Wary Wolves of London stepping tentatively into first post-Garnett season

It does not take much time spent in the company of the Kevin Garnett-less Minnesota Timberwolves to pick up the impression that this is a group that doesn't want to be here.

Not "here" as in London, England -- the second stop on the Wolves' NBA Europe Live training camp tour -- but "here" as in Minneapolis in the first year of the franchise P.G. -- "Post Garnett."

Actually, "P.G." might be an appropriate marketing slogan to attach to Minnesota in the coming NBA season. If the predictions of doom and gloom that surround this reshaped Timberwolves crew prove accurate, then many of their games will be so ugly and such one-sided blowouts that you would not want the kids watching.

And while many of the 2007-08 Wolves are putting a brave face on the summer of carnage presided over by general manager Kevin McHale, (or "Kevin Cahill" as one British newspaper in this far from basketball-friendly nation called him) then there are others who are too honest to lie about the situation in which they find themselves.

"Shock. Surprise. A big shock," said guard Greg Buckner when asked what his reaction was when he learned he was to leave the Dallas Mavericks in a trade for Trenton Hassell late last month. "I knew I was going to get traded, I understand the business. I knew it was going to happen, I was just surprised when it happened and how it happened."

Or listen to Ricky Davis talk of Garnett's departure: "It was a blow, Kevin does a lot of things for the team but that's the nature of the business. I thought it was a blockbuster trade, someone who had been in a Timberwolves jersey forever."

Juwan Howard? The veteran forward has not even played a regular-season game for Minnesota yet but has already requested a trade in the wake of Garnett's departure. "Right now, I think there will be some discussions. Things are on the table," he said.

"I was looking forward to the opportunity of playing with Kevin Garnett then, a month or two later, he got traded. I was a little disappointed about that.

"I'm just taking things one day at a time, I'm a Minnesota Timberwolf and I'm not going to complain about it. If I stay here throughout the year, I'll work hard and try and be a true leader and help these young guys."

That's hardly the sort of rallying call Sir Winston Churchill uttered a couple of miles from London's O2 Arena during World War II, Britain's "Darkest Hour."

And, while it's never appropriate to compare real-life tragedy to sports, all the positive spin McHale and his staff can muster cannot disguise the fact that the Garnett trade has brought Minnesota to its very own darkest hour.

"This is not a 'dead period,'" said Wolves coach Randy Wittman when asked whether the coming season was just that. "It's a new beginning for this team. We've started over with a younger core.

"Obviously, it is tough. As a coach, from a selfish standpoint, you always want to be able to coach a Hall of Fame player and he [Garnett] is going to be a Hall of Fame player. You never want to give a guy like that up as a coach. When the organization makes the decision that was made you have to look at the other part of the equation. Does it give you young talent? Does it give you draft picks? Does it give you salary-cap flexibility down the road? And yes, it gives you those three things. If we were going to do it, that is the only way I would find it acceptable to trade a Hall of Fame player."

All of which may be valid ways to rationalize a trade that tore the heart out of an organization that was hardly providing Garnett with an adequate platform from which he could showcase those Hall of Fame talents. But the problem with sacrificing the present and the known for the future and the unknown is that, by definition, there is a huge gamble inherent in such a policy.

"It's exciting but at the same time we're uncertain what type of team we're going to have, what our starting lineup will be," said McHale. "We have nine new guys and, of those new guys, we will see how many guys can really establish themselves as top-notch players in the NBA. I'm hoping we get two, three or four -- if all nine work out, well, no one is that lucky.

"I do like what I see. The new guys work hard, they're very diligent. We've been trying to facilitate around Kevin Garnett, trying to put together a veteran team. That hasn't worked. Now we have to see which of these guys really step up. Our goal is, out of these nine guys, that we get three or four of these guys who become cornerstones of the team for the next few years. It's a long-term goal."

All of which makes perfect sense, in sporting terms. But try to sell that idea to the marketing department. "Come watch your Timberwolves ... we could be really good in five or six years."

The main focus in Minnesota "P.G." will fall upon Al Jefferson, a 6-10 forward who is entering his fourth year in the league. But even Jefferson's position is far from straightforward with talks over a contract extension dragging on and, according to some sources, the player concerned about the apparent impasse.

"I really don't worry about that," insisted Jefferson. "I let my agent and the GM control all that. My job is to come out, play ball and take care of business. It's no distraction. I don't feel any pressure replacing KG. The only thing I can do is come out and play the game. Kevin believed in us to make the trade. I've just got to come in and do what I do, do what I did to get here."

Wittman is quick to point out that no one individual can be expected to take the place of the departed Garnett, but he has been impressed by what he has seen from Jefferson despite having to warn him to put more effort into practice during the first week of camp in Istanbul, Turkey. The other side of Jefferson was seen as Minnesota recorded a victory against the home team Efes Pilsen in Saturday's NBA Europe Live exhibition.

"The one thing I know about him, he can rebound," said Wittman. "We played a team in Turkey that, like a lot of international teams, has bigs who are all perimeter orientated. They played strictly zone all night long so we weren't able to run our man-to-man stuff, but he still came up with 17 rebounds in 27-28 minutes. He can score down in the box and he's learning to do other things. He's a kid with a lot of ability who is still learning to do other things."

If Jefferson is indicative of a brighter future for the Wolves, one of the few other positives the organization will be able to look forward to is revelling in an underdog role in the new season. This is a no-pressure situation. If Minnesota is terrible, then it's simply meeting expectations. If teams underestimate some of the talent that the Timberwolves clearly possess, then the occasional upset win could be within their capabilities.

"Not many people will think we can be competitive," said Buckner. "I'm pretty sure even some people here think we can't be competitive because they feel we're young and rebuilding. But in this league, if guys click and connect, you can win a lot of games because on so many teams, guys won't click and won't connect. You can win a lot of games that way.

"I've been around situations like that before, I've been around teams like that before. One year, in Denver, we won 27 of our last 30 games. I've been part of that and know what teams can be."

Buckner, like Howard, like Theo Ratliff and Mark Madsen, will be charged with trying to nurture some of the young talent on the Timberwolves' roster, to help those four cornerstone players emerge from the nine newcomers on the roster.

"My challenge is to constantly be teaching," said Buckner. "When I was in Dallas, all of us were veterans, there wasn't much teaching. Now I catch myself teaching the younger players. I know young guys get tired of that, I did myself when I was younger. But it is something I feel I have to do for us to be better, be competitive.

"If the young guys can take it from the four vets then I really do think we can surprise a few people and be a good team."

Ian Whittell covers the NBA for the London Times.