middle of a season again. When that happens, there's a lot of things going on behind the scenes that you try to determine which fire is the biggest and put out that fire you think is either the biggest or will become the biggest. Change like that is tough. I keep making excuses why we didn't play better. I just think things festered to the point of no return, through not only our play on the floor but in the locker room.

Q Why are you the right guy for this job right now?

A Time will tell if I'm the right guy. That's a question you'll have to ask Glen [owner Glen Taylor]. I've been in this game for 25 years and I'm in this game for no other reason than I'm a coach and nothing more. I've got a great work ethic. I've bounced around. I'm not going to become a financial planner. This is who I am. When I'm done working, I'm done. I'm retired.

Q You're not going to become a TV analyst?

A [Laughs] No, I'm probably not going to do that. I'm too honest.

Q Do you find yourself looking at that board on your wall often?

A Yes, there's a lot of names up there. A lot of names. Just from that standpoint, this might be one of the competitive camps I've ever been a part of. Like I said, I don't have five guys who everybody knows are our starters and I'm looking for guys to be the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth man. Everything's open. You can be a starter here.

Jerry Zgoda •

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