Chemistry Majors

With a core trio of Garnett, Googs, and Marbury, there's no longer any rancor at the top of the pecking order. But the Wolves' superb chemistry doesn't end there. In the second tier are the team's two remaining starters, Dean Garrett and Doug West, and the two sage veterans, Mitchell and Porter. What Garrett and West bring to the table most of all is a physically dogged style that wears out opponents. Each has a clear-cut role defined by the abiding strength in his game. For Garrett it is rebounding; for West it is defending.

There aren't many teams in the league whose reserves can best Mitchell at both power forward and small forward; ditto with Porter at both shooting guard and point guard. As former members of successful clubs, they help regulate the attitude of the team in the locker room, especially Mitchell. On the other hand, they know the pecking-order principle of team chemistry well enough to circumscribe their style of play in deference to the stars. In the locker room after the Orlando win, Mitchell is asked if he minded being pulled with the game on the line. "Hell, no," he says. "We needed a basket and Tom is our leading scorer. Makes sense to me.

"Chemistry is tremendously important. I don't care if you're the 12th man on the team and almost never play; you're contributing just by not bitching about it. Everybody has two or three friends on this team, and if guys show they are unhappy, other guys get concerned and start worrying about them. Everybody plays a part."

A case in point is the relatively upbeat attitudes and mutually supportive relationship between James Robinson and Chris Carr. At the beginning of the season, both of them legitimately believed they could be the starter at shooting guard. Since then, the two have been in the unenviable position of almost equally splitting the leftover minutes behind Doug West--half of a half a loaf. It's a recipe for dissension and there has been some pouting (mostly by Carr), but both men have taken care not to pollute the atmosphere in the locker room, and, most admirably, consistently treat each other with respect and goodwill.

As the person who sets the pecking order by his play calling, substitution patterns, and the way he runs his practices, Saunders deserves a lot of the credit for the Wolves' positive chemistry. The coach's many years in the minor league CBA--where players are more concerned with getting noticed by big league scouts than conforming to a role on a team from which they hope to graduate--refined his communication skills and sensitivity with stars and scrubs alike. He said he would reward hard work in practice and then proved it by promoting perennial bench-warmer Garrett, who must be regarded as the most pleasant surprise in the league this year.

At the other end of the pecking order, after the Orlando victory, Saunders personally assured Marbury of his importance to the team, and admired the rookie's cheerleading in his post-game press conference. He also explained that Carr (25 minutes) matched up with Orlando's taller guards better than Robinson (zero minutes), and hinted that things would be different two days later against the smaller, quicker guards of Phoenix. (Although Robinson played only 7 minutes, he was the Wolves' first substitution.) The point is that Saunders usually has a good reason for what he does and what he is going to do, and he passes it along to his players. Relative to previous Wolves' coaches, this is a quantum leap forward in terms of knowledge and courtesy.

Put it all together and you've got a remarkably happy and, not coincidentally, overachieving team. The only player on the squad clearly in the doldrums right now is Stoyko Vrankovic, and given that the Wolves will have to pay his sorry ass millions of dollars over the next two years unless he quits and goes back to Europe, you might say that's by design. This harmony has allowed the team not only to play up to its considerable potential on occasion, but to settle into a rhythm of success, where the team is almost subconsciously aware of how much energy is necessary to triumph over inferior opponents. This ability to pace one's self through the marathon NBA schedule is a hallmark of good chemistry on a talented team.

Call it coasting if you like: If the Wolves can beat the Vancouvers and San Antonios and Dallases of the league by relying a little more heavily on Garrett's muscle or Carr's outside shooting or West's defense and keeping the physical and mental health of the core trio relatively intact, well, the post-season is right around the corner. "When I was in Milwaukee one year, we had a team that played so hard all season that we didn't have enough left for that extra level of intensity you need in the playoffs," says assistant coach Mike Shuler. The tidy wins the Wolves have been racking up in February (most of them not nearly as impressive as those in the glory days of late December) are conserving fuel for late April and May, when the chemistry and character of this already beguiling team heads into previously uncharted territory.

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