If Kurt Rambis is it -- not "who," as in the Timberwolves' new coach, but "it," as in the final installment in a deal initiated nearly a half century ago between Los Angeles and the Minneapolis/St. Paul markets -- then it's pretty clear which side got snookered.
To review: L.A. got the Lakers from Minneapolis, along with Elgin Baylor, the draft pick that became Jerry West, five preexisting NBA titles that it touts as its own, a genealogy that it can proudly trace back to the league's roots and the legend of George Mikan to provide context to Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal, not to mention one hydrologically suspect but alliteratively perfect nickname. Minnesota got back, finally, now, a guy known to most sports fans in the state as the guy Hibbing legend Kevin McHale clotheslined so productively in the 1984 NBA Finals, someone vaguely reminiscent -- with his surfer hair, '80s mustache and black horn-rimmed glasses -- of an extra in The Big Lebowski.
As tilted transactions go, this ranks somewhere between Red Auerbach's Joe Barry Carroll trade and Peter Minuit's score of Manhattan in 1626 for $24 and a satchel of farming tools. Unless there's a championship-to-be-named-later attached that we haven't heard about yet.
Much later, most likely. Rambis -- who was to be introduced formally to Twin Cities media and fans Tuesday afternoon -- might want to go back to the sports-safety spectacles for a spell, given how blue-collar his new job is and how much heavy lifting will be involved. From the NBA's heights to its briny depths, from a spot next to Phil Jackson with the current champions and perennial contenders to a hot seat down there among the league's dregs, from a balmy, glitzy city in which he has spent most of his professional career to the equivalent of Ice Station Zebra, Rambis hopefully was careful what he wished for beyond a contract with four guaranteed seasons (at an estimated $8 million). For the foreseeable future, the Timberwolves won't be measuring success with the Ws or Ls most coaches judge and get judged by.
This is a franchise whose ambition at the moment is to lead the NBA in "player development," which is like a blind date determined to lead the league in personality. It's a modest goal, maybe even a reachable goal, dispatching assistant coaches and trainers hither and yon through the offseason to put players through their workout paces. But it stirs neither the adrenaline nor the imagination and, with training camp for 2009-10 barely seven weeks away, suggests a lot more squish than sizzle.
"I have this idea in my head that I hope that a year from now we can become recognized around the league as the leaders in player development," Wolves president David Kahn said Monday. "And player development starts with the head coach -- not necessarily with the head coach telling an assistant coach, 'You go deal with it. You go deal with them and let me know how it goes.' ... I wanted a head coach who understood player development is a paramount issue in our league right now, especially with the age of our team."
At least the Wolves want to excel at something besides cornering the expiring-contracts market or padding the all-time NBA, single-franchise record for fines and penalties (Minnesota got whacked by the league last week for prematurely releasing its schedule, along with Houston and Cleveland, but still holds a sizable lead in penalties thanks to the Joe Smith mess). Kahn mentioned Denver, New Jersey and Miami as teams to emulate in developing raw players into reliable contributors. So at least Rambis knows he is targeting the Nuggets, Nets and Heat rather than chasing the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Cavaliers or Magic for something a little loftier.
"There are a lot of teams that do it well, but I don't know if anybody can be considered the league leader," Kahn said. "I think it's something that we should strive for. It would be a good thing for us to have a reputation as at least among the league leaders."
Player development was one of the three "thresholds" Kahn used in finalizing his search for a coach to replace McHale. The other two were the ability and willingness to coach a running, up-tempo style, and "player-management issues, meaning playing time." In other words, sticking with an on-the-job training program until it hurts, absorbing losses for the potential greater good of gaining experience. Said Kahn: "We're just not in the position where it's important where you play just the veteran guys to try and squeak out a couple more wins."
Presumably, based on the 22 and 24 victories Minnesota has amassed the past two seasons, that third threshold has been in place for a while.
All three of Kahn's finalists for the position are said to have agreed to the thresholds. That suggests that Mark Jackson, the longtime NBA point guard turned ABC/ESPN analyst, and Rockets assistant Elston Turner somehow were less convincing in their "Yes" interview answers as they sought their first head-coaching job, or that Rambis was more persuasive in his nodding to Kahn's precepts.
"I did have a final call with Kurt, one final call, to cover these areas because they were so important to me," Kahn said. "I did want to make myself absolutely sure. Then we talked about these things [during a meeting with team owner Glen Taylor last week]."
Kahn invoked some of the buzzwords of Rambis' hoops past, but was careful to attach an asterisk to each lest Minnesota fans get carried away. As in, every Showtime*, Kareem* and running-game* reference was qualified with a "Now I'm not saying that we ... '' comment about the Wolves' transition game or use of Al Jefferson this season. He said Rambis, in handling responsibility for the Lakers' defense last season, is capable to coach that end of the floor. Kahn said, too, that "triangle" will remain just a doodle on scratch paper or a plot device in a romance novel in Minnesota.
"I told him, while we wouldn't banish the word, the goal here is not to become a triangle team," Kahn said. "The triangle has proven itself and then some [under Phil Jackson with the Bulls and Lakers]. But I feel with our personnel ... we want to be known as a fast-breaking team that can also flow into some half court."
Good thing, since the box in which the Wolves currently find themselves has six sides, not just three. They have miles to go in achievement on the court, in respect around the league and in fan support, so the faster they break toward that, the quicker they might get there.
The hiring of Rambis was an initial hit, at least, generating 87.7 percent favorable responses in a quickie Twin Cities newspaper poll. That probably has much to do with his familiarity compared to the strangers and unknowns who have made most Wolves news lately. Kahn was out of the league for nearly a decade before having the franchise's keys flipped to him this spring. Ricky Rubio remains that skinny kid from Spain who might not show up for two or three more years (if at all -- Kahn labeled the Rubio situation "problematic" Monday). Syracuse rookie Jonny Flynn, a dynamic prospect, wouldn't be recognized by 80 percent of the locals, even the 20 percent who bother to look below 6 feet. Newly acquired Ryan Hollins might stir Twins fans who mix up Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins. And Quentin Richardson figures to spend most of October being confused with either Jason Richardson or Suitcase Jim Jackson.
Rambis, by comparison, is a known quantity even with a meager 24-13 mark as Lakers fill-in coach in 1999. He's the guy with the glasses. Hard-nosed. Took that McHale licking and kept on ticking, finally getting a little payback now for the takedown.