Two Steps Back

YEAH, I KNOW: Your hopes were inflated when the Wolves won seven of eight games in the preseason, finishing with the best record in the NBA. Now that the games count for something, they've lost seven of eight and are a game-ending jump shot (the one missed by the Lakers' Nick Van Exel in the Wolves' one-point victory on November 7) removed from the worst start in the franchise's pathetic history. Blank stares and brave clichés are coming from the players in the locker room, and office pools are placing bets on how long coach Bill Blair keeps his job. There's plenty to criticize.

But let's begin with the positive things. First, there is Kevin Garnett. At 19 years old, with no college experience, he's already starting to establish himself as one of the best all-around players on the team. He's got the stuff that can't be taught--extraordinary coordination for a person just an inch under seven feet tall, great peripheral vision and court awareness, and a burning desire to win--but is also enough of a student of the game to know his assignments and rotations on defense, and to take what his opponents give him on offense. Currently he ranks sixth on the club in number of minutes played, yet leads the team in blocked shots, is second in steals, third in rebounding, and fourth in assists--all the selfless categories that reflect hustle. The only questions left are about his physical and mental endurance. As his skills become apparent around the league, opponents are inevitably going to try and break down his chopstick-thin physique. If the physical pounding doesn't wear him out, the constant media glare, plane trips, and losses will.

The present detente between J.R. Rider and members of the Wolves' coaching staff and front office also must be counted as a pleasant surprise. Rider still has a problem fighting through picks on defense--as he was pouring in 14 points in the third quarter against Utah last week, the man he was supposedly guarding scored 16. But he's a superb passer when his teammates are running; and when the offense stagnates, as happens regularly, he's willing and able to create scoring opportunities on his own. After all the talk about the cancerous impact Rider would have on Garnett, the kid has gone out of his way to cite him as a positive influence, an irony Rider must find delicious. Whether he and the coaching staff can maintain the cordial truce they established during preseason camp in Mankato is another endurance test that will have an impact on the number of wins the Wolves register this year.

Meanwhile, down at the end of the bench resides a trio of raw but intriguing rookies. The most valuable among them this year is free-agent power forward Marquis Bragg, the kind of banger who likes setting picks and jockeying for position under the boards. Bragg will get his share of rebounds, and, just as important, make opponents regret every one they take away from him. The other promising rookies are small forward Mark Davis and point guard Jerome Allen, two second-round draft picks who are tenacious defenders but need to prove they can score enough to keep opposing defenses honest. They fill out the most talented roster the Wolves have ever assembled.

SO MUCH FOR the good news. The problems with the Wolves are more fundamental, beginning with their woeful inadequacies at the two most important positions on the court--point guard and center. I was among those who did not expect Micheal Williams to be much of an improvement over the departed journeyman Winston Garland at point guard this year, but Williams damages this team in a totally different way since returning from a foot injury that kept him out of all but one game last season. The old Williams shot too much on offense, gambled too much for the steal on defense, and essentially manifested his insecurities by trying to be the hero all the time.

Talk to Wolves' coaches and teammates about the new Williams and the operative word is "tentative." It's clear that he's scared shitless to make a mistake. He rarely shoots now, but he doesn't venture the bold, deft passes associated with his position, either. On defense he gambles less, gives his opponents plenty of room, and still has trouble stopping their penetration to the basket.

Blair thinks the problem is mental. He has told Williams to be more aggressive and, as far as possible under the circumstances, expressed confidence in his ability. But the other day at practice, when Blair was teasing Williams about his inability to sink a jump shot, you could practically see the wheels whirring in Williams's brain. A quick synopsis of his career helps explain why. His first couple of years out of college, he was traded or cut from a number of NBA teams, and spent some hard time riding CBA buses through the snowy upper Midwest. The first time he spent the entire year with the same NBA team, he was a catalyst in a thrilling playoff series for Indiana against the Boston Celtics. At the end of the next year, he signed a lucrative, long-term contract--and was promptly traded to the NBA's version of Siberia, where his distaste for passing the ball only added more trouble to a locker room wracked with dissension. Near the end of the next year, his foot injury was misdiagnosed, costing him 18 months.

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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