Great Expectations

Fresh from their first decent season and fronted by a pair of 21st-century superstars, the Timberwolves have gained the league's respect and the fans' enthusiasm. Now comes the hard part.

There is a quickening taking place within the Minnesota Timberwolves as they prepare for the 1997-98 basketball season, a tone of confidence and a hint of a strut that at long last draws its sustenance from proven performance rather than wishful thinking. As even part-time Wolves-watchers are aware, the team earned its first-ever playoff berth last season and won 40 games, 11 more than the previous best total in the franchise's eight-year history.

The good news hasn't stopped there. On the first of this month, Wolves owner Glen Taylor fortified the club's determination to be a long-term force in the league by signing 21-year-old All-Star Kevin Garnett, the 7-foot "small" forward whom many regard as the heir to Air Jordan, to a six-year $125 million contract. Two days later, Stephon Marbury, the precocious 20-year-old point guard and team catalyst, arrived at training camp with a commanding attitude and 11 extra pounds of pure sinew to better ward off the injuries that plagued him last year. All-Star Tom Gugliotta, who merely led the team in scoring, rebounding, and steals last season, also arrived at camp in fine fettle, and at age 27 figures to be entering the prime of his career.

Three players are gone from last year's roster, but the Wolves are automatically better off without two of them. Center Stoyko Vrankovic moved with the unfortunate rhythm of a robot with a frayed wire in his remote control, and shooting guard James Robinson was an all-or-nothing long-range bomber on offense and an always-AWOL matador on defense who surrendered four points for every three he scored. Only the absence of center Dean Garrett will hurt, and he was an overachieving 30-year-old rookie who meshed perfectly as a complementary component in the Wolves' system and will probably never be as productive again.

Little wonder, then, that this sense of purpose and pleasant expectation has some members of the Wolves organization setting some pretty lofty standards for this season. Marbury, whose laxity on defense was the primary flaw in an otherwise impressive rookie season, claims, "My goal this year is to make the All-NBA First Defensive Team," presumably over Seattle's Gary Payton. Asked if that might not be a tad unrealistic, Marbury dribbled twice, set his jaw, buried a three-point shot, and replied, "No I don't. I think anything is possible."

Apparently so does Kevin McHale, the vice president of basketball operations and architect of the team's climb to respectability. "Last year when I said we'd win a minimum of 40 games, people laughed at me," McHale pointedly reminded reporters on the night the Wolves re-signed Garnett. "We set a realistic goal, which was to get out of the lottery and make the playoffs. If you want to win a championship, the next step is to get home-court advantage in the playoffs. That's what we're looking for this year."

Home-court advantage in the playoffs is earned by finishing the regular season with one of the four best records in the conference. Last year, that meant winning at least 56 games. In other words, to realize the goal McHale has set for them, the Wolves will probably have to improve their win total even more this year than they did last year. With all due respect--I was among those who snickered at McHale's 40-wins prediction in '96--that's not going to happen, no matter how much this team believes in itself.

For one thing, the Wolves will almost certainly exhibit greater improvement on the court than they do in the standings this season, because the caliber of competition in the Western Conference is tougher. For example, it is unreasonable to expect Minnesota to win all four games against San Antonio now that the Spurs have All-Star center David Robinson back from an injury and have added collegiate star Tim Duncan. Nor is it likely that the Wolves will again win three out of four against a rejuvenated Phoenix Suns team that has added Antonio McDyess and will have Jason Kidd on board for the entire season. Sure, there will be some patsies in the West, with teams from Denver, Vancouver, Dallas, and Golden State being the most probable candidates. But the Wolves took 14 out of 16 games against those four clubs last season, so there is precious little chance of upgrading the win total there. And with an impressive record of 16-8 in games decided by five points or less last year, the team also can't point to many occasions where just a little more pluck or luck would have swung the game in their favor.

In other words, for the Wolves to manage 50 to 55 wins this season, they need to continue routinely beating the weak teams and pulling out a significant majority of the close games, and begin holding their own against some of the powerful clubs like Seattle and the Los Angeles Lakers, who have almost always beaten them handily. Moreover, they have to do all this with a jerry-rigged situation at the center position that is a potential disaster area; an unsatisfactory, choose-your-poison platoon at the shooting-guard position that either hinders the team's offense or its defense; and a precarious lack of depth on the bench.

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