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Injured Wolves guard Sam Cassell could only cheer from the bench during Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference finals against the Lakers.

Ann Heisenfelt, ASSOCIATED PRESS

What if ... Cassell hadn't gotten hurt?

  • August 8, 2011 - 11:49 PM

Editor's note: This is an installment in a 10-part series asking "what if" certain major events in Twin Cities sports history had turned out differently. This is purely an exercise in amusement. Nobody at the Star Tribune -- least of all the author -- has a DeLorean that goes 88 mph and has the ability to go back to change the past. Send any feedback or suggestions to mrand@startribune.com.

THE GLORY DAYS

Remember the 2003-04 Timberwolves? Ah, those were the days. Minnesota finished the regular season 58-24 -- the best record in the Western Conference -- behind a trio lovingly dubbed "MV3." At the heart of it was Kevin Garnett, the MVP of the league that year and a man who was at the very top of his game. Complementing him were veterans Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, a couple of fearless players (particularly Cassell) who could take the late-game heat off of KG. But after a tense seven-game series victory over the Kings, Cassell's back seized up and rendered him almost completely useless during the conference finals.

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

Had he been healthy, there would have been at least a fighting chance for the Wolves to defeat the Lakers. Los Angeles, you'll recall, was loaded up that year with Shaq, Kobe, Gary Payton and Karl Malone. But you'll also recall the Lakers floundered badly in the 2004 finals, losing quite convincingly in five games to Detroit.

A full-strength Wolves squad -- one with Cassell bringing the ball up the court and hitting his traditional clutch shots -- very well could have exposed the aging Lakers' flaws before Detroit got to them.

HISTORY REWRITTEN

If the Wolves at least make the NBA Finals, maybe they up the ante to Latrell Sprewell, who quietly signs a contract instead of uttering the infamous line about feeding his family. Maybe Cassell isn't quite as moody in his follow-up campaign and the Wolves don't trade him (and a No. 1 pick that they still owe the Clippers) for Marko Jaric.

The Wolves are probably good enough that Flip Saunders isn't fired in the middle of the 2004-05 season. Maybe without starting that revolving door of coaches, the Wolves don't start the spiral that leads to the KG trade and the various rebuilding projects that have followed.

AND, AS A BONUS...

It is even possible, had the Wolves not bottomed out and given the organization's tendency toward loyalty, that Kevin McHale would still be running the team. That means for the past two years we would not have been introduced to David Kahn's vocabulary or asset-building plan. Not saying that's particularly good or bad. But it's certainly different.

MICHAEL RAND

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