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Since he became a professional basketball player a mere 13 months ago, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett has played the game with an unselfish pride and subtle command that cannot be captured by box scores and highlight reels. On offense, this is exemplified by how often Garnett emerges with a hard-fought rebound in a crucial situation, and by how little time the ball stays in his hands before the outlet pass. But it's on defense where his contributions have been most profound. That's why, despite the marvelous season being put together by the Wolves' other forward, Tom Gugliotta, Garnett remains the team's most valuable player.
At first glance, the many people currently touting Gugliotta as MVP have the statistics on their side. Googs is averaging nearly eight points-per-game more than Garnett, grabbing just as many rebounds, and even doling out slightly more assists. (In fact, Gugliotta is among the league's top 10 players when points, rebounds, and assists are combined.) But these statistical differences are borne of style more than skills and effectiveness. Where Garnett, as the saying goes, "lets the game come to him," Googs is a more aggressive, playground-oriented offensive player. He scores more points because he shoots 50 percent more often than Garnett, whose shooting accuracy is actually slightly better than Gugliotta's. The downside of this aggression is that Googs turns the ball over about twice as often as Garnett.
Gugliotta has been the Wolves' most valuable offensive player thus far this season. Since the beginning of training camp back in early October, however, coach Flip Saunders has appropriately stressed that the team would rise and fall on the caliber and consistency of its defense. Gugliotta deserves to be recognized for curbing his playground tendencies at this end of the court, tightening the team defense by not straying as often from Saunders's switching and rotating patterns of coverage. But he's not the primary reason the Wolves have shaved nearly 10 points a game off their opponents' scoring average this year, resulting in the most successful opening 20 games in team history. Credit for that belongs to the relentless defensive pressure exerted by guard Doug West and the enormous improvement Garnett has made over what was already a capable package of defensive skills.
West and Garnett are a study in contrasts. West, the eight-year veteran who has been with the franchise since its inception, specializes in defense from the waist down, hounding his man around the court in a nonstop effort to deny him the ball. Garnett, the 20-year old "kid" with just 100 pro games under his belt, specializes in defense from the waist up, utilizing his incredible wingspan--what Saunders refers to as "those Inspector Gadget arms of his"--to block shots and bottle up opponents who already have the ball. There probably has never been a seven-foot player with Garnett's agility, and this unique blend of size and quickness can be especially devastating on defense.
Saunders believes that Garnett's defense actually might have suffered if he had gone to college rather than making the jump from high school to the pros, because in college he most likely would have played the center position and guarded much slower opponents who were his own size. As it was, Garnett had the most trouble last year covering relatively small, quick outside shooters like Charlotte's Glen Rice. Determined to improve during the summer off-season, he worked extensively in the swimming pool to enhance his quickness and guarded the jitterbug-fast players during scrimmages in Minnesota, Chicago, and South Carolina to hone his reactions. He also did some exercising between the ears, convincing himself that he matched up well with smaller opponents.
The other position generally regarded as a haven for explosive scorers is at shooting guard, which is West's responsibility. "I know the guys I play are expected to get a lot of shots," he says. "So the first thing I try to do is keep them below 40 percent [shooting accuracy], and also keep them off the foul line. I try not to let them get in a rhythm of catching and shooting the ball. You can't wait for the last minute to do your dirty work."
Last month in a game against Dallas, West seemed to be reveling in the defensive combat, hiking up his shorts and slapping his palms on the floor in anticipation as star guard Jimmy Jackson dribbled up the court. "The league makes certain guys out to be, quote unquote, 'superstars' or 'rising stars,'" West said later. "I'm pretty much past those days, so I don't look at it that way. But if these guys are as good as everybody says they are, they should have to go out and prove it. They'll bust my ass some nights and some nights they won't. Let's lay it out there and see what happens."
A case could be made that West and Garnett are both among the top 15 or 20 defensive players in the league, yet neither is likely to be seriously considered for the All-NBA Defensive Team awards. In part that's because they play for a perennially bad team in a small media market. But it's also because the kind of stifling defense that gets noticed stems from all five players on the court working hard and knowing their assignments. And while Saunders has the Wolves playing "D" better than any time since Musselman left in 1991, there are still a couple of weak links.
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