Midseason misgivings: Casey fired by Wolves

  • Article by: STEVE ASCHBURNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 23, 2007 - 10:54 PM

Despite a .500 record this season, the second-year coach was sacked by VP Kevin McHale.

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PORTLAND, ORE. - In a literal moment of 20-20 hindsight -- that was the Timberwolves' won-lost record at the time -- the team fired head coach Dwane Casey on Tuesday, replacing him with assistant Randy Wittman.

Kevin McHale, the Wolves' vice president of basketball operations, looked back at what the club had accomplished so far in 2006-07 and, with a current four-game losing streak, looked forward to where it might be headed -- with three stops left on a rough West Coast trip -- and removed Casey 1½ seasons after hiring him.

Inconsistency, McHale said, was what ultimately drove his decision -- not an unusual one in the Twin Cities, where the University of Minnesota has recently fired its men's basketball and football coaches.

"We were at a point as a team where we were just treading water," McHale said in a conference phone call with Wolves beat writers.

"The ups and downs, we just couldn't find any consistency. After 40 games we were in another of our inconsistent times.

"There was no huge watershed moment where 'this' happened or 'that' happened. It was your basic two steps up the hill and two steps down. We were never able the entire year to establish a style of play we could bank on. We'd get close, you saw signs, and we'd backslide."

The Wolves won seven of their first eight games in January, were entertaining and resilient and even went 4-0 in a flurry of overtime tests. They crept within three games of the Utah Jazz in the Northwest Division standings and looked primed for a strong second half.

But a disinterested performance in their 105-88 loss to Atlanta last Wednesday seemed to drain much of their momentum. During a double-overtime loss to Detroit two nights later, guard Ricky Davis walked off the court in a snit after being removed from the game, and All-Star forward Kevin Garnett was ejected after an altercation with the Pistons' Antonio McDyess.

Both players were suspended for one game, Davis by the team and Garnett by the NBA, which left the club undermanned for its 131-102 loss at Phoenix on Sunday. Then the Wolves fell behind by 13 points at halftime Monday against the Jazz and showed no defensive heart. The four-game skid is the third of that length this season.

"The next Timberwolves coach better look out when he goes to Utah," Flip Saunders, who previously held the job, joked in a telephone interview Tuesday. Saunders had lost a game in Salt Lake City on Feb. 11, 2005, then was fired the next day after 10 seasons and eight consecutive playoff appearances.

"I thought Dwane had grown a lot as a coach in the last year," said Saunders, now coaching the Pistons. "It's tough to come in as a [first-time] head coach when there are very high expectations. He basically has been a coach in flux. They had the trade [with Boston] last year, and they overhauled the team again in the summer."

Casey, 49, becomes the sixth Wolves coach to last less than two seasons; five were sacked, with McHale, who finished out the 2004-05 season, going back to his management role.

Signed in 2005 to a multi-year deal worth about $3 million per season, Casey's salary was guaranteed through 2007-08. A longtime assistant at Kentucky in college and at Seattle in the NBA, he learned of his firing from General Manager Jim Stack at the team's Portland hotel in the morning --McHale did not make the trip -- then drove to his home in Seattle for "a few days," he said by phone.

"I do appreciate Glen [Taylor, Wolves owner] and Kevin giving me the opportunity," said Casey, who had interviewed for three other NBA head coaching jobs. "We just didn't get it done. Were we inconsistent? Yes. That came from not being together a long time."

The Wolves made a major trade Jan. 26, 2006, revamping their roster by adding four Boston players while shipping out Wally Szczerbiak and Michael Olowokandi at mid-season. They added three more regulars last summer -- rookies Randy Foye and Craig Smith, and free agent Mike James. And the roster still is unbalanced, with seven guards and five forwards or centers.

There's more: James' play has been less than anticipated. Guard Rashad McCants has been unavailable due to offseason knee surgery. Guard Marko Jaric was unhappy enough as a reserve to reportedly seek a trade. Forward Eddie Griffin, signed to a three-year, $8.1 million contract before Casey's first season, was allowed by management to play without getting needed eye surgery. Now, after a five-game suspension for violating the NBA anti-drug policy, he is on the verge of being released.

Last season, Casey never settled on a rotation of player use, which made it harder for some of them to relax in their roles. The Wolves frequently blew leads and found ways to lose close games (4-10 in games decided by three points or fewer, 1-5 in overtime). They missed the playoffs for a second consecutive year and, with position in the draft lottery at stake, backpedaled to a 33-49 record.

This season, Casey did establish a rotation. The team still can swoon -- three double-digit leads blown in a week in mid-December and a 25-point edge nearly squandered against Chicago -- but it began winning close games (4-4 by three points, 4-1 in OT). That made the current skid as stunning as the 7-1 start this month.

"We've got to come together," veteran guard Trenton Hassell said. "It's kind of obvious we haven't been playing together some games. When we play together, we're a great team. When we've got individuals going off in another direction, we're kind of easy to beat."

Said Casey: "But that's the business we're in. I accept that, and I have no hard feelings."

Wittman met with the players before practice Tuesday and will lead the Wolves against the Trail Blazers tonight at the Rose Garden. A member of Minnesota's staff for 10 of the past 13 seasons, Wittman begins his second stint as an NBA head coach; he steered Cleveland to a 62-102 mark from 1999-2001. He spent the 2005-06 season with Orlando.

"We're still sitting in a good situation at 20-20 and in the playoffs, to make something out of this," he said. "It's not like you're sitting there 8-32, with nothing to play for. Even with the ups and downs, we're in position to set ourselves up for the playoffs."

Garnett, getting his fifth head coach in 12 years, said: "The focus is us winning. Not taking steps back. Let this motivate us. Coaches get you ready, they set the game plan, but players win games.

"We feel a sense of responsibility in ourselves. When someone in the family leaves, it's not one person, it's on everybody."

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