By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
The lack of depth at point guard is only the team's second-biggest flaw. The most glaring weakness going into the season is the absence of beef: no legitimate inside enforcer and low-post scoring threat to keep opponents honest, especially at the pivotal center position. Before Dean Garrett injured his knee, the Wolves intended to begin the year with him and Radoslav Nesterovic sharing the role. Good grief. Coaches and fans blamed Garrett's putrid play last year on a lack of intensity and physical conditioning. More likely, his limitations--advancing age, easygoing temperament, modest athleticism--are more intractable than that. Since graduating from Indiana University in 1988, Garrett has been a positive force in the league for exactly four months, while playing for the Wolves three seasons ago. At that time he couldn't have stumbled upon a more advantageous situation: Opponents reflexively left him unguarded in an effort to prevent Marbury from slicing in for a lay-up or to box out Tom Gugliotta as he crashed the boards for rebounds on the weak side. Unfettered, Garrett converted enough passes from Marbury and gobbled enough rebounds from the Gugliotta gambit to sign a multimillion-dollar contract with Denver, where he proved to be nearly as much of a disappointment as he was with the Wolves last season. Put simply, Garrett is smart enough to take advantage of opportunities that are presented to him, but not strong or feisty enough to create his own.
Nesterovic has the attributes of a classic European big man: a feathery touch on his ten-foot jump shot, the ability to pass and dribble surprisingly well for a seven-footer, and an admirable work ethic on defense. The flip side is that "Rasho" lacks offensive moves that begin with his back to the basket, as well as a mean streak and a corresponding taste for the bump and jostle under the basket--all crucial components in an NBA center's package of virtues. Just 23 years old, with only a handful of NBA games under his belt, the Slovenian certainly has the potential to develop. Right now, however, he looks suspiciously like the second coming of Luc Longley (although one hopes without the bouts of brain lock that periodically turn Longley into such a hapless figure).
Meanwhile, the likes of Trevor Winter and Danny Schayes are destined to take their place alongside Eric Riley and Gary Leonard on the Wolves' wall of obscurity. As bold and savvy as the McFlip brain trust has been in collecting talent, their track record with centers--Stoyko Vrankovic, Stanley Roberts, Paul Grant, etc.--has been a painful Achilles' heel.
During crunch time in close ballgames, Saunders is likely to renew his pattern of previous seasons and go with a center-free lineup. Eventually there'll be a slew of front-court combinations to team with Garnett, ranging from undersize forwards/guards like Szczerbiak and Malik Sealy to staunch, gritty vets such as Sam Mitchell (Saunders's preferred option) and Tom Hammonds to the wiry, talented power forward he has in Joe Smith. Unfortunately, Mitchell, Hammonds, and Smith have joined Garrett on the injured list, exacerbating the team's woeful lack of bulk.
Smith's injury is especially galling: A former number one draft pick, he could have profited from his first full training camp with the team, and vice versa. Like Garnett, Smith is tall enough and quick enough to be an effective rebounder. But both players too often allow themselves to be pushed out of position, settling for midrange jump shots without drawing the kind of contact referees can't ignore. (That goes a long way toward explaining why the Wolves finished dead last in the NBA in free-throw attempts last year.) With Garnett already saddled with an array of punishing assignments, the 36-year-old Mitchell increasingly compelled to score from the corner instead of the paint, and neither Rasho nor Garrett ready for prime time, Smith is the most likely candidate to generate points down near the hoop. That became a more problematic prospect after this summer's injury put a pin in his ankle and a cramp in his tutelage time.
Let's not sugarcoat it: This is a rebuilding year for the Timberwolves. Fortunately, with a multitalented young superstar and a better-than-average point guard as a stable foundation, the team can still nose its way above .500 while giving Smith time to prove his mettle and allowing Szczerbiak, Nesterovic, and Avery the necessary seasoning to grow into their respective roles. The offense will be more balanced and exciting, with the team almost certain to improve on last year's bricklayers, who finished 23rd out of 29 clubs in field-goal accuracy and 26th from three-point territory. Give the Wolves management credit for retooling after the loss of Googs and Marbury without descending into the gulag of ineptitude that marked the franchise's first six years. When Saunders conducts a parting press conference in the spring of 2000, however, the team's first-ever playoff-series triumph will still be at least a year away.