Chemistry Majors

The Minnesota Timberwolves were about to blow the game. On Valentine's Day night at the Target Center, the Wolves were leading Orlando by 10 points with little more than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter; two minutes later, the game was tied. Coach Flip Saunders called a time out, swallowed hard, and made two risky, crucial substitutions, inserting Terry Porter and Tom Gugliotta into the lineup. Out of the game came Stephon Marbury, the great rookie point guard whose two turnovers had helped fuel Orlando's rally, and Sam Mitchell, the proud veteran who had gone in just a minute before. In the huddle, Saunders called a play designed for Gugliotta, who converted it on a brilliant left-handed lay-up, and then blocked a shot by Orlando star Penny Hardaway at the other end of the court. Porter picked up the loose ball and hurled it to a streaking Kevin Garnett, who was fouled as he delivered the slam dunk. Over on the sidelines, Mitchell and Marbury were on their feet, pumping their fists and leading the cheers.

No other Timberwolves team in the eight-year history of the franchise would have beaten Orlando that night. The difference this season is in how well members of the team complement and interact with each other--in other words, the team's "chemistry." The word has become meaningless from repeated abuse by lazy analysts, for whom it's a conveniently nebulous way to explain why a team is doing better or worse than expected. But a team's chemistry is vital precisely because it is a tangible, dynamic thing.

"Chemistry is mostly about developing an established pecking order," says Saunders. "Last year, we had different guys fighting to be top dog; some of them felt they were at the head of the pecking order no matter what you did to show them it wasn't that way. Then things don't work and you get into petty jealousies."

Assistant coach Randy Wittman is more specific. "Last year we had Tommy [Gugliotta], Christian [Laettner], and J.R. [Rider], and all three thought, I'm the guy. Or, Coach should make me the guy. And that is a problem. Because when you get down to the end of a tie game and you've gotta have a play that works and the coach says, 'I'm going with Tommy,' and two other guys are saying 'That isn't right!', then you've got almost no chance of making that play successful." Ironically, the player with the most legitimate claim on the top-dog spot (then and now) was Kevin Garnett. But as Wittman points out, "Kevin doesn't need to touch the ball and be the main guy every time down the court to be effective. That's one thing that makes him so valuable."

It didn't help that Googs, Rider, and Laettner were all high draft choices before the league instituted its rookie salary cap, meaning they all had huge, long-term deals to help justify their eminence. Another complication was that Googs and Laettner are both power forwards, and playing Laettner at the center position didn't significantly change that redundancy. Furthermore, while the Wolves had three scorers clamoring for the ball, the team lacked a quality point guard who could distribute it efficiently. When Saunders and Wolves' vice president Kevin McHale were finished wheeling and dealing to assemble this year's ball club, they had dumped Rider in exchange for James Robinson, and essentially traded Laettner and promising rookie shooting guard Ray Allen to get Marbury. In both cases they gave up more talent and experience than they received. But losing Rider, Laettner, and Allen clears out a trio who need to get the ball frequently to be effective, and Marbury is the quality distributor they needed at point guard. The pecking order--and the role each player is expected to play within it--became more firmly established.

Flash back to the Orlando game. With the Wolves enjoying a big lead late in the game, Saunders decides to rest Googs, who has been nursing a groin injury. But Marbury (who is rusty after sitting out nearly a month with a thigh bruise) tries to do too much on his own, the mistakes multiply, and the game is suddenly tied. Two nights earlier, the Lakers had soundly beaten the Wolves, and Saunders knows it would erode the team's confidence to lose two in a row at home. So he gambles that Marbury can accept being yanked out of a do-or-die situation after a couple of glaring mistakes.

McHale and Saunders have always maintained that they prefer Marbury over another talent-laden rookie point guard, Allen Iverson (the first player selected in the draft, two picks ahead of Marbury) because Marbury puts a greater emphasis on teamwork. Sure enough, while Iverson has quickly garnered a reputation as an arrogant, selfish player, Marbury has absorbed a fair amount of constructive criticism from his coaches and teammates, and come back from two significant injuries already this year, without getting defensive or losing confidence in himself. (For the record, in addition to believing that Iverson would make a better pro prospect than Marbury, I was one of the few writers in town who thought getting rid of Rider was a mistake. Wrong on both counts.)

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