THE BUDDY SYSTEM

Whether the 1996-97 Timberwolves will make their perennially promised leap forward depends in large measure on the chemistry between three of the team's key pairings: Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders; Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury; and Tom Gugliotta and

          Let's begin with the obvious: A successful basketball team starts with a shrewd judge of talent in the front office, who then selects quality impact players and coordinates them with a coach capable of implementing his organizational philosophy. A very simple concept, really, but until this year there was no evidence that the Minnesota Timberwolves knew a thing about it.

          The Wolves' history is rife with ineptitude and instability (see sidebar). From Billy McKinney to Bob Stein to Jimmy Rodgers to Jack McCloskey to Kevin McHale, no front office person has been allowed to assemble personnel for any more than two and half years. That's why the team ultimately traded all six of its top draft picks from 1989-95, helping to generate a steady exodus of would-be impact players that include Pooh Richardson, Chuck Person, Christian Laettner, and J.R. Rider. Given this constant churning, it's not surprising that the team is on its fifth head coach of the 1990s (remember Sidney Lowe?), and that nearly all of them have spent much of their time feuding with the front office and/or their players.

          But the 1996-97 edition of the Wolves is different. For the first time in memory, there are no obvious scapegoats on the brink of being fired or traded if the team doesn't do well. Both on the court and in the front office, everyone's role is clearly defined. McHale, the vice-president of basketball operations, is a bold arbiter of talent who is unquestionably calling the shots. On the job just 18 months, he has totally overhauled the team's personnel, and is now personally responsible for having acquired or chosen to re-sign every player on the Wolves' roster (except perennially injured point guard Micheal Williams, whose fat, lengthy, guaranteed contract is beyond McHale's control). Following the traditional blueprint, McHale has corralled two impressive impact players and inserted a coach--his friend and former college teammate, Flip Saunders--who shares his philosophy and can shape the talent into a well-functioning unit. It stands to reason, then, that this year's Wolves will have no trouble eclipsing the team record of 29 wins in a season. Right?

          Well, not necessarily.

          The cornerstones of the team are 20-year-old Kevin Garnett and 19-year-old Stephon Marbury. Although Garnett is going to be a bona fide superstar and Marbury seems destined to become one of the league's top five point guards, their combined post-high school experience consists of a year in college and a year in the pros. The teenaged Marbury will be playing the game's most intellectually demanding position at a level of speed, physicality, and nonstop pressure he has never encountered before, while Garnett will be facing double- and triple-coverage far more frequently than in his first year in the league. Amid their brilliance, they will make plenty of mistakes.

          A more profound area of concern is at the center position, where McHale was forced to trade starter Andrew Lang (who himself was acquired by the Wolves late last year in exchange for Laettner) to Milwaukee in order to land Marbury. To replace Lang, Minnesota shelled out an exorbitant contract--nearly $9 million over three years--to seven-foot, two-inch Stoyko Vrankovic, a 32-year-old Croatian who hasn't played in the NBA since 1992, when he was a seldom-used backup for the Celtics. Like many European players, Vrankovic is a generous passer who sees the court well. A decent rebounder and shot-blocker, he lacks the athleticism to stay out of foul trouble when playing aggressively. Backing him up is Dean Garrett, 30 years old and possessing no previous NBA experience; and Cherokee Parks, a second-year player who is too soft physically to provide extended minutes at center. Against most teams, the Wolves are likely to move power forward Tom Gugliotta over to center during crunch time, and deploy feisty but undersized Sam Mitchell off the bench at power forward. None of these scenarios adequately compensate for Lang's absence.

          Then there is the matter of replacing the offensive electricity of J.R. Rider. During his three tumultuous years in Minnesota, Rider's constant tardiness and disregard for the rules were a distraction in the locker room, and his tendency to hold the ball on offense disrupted team play on the court. In light of his recent brushes with the law, his behavior problems seem to be getting even more pronounced. But having said all that, the fact remains that Rider was the best outside shooter and most potent offensive force on a team that had the worst long-range shooting percentage in the league and finished 19th in total points scored last year. His departure via a trade with Portland exacerbated an area of weakness for the Wolves, and to address it even falteringly, the club was forced to sacrifice some promising young talent.

          Specifically, McHale opted not to re-sign Mark Davis, a relentless defender and superior athlete currently starting for Philadelphia, in order to obtain free agent Chris Carr, an explosive scorer who played for Phoenix last year. Going into training camp this fall, the consensus was that Carr would at least split the playing time with Doug West at Rider's old shooting guard position. But thus far Carr has been selfish on offense and alternately listless and confused on defense, to the point where he is now competing with James Robinson (who came from Portland in the Rider trade) to be West's backup.

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