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.

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.

Ideally, Szczerbiak will team with Garnett, Brandon, Anthony Peeler, Joe Smith, and Sam Mitchell to give the Wolves a more balanced scoring attack. Realistically, his defensive liabilities might make it difficult to keep him on the court. Unlike other offensively gifted ex-Wolves such as Chris Carr and Gerald Glass, Szczerbiak works hard on defense, and, as the son of a former player (Walt Szczerbiak was a college basketball star at George Washington University, and he later played with Pittsburgh in the old American Basketball Association and then for a long time in Spain), he understands the nuances of the game. The problem is his lack of foot speed, compounded by the learning curve he faces in making the jump from mediocre college opponents to the athletic studs in the pros. Frequently during the preseason, Szczerbiak has been beaten off the dribble by quicker foes, yielding easy lay-ups, a desperate foul, or a breakdown in defense as teammates tried to cover for his mistakes. Then again, having Garnett on your side can erase a multitude of defensive sins, and the new NBA rules relaxing the prohibition against more fluid, zone-oriented coverages will help as well. In any case, the synergy between KG and Szczerbiak is an exciting prospect, and considering who else was available, Saunders and McHale were smart to draft him.

As important as Szczerbiak might be to the Wolves' offensive fortunes, the biggest X-factor in the team's ability to put points on the board will stem from the adaptability and endurance of Terrell Brandon. After coming to Minnesota last March via the three-way trade that sent Marbury to New Jersey, Brandon gave supporters and detractors alike ample ammunition upon which to debate his worth. On the one hand, he led the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio, attesting to his veteran leadership and superb decision-making skills. On the other hand, he was beset by nagging injuries for the second straight year (and the fourth season of the past six), affirming doubts about the durability of his small 29-year-old body.

Fragility aside, critics rightly noted that Brandon's low turnover rate was as much a product of his cautious style as it was due to his ball-handling acumen. The point guard blossomed into an all-star in Cleveland deploying the ultradeliberate, nothing-ventured-nothing-lost style favored by then-coach Mike Fratello. Given the circumstances of his arrival here, it was inevitable that he'd be unfairly compared to Marbury, a flashy, muscular, prodigiously talented warrior who excels at drives to the basket and is well suited to an uptempo pace. By contrast, Brandon's play mirrors the self-effacing generosity and dignified grace of his temperament. If Marbury's court signature is a kamikaze foray through traffic, Brandon's is a deft pass leading to a teammate's open jump shot off the fundamental pick and roll.

Brandon's brief stint with Minnesota generated enough stylistic friction for the Wolves to not-so-secretly pursue Payton and Stoudamire during the summer, while, for his part, the point guard made clear his determination to test the waters of free agency. Eventually both sides realized that re-signing Brandon to a hefty long-term contract was an imperfect but mutually beneficial course of action. Following up on a theme he began articulating last year, Saunders says the Wolves' offense will maximize the team's athleticism by pushing the ball up-court and generating mismatches in transition. Brandon's patience has subsequently been tested by persistent questions from reporters asking whether he's capable of playing that way. Yes, he answers, again and again--but always with the caveat that he won't change much from what he has always done.

The most likely result is a compromise that finds the Wolves running the floor in transition but finishing plays with open jump shots created by three-on-two mismatches that Brandon exploits, rather than artistic lay-ups and resounding slam-dunks. That's a style perfectly suited to shooting guard Anthony Peeler, who followed a stellar 1997-98 campaign with grotesque effort that saw him out of sorts both mentally and physically last season. Knowing that the Wolves were unable to find another team willing to gamble on him, Peeler reported to training camp fit and contrite and has played with the grit and panache that was so much in evidence two years ago. In addition to being a dangerous (albeit somewhat streaky) long-range marksman, when properly motivated he's an underrated passer and defender who should thrive in an environment of controlled fast breaks.

Concerns about Brandon should revolve less around whether he can ignite an uptempo offense (he can, with some modifications) than whether he can stay healthy. Along with the physical stress that goes with transition basketball, he has to contend with Saunders's desire to deploy more trap-oriented defensive schemes this year, as well as the coach's preference that the point guard defend his opponent the full length of the court. Sensitive to Brandon's history of injuries, Saunders says he plans to limit his playing time to under 30 minutes per game. That leaves a lot of time for Bobby Jackson and/or William Avery at the point--not a pleasant scenario to ponder.

Last season, after Marbury was traded and Brandon was injured, Jackson floundered as a starter. No surprise there: He is a classic "tweener"--too short to be a shooting guard and bereft of the court sense, poise, and ball-handling prowess required of a point guard. Before long, on-court mistakes and a lack of confidence had created a vicious cycle that was painful to watch. Jackson is at his best providing juice off the bench in five-minute increments, primarily through his defensive intensity. Avery, by contrast, could become a fine point guard round about 2002 (he's got decent size, a penetrator's moxie, and a sweet long-range jumper), but the 20-year-old rookie simply isn't ready to steer an NBA offense for 15 minutes.

 

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.

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