This week in the Star Tribune, we ran a series that I helped curate on some significant “what-if” moments in Minnesota sports history. The premise was simple: take a landmark event or moment and imagine what might have have happened if that moment was changed.
As part of that series, I asked for reader feedback on other what-if moments to explore — which I will do in the coming weeks. The feedback was copious, which is good! (And also means there are a lot of regrets, but that’s another matter).
Multiple readers — including Joe Nelson in an email sent last night — asked this what-if: What would have happened if Sam Cassell hadn’t been injured with the Wolves during the 2004 playoffs?
As luck would have it, this week I also did a lengthy oral history on that Wolves season and specifically Game 7 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals against the Kings. I had a chance to talk to multiple players along the way and held back a few quotes about the subject of Cassell’s hip injury, the impact during the Lakers series (the Western Conference finals, which the Wolves lost in six games) and what might have been.
There is a lot of fertile ground here. Let’s get to it:
*First off, in my memory Cassell didn’t play at all against the Lakers. The record actually shows Cassell appeared in four games during that series — including two in which he logged at least 26 minutes (the other two were 5 minutes or less). He had 16 points and 8 assists in a Game 1 loss; barely played in a Game 2 win; had 18 points in a Game 3 loss; barely played in a Game 4 loss; and didn’t play at all in a Game 5 win or a Game 6 loss.
*That said, he was clearly hobbled even when he did play — the result of what was later said to be a torn hip.
Game 1 was a tone-setter.It was 67-67 late in the third quarter. Cassell missed a three-pointer, and not long after that he left the game while the Lakers went on a big, game-defining run. He didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter, and the Wolves lost by nine.
And then in the series-deciding game in Los Angeles, Cassell didn’t play at all. Fred Hoiberg, who said he had never played point guard in his life, was running things quite a bit along with Darrick Martin because not only was Cassell hurt but Troy Hudson had been injured earlier in the year. Still, the Wolves led by one point entering the fourth quarter. That would have been time for a vintage Cassell clutch performance had he been available, which might have sent the game back to a rabid Target Center for another Game 7. Instead, the Lakers went on a big run and the Wolves lost by six, ending their season.
So it’s certainly fair to say that even though the only two Wolves wins came in games Cassell either barely played or didn’t play at all, his injury was a huge factor in the two most pivotal games of the series.
“If we didn’t have those injuries to Sam and Troy, we really could have given the Lakers a run,” said Wolves forward Wally Szczerbiak.
But would the Wolves have won the series? You can certainly make that argument, even against a Lakers team featuring four future Hall of Famers (Shaq, Kobe, Gary Payton and Karl Malone). The Wolves went 3-1 against the Lakers during the regular season and had home court advantage in the playoff series. In the last of those regular season wins on March 12, Cassell and Hudson combined for 36 points.
“I really believe we could have beaten them if we were healthy,” Szczerbiak said. “But that’s not how sports work. That year was a memorable year and who knows what could have been.”
A win over the Lakers would have set up an epic, bruising NBA Finals against Detroit — which won the championship in a surprising five games over the star-studded Lakers. The Wolves won both regular season meetings with Detroit, both by one point — 80-79 and 88-87. Cassell’s two free throws helped ice that second win.
“We still took that Lakers team to six without one of our most clutch performers. To still take them to six, when I had never played point guard in my life …” Hoiberg said. “After Derek Fisher took the ball from me in one of those first games, I started throwing it to Kevin (Garnett) and running to the corner and letting him initiate the offense. Sam was an All-Star for a reason that season. He was such a clutch player. To miss that piece, I think it cost us a championship.”
If the Wolves would have won a championship, maybe Latrell Sprewell would have signed a long-term extension instead of uttering his famous quote about feeding his family. Maybe Cassell’s follow-up season would have been better. Head coach Flip Saunders almost certainly wouldn’t have been fired midway through 2004-05, just 51 games (25-26 record) removed from winning a title.
Maybe the Wolves build a bridge to better future — and don’t end up trading Garnett a few years later?
At the very least, we would probably think about the Wolves differently right now — as a team that won it all instead of a team whose crowning achievement was a Game 7 win in the conference semifinals, as great as that game was.