As the Lineup Turns

Joe Smith slowly returns to 100 percent--and the Wolves ponder where to play him

Selfless, hard-working, and courteous to anyone who comes his way, Joe Smith is one of the classier acts in pro sports. The six-foot, ten-inch power forward joined the Timberwolves in January, at a propitious time for him and the ballclub. In the chaotic days immediately following the NBA lockout, Tom Gugliotta had spurned the Wolves' generous contract offer (the maximum that could be offered under the just-completed collective bargaining agreement). Saddled with Kevin Garnett's monster salary, Minnesota could not likely afford a quality replacement for the Phoenix-bound Googs.

But Smith--who had endured two tumultuous seasons that had him traded from dysfunctional Golden State (remember Latrell Sprewell vs. P.J. Carlesimo?) to a dysfunctional Philadelphia 76ers team (featuring Allen Iverson and Derrick Coleman)--came to the rescue. Knowing that his own motivation had flagged amid the me-first ineptitude of his former teams, he was anxious to re-prove himself alongside his high school tournament buddy Garnett in Minnesota's more nurturing environment. Just like that, the Wolves were able to sign the 1995 consensus college player of the year and the top overall pick in that year's NBA draft for a bargain-basement $1.75 million, a third or a quarter of what he could have fetched on the open market. Elated, Wolves coach and general manager Flip Saunders immediately proclaimed that Smith would provide the interior defense and low-post scoring threat that would complement Garnett and the team's other star, Stephon Marbury.

To some extent that's what happened. Last season Smith performed much of the dirty work down near the basket, freeing up Garnett to roam at both ends of the court and keeping the Marbury-led passing attack functioning smoothly. But then Marbury was traded and replaced at point guard by Terrell Brandon, whose relative lack of penetration put more of an onus on the team's big men to generate scoring punch near the basket. Smith, who was hampered by a rib injury, seemed to wear down; increasingly pushed away from the basket, he started settling for midrange jump shots. For the third straight year, his shooting percentage declined, down to .427--miserable accuracy for a big man. In the playoffs against San Antonio, he was overmatched against the Spurs' Tim Duncan and David Robinson and grew more and more timid about creating and taking shots.

Because the Wolves had signed him with a special salary-cap exemption, the most they could offer Smith this season was a modest boost to $2 million--again, far below market value for a 24-year-old who still has the potential to become a star. But neither Smith nor the club's front office evinced the slightest doubt that he would return. Asked about Smith during the off-season, Saunders maintained that he would benefit immensely from a full training camp with the squad and predicted that he'd improve upon the previous year's output.

Then Smith suffered a significant injury during the summer that resulted in a pin being placed in his foot and forced him to miss all of training camp. While he has played in every regular-season game thus far, his minutes are down significantly. Just two weeks ago, while Smith was telling me that he was feeling almost completely healthy, Saunders estimated that his forward was operating at about 65 percent.

As Smith has been recuperating, rookie Wally Szczerbiak has been taking advantage of the added playing time. Before the season, the Wolves figured Smith and Garnett would start at forward, and Szczerbiak would swing between forward and shooting guard. The thinking was that Smith, like Googs, could handle power forwards without sacrificing team quickness, allowing Garnett's size and mobility to stifle opposing small forwards. By contrast, Szczerbiak's size would enable him to exploit opposing shooting guards down in the low post.

With Smith out of the lineup, however, a couple of pleasant things have been revealed. First, as Saunders noted earlier this season, Garnett is able to conserve energy guarding opposing power forwards rather than chasing smaller shooters around the court. Playing power forward has also upgraded KG's rebounding totals. Second, operating at small forward, Szczerbiak has proven to be the Wolves' best penetrator toward the hoop, at least partially addressing the team's most dire offensive weakness. And on defense as well as offense, Szczerbiak is more effective against small forwards than against the quicker shooting guards.

Garnett says he's ready for a completely healthy Smith so he can go back to playing small forward. ("I like to run," he emphasizes.) And with the inconsistent play of shooting guard Anthony Peeler, the Wolves will most likely opt to play Szczerbiak more in the backcourt. Yet despite his troubles, Peeler is the most reliable three-point shooter on a team that again ranks near the bottom of the league in long-range attempts and accuracy. Right now, when Smith replaces Szczerbiak, the Wolves get better (and longer) on defense, but the offense devolves into a succession of midrange jump shots that won't get the team past the first round of the playoffs. It's hard to ignore that KG and Szczerbiak seem to be flourishing as tandem forwards--which would leave Smith (who is too small to play center), with no place to play. Because Saunders likes to go with a center-free lineup (and experienced players) in the fourth quarter of close games, both Smith and Sam Mitchell are more likely to be on the court during crunch time. Yet even then, Smith is looking at less than 30 minutes per game.

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