Make Room for Wally

The T-Wolves may well land in the playoffs again, but 2000's still a rebuilding year

After the Minnesota Timberwolves concluded their tumultuous 1999 season with a home playoff loss to San Antonio in May, coach and general manager Flip Saunders stood before the assembled media for a parting press conference. Having watched star players Tom Gugliotta and Stephon Marbury force their way out of town during the previous six months, Saunders proclaimed, "We have to bring in a dynamic player. We owe it to our team and our fans to show our commitment....I guarantee we will do a lot of things and put a spark back into our organization, to where it was last year at this time with the expectations and the enthusiasm."

Didn't happen. Since Saunders uttered his guarantee, it has been the Wolves' Western Conference rivals who have made the dynamic changes: Portland traded for Scottie Pippen and Steve Smith, Phoenix signed star free agent Penny Hardaway, and Los Angeles recruited ex-Bulls head coach Phil Jackson to pilot the Lakers. On the brink of the new season, what has Minnesota added to last year's squad? A couple of promising rookies in draft picks Wally Szczerbiak and William Avery, and, thanks to a rash of injuries to the team's already suspect front court, either overmatched ex-Gopher Trevor Winter or 40-year-old journeyman Danny Schayes. On a ballclub that won just 13 of 32 games after Marbury's midseason exit, that's a sorry excuse for a spark to rekindle the optimism of a year ago.

Obviously Saunders and Wolves vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale would have preferred a more significant shakeup. But there wasn't enough value in the team's expendable players to swing a trade for a star--point guards Gary Payton of Seattle and Damon Stoudamire of Portland, and Knicks shooting guard Allen Houston were the most prominent rumors--and Kevin Garnett's huge contract pushed the payroll near enough to the salary cap that the Wolves couldn't sign any noteworthy free agents other than the two who played for them last year, Terrell Brandon and Joe Smith.

First-round draft pick Wally Szczerbiak has shown he can lighten the offensive burden on Kevin Garnett--provided his shaky defense holds up
First-round draft pick Wally Szczerbiak has shown he can lighten the offensive burden on Kevin Garnett--provided his shaky defense holds up

Of course, fidelity to the status quo doesn't mean the Wolves will plummet from contention. The team still has Garnett, who at 23 is already one of the three or four most complete players in the NBA. For the first time in recent memory, neither the specter of a lockout nor that of a key player's potential defection looms over the franchise--a lack of distraction that has yielded an especially crisp and cohesive training camp. And the NBA's new rule changes, designed to promote more ball movement on offense and maneuverability on defense, should be a boon to the Wolves' athletic personnel, who never have flourished playing bump-'n'-grind ball.

Ultimately, however, everyone knows this team will go only as far as Garnett can carry it. The challenge for Saunders is to maximize his superstar's talent without demanding too much. Last year KG routinely defended the opposing team's top offensive threat (be it a bruising power forward or a quicksilver shooting guard), then served as the combination fulcrum and way-station for the offense at the other end of the court. Rebounding, defending, shooting, shot-blocking, passing, ball-hawking: The only thing he can't do is all of them well at the same time.

Yet Saunders seems determined to test the limits of Garnett's endurance. "It would be insulting to KG if I didn't," the coach asserts. "He's one of those special, elite players. Did anybody say Bill Russell or Larry Bird was asked to do too much when they were playing?" But those comparisons are disingenuous; Russell was never the focal point of his team's offense, and Bird rarely was called upon to spearhead his club's defense. While it would be foolish not to exploit the entire scope of Garnett's incredible physicality as a defender--he's over seven feet tall and moves like a cheetah--the extent to which he is the designated shooter on offense simultaneously erodes his endurance and detracts from his ability to enhance the contributions of his teammates.

This is not to say that jump shots for Garnett should disappear from the Wolves' playbook, just that they ought to be de-emphasized. Last year no front-court player--not Shaquille O'Neal, nor Karl Malone, nor Tim Duncan--jacked up as many shots as KG; and only guards Allen Iverson and Gary Payton logged more field-goal attempts. The result was the worst accuracy of Garnett's four-year career and a brief trip to the hospital owing to flu and exhaustion. Doubtless Garnett will try to do everything that is asked of him. It's up to Saunders to tailor those requests into a reasonable workload.

 

That's where Szczerbiak comes in. Taken by the Wolves with the sixth overall pick in the draft, he took advantage of all four years of his college eligibility and comes to the pros from Miami of Ohio with what might be the most polished offensive arsenal of any current rookie. A deadly shooter with a quick release from both long and medium range, Szczerbiak is also capable of penetrating to the basket when opponents try to crowd him on the perimeter. At six-foot-seven and 244 pounds, he's big enough to pose match-up problems for most shooting guards and some small forwards in the low post. And according to Saunders, Szczerbiak already moves without the ball as shrewdly as anyone on the team, a skill that should pay off when opponents are double-teaming Garnett, or when Terrell Brandon--an unselfish perimeter passer with great court vision--spots the rookie getting himself open in the half-court offense.

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