Two Steps Back

Before training camp this season, Williams was already expressing concern that the upper body strength he'd acquired by lifting weights during his recuperation would negatively affect his jump shot. Thus far, he's made under than a third of his attempts. But of greater physical concern is his lack of lateral quickness, resulting in a lot of fouls as opponents blow past him toward the hoop. Right now Williams has more fouls than assists, a damning statistic for any point guard. He is looking to pass more than at any time since he's been with the Wolves, but it's not his natural game; he used to get assists by forcing opponents to adjust to his scoring, not by seeing the court well or controlling the flow of the game.

Unless he is in a profound state of denial, Williams knows his play is the biggest factor in the Wolves' disappointing start. If he can't surmount his physical and psychological obstacles and push past this nightmarish stretch soon, the team will have to make a change. Back-up point guard Terry Porter is a class act and a fine substitute for 15-to-20 minutes a game, but Porter is an old 32 and was himself sidelined with a bad ankle much of last year. The rookie Allen deserves more minutes for defensive purposes alone, but isn't ready to start. Winston Garland, anyone?

The center position is only slightly more secure. Converted power forward Christian Laettner is not a banger so much as a dutiful masochist, making the most of the free throws that come with getting fouled regularly. Laettner at center gives the Wolves their most talented starting lineup, but common sense dictated that the physicality of the position would result in his being injured at some point during the year; unfortunately, it happened just four games in, and it won't be the last time. With Laettner out--he's due back soon--the Wolves go from sub-mediocre to horrible. Sean Rooks has gotten more aggressive this year, but for someone who weighs 250 pounds, there is still precious little bang in his game. His nice shooting touch is offset by bad hands, which lose rebounds and generate turnovers, and he gets caught spacing out once or twice a game. As with Williams, you get the sense that the flaws in Rooks's game stem not from a lack of desire, but from a temperament and package of skills that don't fit the demands of his position.

Center and point guard were expected to be the Wolves' sore spots this season; Laettner's injury and Williams's slow comeback merely dramatized the weaknesses. On the other hand, two specific player-skills where the franchise expected to be strong--the defensive consistency of Doug West and the passing prowess of Tom Gugliotta--have not yet materialized. Cynics will point out that both West and Googs signed fat contracts just before the season started. If that is indeed a factor, which is dubious, I'd say it's because both players are trying too much, not too little. Along with the contract, West is coping with playing both the shooting guard and small forward positions; he got off to a terrible start with his shooting at a time when he and Rider were theoretically involved in a competition for the starting guard slot. More than any other Timberwolf, he's allowed the ineptitude of the scab referees to get under his skin. Amid fits of pique, he's not covering the opponents' best outside shooter as well as he has in previous years.

When Gugliotta first arrived here last winter, stolen from Golden State in exchange for the unlamented Donyell Marshall, the synergy generated by his passes and defensive anticipation actually made the Wolves a fun team to watch. With an entire off-season to design a new offense and lingering uncertainties at the point guard position, Blair claimed that Googs would frequently operate as a "point forward" this year. Instead, save for the last two games, Gugliotta has been forcing up shots, frequently trying to dribble or shoot over double and triple coverage rather than dishing the ball to the open teammate. He currently leads the team in field goal attempts by a wide margin, yet he's making less than 40 percent of them. More than Williams, he is the key to the team's passing offense and the main reason it hasn't been working.

Both West and Gugliotta have been too reliable throughout their careers to keep to their present ways. The Wolves are neither as good as they looked in the preseason--wins at that time of year are fool's gold--nor as bad as the embarrassments against Toronto and Utah would indicate. As for Blair, here's hoping that the rumors of his demise are greatly exaggerated. After all, the team is going to need a scapegoat at the end of the season.

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