Swap Meat

 If McHale does decide to make a deal before the February 23 deadline, he needs to address one of the team's three glaring needs: a quality point guard to guide the offense; a shot-blocking big man; and a star-caliber player who can provide leadership and synergy at both ends of the court.

KEVIN MCHALE HAS never been here before. From Hibbing High to the University of Minnesota and then out east with the Boston Celtics, McHale was a valiant figure on a winning team, a role he wore with the folksy insouciance of someone who knew no worse. It is difficult to remember that just over a year ago, shortly before he was named vice president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, McHale would jokingly deride the quality of play he was watching as the television commentator at Wolves games. Now, after a year's worth of tough talk, optimistic predictions, and decisive action that has seen him replace two-thirds of the players and the team's head coach, McHale has only marginally improved the club's record and finds himself in unfamiliar territory as the architect of a loser, a role he does not bear lightly.

As the February 23 trading deadline draws near, what's clear is that McHale has proven to be an impatient man who overestimated the potential of the team he assembled. On the day he fired coach Bill Blair and replaced him with his longtime friend Flip Saunders (whom he had previously appointed as the team's general manager), McHale said that he had anticipated the club winning about 35 to 40 games this season. Yet despite career-best performances thus far this year from Christian Laettner and J.R. Rider, and the remarkably rapid development of top draft choice Kevin Garnett, the Wolves aren't even on a 25-win pace, for reasons that were apparent before the season began. If McHale does decide to make a deal, he needs to address one or more of the team's three glaring needs: a quality point guard to guide the offense; a shot-blocking big man to shore up the defense; and a star-caliber player who can provide leadership and synergy at both ends of the court.

These needs are interrelated, of course, and can sound overly simplistic--who doesn't need a star-caliber player with leadership capabilities? The point here is that the current talent on the Wolves' roster is deceptively inadequate, in that at least three players--Laettner, Rider, and Tom Gugliotta--are good enough to be the second- or third-best player on a winning team; yet none of them rates as the sort of clear-cut star that a team automatically relies on in clutch situations. That kind of go-to guy not only enhances a team's confidence, but helps to circumscribe and define everyone else's role. Because the Wolves have a trio of players who are almost that good, and no legitimate star to keep them in line, all three have a tendency to try and play beyond their roles and capabilities in crucial situations, which obviously sabotages teamwork.

The only star currently rumored to be on the trading block is Charles Barkley of Phoenix. But given the pathetic history and frigid location of this franchise, nobody of his stature will agree to play here--the Wolves have to grow their own, with Garnett as the most likely candidate. The Wolves' only short-term hope in this regard would be to deal one of their big three for a player who may be on the verge of stardom. More likely, the Wolves will have to get lucky in the draft lottery or wait for Garnett.

ON A MORE practical level, the Wolves need a point guard and a shot blocker, in that order. Saunders has gone out of his way to establish Darrick Martin at the point since the Wolves reacquired him from Vancouver a month ago. But after a marvelous debut and a solid first week with the team, Martin has increasingly demonstrated why he was a third-string afterthought for the Grizzlies, a team with the worst record in the league. As a shooter, Martin's accuracy is suspect, his judgment dubious; opponents know he can't hit the outside jump shot with any consistency, so they back off and dare him to fire away, which he does with alarming frequency. Even more often, he attempts to penetrate against a cluster of defenders down near the hoop. Saunders likes to cite Martin's lack of turnovers, but the only difference between a bad pass stolen by an opponent and a bad shot rebounded by an opponent is on the stat sheet, and less than 35 percent of Martin's shots are currently going in the hoop. Mean-while, his defense is mediocre at best.

The woeful deficiency at point guard suggests one area where where McHale's impatience may pay off in a beneficial trade. Of all the rumors surrounding the Wolves in recent weeks, the most enticing involved trading Doug West to Indiana for point guard Haywoode Workman, who has played plenty of minutes for very successful Indiana teams the past few years but may soon fall to third-string behind starter Mark Jackson and Indiana's first-round draft pick Travis Best. Nevertheless, his no-frills passing prowess, modest ego, capable jump shot, and alert defense seem like an ideal complement for the Wolves' present personnel. West remains a dogged defender but appears to have lost confidence in his jump shot, Minnesota's bread-and-butter offensive weapon just three years ago. With Reggie Miller, Eddie Johnson, and Ricky Pierce, Indiana has more than enough great shooters in the backcourt; coach Larry Brown might appreciate being able to deploy an unselfish defensive stopper in the playoffs.

It would also be nice to see West exiled from here to a consistent winner--if not Indiana, then perhaps Houston again, where point guard Kenny Smith is suddenly getting almost no playing time. While not as tenacious or as physical as Workman, Smith is a better three-point shooter (which would shore up another glaring Wolves' weakness), and, like Workman, he can both ignite the fast break and settle a team into a more deliberate half-court offense. Finally, trading West for a point guard would enable Terry Porter to switch over to shooting guard as Rider's replacement, which might be a better fit at this stage in his career.

Another rumor that sounds too good to be true has the Wolves dealing center Sean Rooks to Indiana for center/forward Antonio Davis, a reliable shot-blocker, and a smart, tough warrior in the battle for rebounds. Rooks has been the chief victim of Garnett's extended playing time; rather than sitting Mitchell, Saunders uses him at power forward to spell Laettner and Gugliotta, which is also Rooks's role. The question is why Indiana would be willing to part with Davis, who has been invaluable filling in for both Rik Smits and Dale Davis when they've been out with injuries. The Wolves have dramatically improved their rebounding this year, but they play in a division loaded with powerful 7-footers who overwhelm their big men down near the basket. Not many people overwhelm Antonio Davis.

If West and Rooks are the most viable pawns from the Wolves' perspective in this trading game, much of the talk still centers around Rider. But his stormy history in Minnesota diminishes his trade value, and the Wolves would be stupid to let him go for somebody like Dee Brown or Eric Montross of Boston, especially since Rider has continued to work like a banshee on defense--he had another superb effort on Monday night, outplaying Dallas's great guard Jimmy Jackson at both ends of the court. Besides, McCloskey's long string of wretched trades demonstrates that many ex-Wolves can flourish when they go to teams with galvanizing stars. Why not wait for Garnett to emerge, or for enough justice in the draft for the Wolves to gain the rights to a primo center like Wake Forest's Tim Duncan or a point guard like Georgetown's Allen Iverson?

For that matter, if McHale and Saunders want to vary the mix on the roster, they don't have to resort to a trade. All year long, I've wondered why the Wolves don't create a second unit devoted to a zone-trapping, full-court press, unleashed when opponents lack great ball-handlers in the backcourt, or when Minnesota is down by 10 points or more very early or late in the game and needs to gamble on defense. The personnel is certainly there: Between Doug West and Mark Davis, the team has a couple of remarkably agile athletes who thrive on pressure defense. Garnett stands just an inch under 7 feet and has an amazing wingspan that is almost impossible to pass around. Then add Jerome Allen, a large (6-4), dedicated defender with point-guard quickness, and have bruising power forward Marquis Bragg back to provide the hard foul if the opponents break the press and go for the lay-up. This would give at least three forgotten Wolves an identity on the team, similar to the way some of the obscure New York Knicks responded when coach Rick Pitino tried a similar thing during the 1980s. It would be synergy without star power, a gambit that sounds like it would be right up the Wolves' alley.

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