Is this the end for Rambis?

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 13, 2011 - 8:37 AM

Changing coaches would be the most likely move in a long line of tries to restart the woeful Wolves, but their troubles extend past the sideline.

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Wolves coach Kurt Rambis

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So, what does Glen Taylor do now?

Two years after he painfully cut ties with favorite son Kevin McHale and approved sweeping management moves, the Timberwolves owner again finds himself contemplating change.

Two consecutive lousy, losing seasons have returned the franchise in essence to its expansion-team days 20 years ago.

This time, though, there's no such novelty.

Faced with a rapidly dwindling fan base that so badly wants a reason to believe and with minority owners increasingly alarmed by the franchise's continued financial losses, Taylor's options include everything from pro sports' traditional, perfunctory firing of assistant coaches to removing both basketball boss David Kahn and coach Kurt Rambis.

Most probable for a team that has dragged itself to Wednesday's finish line and quite possibly could lose its final 15 games and finish with the league's worst record: He approves Rambis' firing, a decision that could be complicated by an expected labor lockout this summer and the prospect of paying two coaches for an upcoming season that conceivably might never be played.

Kahn interviewed a gaggle of coaching candidates two summers ago before choosing Rambis from the Los Angeles Lakers' championship tree, saying emphatically that he believed his choice was "ripe" for a head-coaching job.

In doing so, Kahn agreed to give zenmaster Phil Jackson's longtime assistant with limited NBA head-coaching experience a guaranteed four-year contract, a length Rambis insisted upon to help ensure he'd be given enough time to redirect a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2004.

Oops.

Owner of eight NBA title rings, Rambis brought from Los Angeles important elements of Jackson's complex triangle offense and much of his mentor's demeanor and belief that professional players need to motivate themselves without being implored at every turn.

He also borrowed Jackson's head tilt, a similarly cadenced speech pattern and the 11-time NBA championship coach's habit of standing aloofly outside the team's huddle, deep in thought, scribbling away on a marker board until he pops back in with a few parting words of advice.

That works well when you're popping in to advise Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman or Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Ron Artest.

Handicapped by talent deficit

If Kahn announces Rambis' firing sometime soon, expect him to commence a search for a new coach considered more motivational and fiery.

And presumably that new man will mold his system around the talent already accumulated rather than the other way around.

To be sure, Rambis has been asked to win with talent not nearly yet ready to do so.

Taylor and Wolves CEO Rob Moor, Taylor's former son-in-law, interviewed more qualified candidates to replace McHale two years ago before they chose for a minimal salary Kahn, a former sportswriter-turned-lawyer and NBA assistant general manager who never before was in charge of player-personnel decisions.

He has pared the franchise's payroll to the NBA's third-lowest by trading away Al Jefferson's big contract for future draft picks and he has accumulated players in a manner a fantasy-league owner might, acquiring young, raw talent and worrying later about how the pieces might fit.

The result is a manner Jackson has termed "haphazard" and a roster whose three most promising players -- Kevin Love, Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph -- all might be best suited to play power forward.

Kahn acquired Beasley -- the second overall pick in a 2008 draft that produced MVP favorite Derrick Rose first overall -- from Miami last summer for a pittance. He waited months before getting Randolph from New York in that three-way Carmelo Anthony for Corey Brewer, who Kahn concluded never would be skilled enough to thrive on the wing in the NBA but whom Rambis seemed reluctant to see go.

He also signed Darko Milicic to a guaranteed four-year, $16 million contract and was nationally ridiculed for offering so much against no other bidders to a former No. 2 overall pick who failed to stick with four other franchises.

Any one of those players was worth the gamble, but adding all three to a team so young that 30-year-old Luke Ridnour is the oldest player by five years? That's flirting with folly, at least in the short term.

Waiting on Rubio, turnaround

Kahn was hired in May 2009, only a month before he conducted an NBA draft in which the Wolves had three first-round picks -- including two in the top six -- after he acquired an extra one by trading Randy Foye and Mike Miller to Washington.

He used all three to draft point guards, picking precocious Spanish prospect Ricky Rubio fifth overall after he fell because of his uncertain contract status, Jonny Flynn sixth and Ty Lawson 18th for Denver in a prearranged trade.

Six weeks later, Kahn made what he called the most important decision he had make as boss: He hired Rambis, and with him got an offensive philosophy and system that might not exactly minimize the position but certainly doesn't emphasize it as more traditional NBA offenses.

The Wolves still are waiting for Rubio's arrival from Europe. Flynn has been a flop, probably partly because of a system not suited for him and partly because of hip surgery that scuttled much of his second pro season.

A starting-caliber NBA point guard presumably is foremost on what Rambis calls his "wish list," an unspecified collection of everything his team currently lacks. A veteran presence, shutdown defenders and an athletic, rugged big man also probably are the list.

The difference between Rambis' wish list and the team's current roster has strained his relationship with Kahn, who is just as responsible as Rambis for the team's 17-victory season but likely won't be held as accountable.

For now.

Kahn claims the talent he has accumulated -- as well as yet another high draft pick and precious cap space created to add a meaningful player when a new, trim labor agreement ultimately is reached -- will be ready to challenge for a playoff spot next season.

If he's right, someone else probably will coach this team there.

If he's wrong and all this was spin by a guy not ready for the job, the Timberwolves with a new boss will have to climb from the morass just to get back to where they were two years ago.

Jerry Zgoda • jzgoda@startribune.com

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