Guard Labor

Terrell Brandon isn't a great fit for the team--but that doesn't mean the Wolves can't make the best of it

After the Minnesota Timberwolves thumped the Seattle Supersonics for their fourth win in a row last Thursday night, the atmosphere inside the locker room was giddy with goodwill. As his smiling teammates lounged about, point guard Terrell Brandon, already dressed, modestly answered questions about his sparkling performance: 30 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds. No, Brandon told the media, he hadn't realized he'd scored so much. "Points are overrated. My job is to make some assists and play good defense." Yes, Brandon said, he did believe that Vernon Maxwell, the Sonics' veteran guard/chatterbox, was trying to rattle him with trash talk. "But," he said through a broad grin, "can't nobody get in my head."

Given the barrage of criticism directed toward Brandon during the Wolves' ugly eight-game losing streak earlier this month, it was obvious that Maxwell wasn't the only "nobody" to whom the point guard was sending a message. While Flip Saunders, Kevin McHale, and other members of the Wolves brain trust gently rebutted the anti-Brandon stories in the media (most notably a scathing column by the Star Tribune's Dan Barreiro) and denied published reports that he was on the trading block, it was clear the organization was less than enchanted with his performance. On the sidelines during games, Saunders often exuded palpable frustration at Brandon's lack of execution. Even his teammates inadvertently damned him with faint praise, as when rookie forward Wally Szczerbiak remarked after a loss to the Lakers, "Kevin [Garnett] has been playing his butt off for us, and Terrell played good tonight."

Brandon has responded to the carping with a mixture of feigned indifference and genuine confusion, especially with respect to the criticism that he's too laid-back to provide the energy and leadership demanded of a high-priced veteran at a key position. "It doesn't make sense," he said last Thursday after the other reporters had scattered. "If I'm playing bad, then say that. But too laid-back? What does that mean? I wasn't any less laid-back tonight than I have been before." With uncharacteristic vehemence, he concluded his comments with another message. "I know one thing: I won't change my game because of what people say. That's for sure."

 

Stylistically, Brandon and the Wolves have never been an ideal match. Brandon is at his best operating at the top of the key in a half-court offense, either running the pick-and-roll (his forte) or generating crisp ball movement that creates open shots by exploiting the reactions of opposing defenders. It is a style that's most effective when the defense is spread out and forced to scramble great distances to execute traps and double-teams.

The way to spread a defense is to have a bullish, reliable scorer down near the basket and an accurate long-range shooter out beyond the three-point line. But none of the Wolves' centers are adept enough on offense to command a double-team when they get the ball near the basket, and the team ranks last in the league in frequency and accuracy of three-point conversions. So instead of scrambling back and forth from the basket to the three-point line, opposing defenses can key on stopping the Wolves' cadre of midrange jump-shooters.

Saunders and McHale want Brandon to break down defenses by driving to the hoop more often. But Brandon, now in his eighth season, has never been a consistently effective penetrator, and just because the Wolves have signed him to a whopping $60 million contract doesn't mean he's suddenly going to get better at it now. Brandon twice drove to the basket against the Supersonics in Seattle three weeks ago--and promptly had his shots blocked by Greg Foster, a spindly forward who'd been moved to the pivot because of injuries to the Sonics' two centers. That's not the way to instill confidence in your team's floor general.

Yet Brandon is not without fault in the Wolves' dysfunctional offense. Too often after crossing the half-court line, he has been content to dump the ball off, leaving a forward or a shooting guard to confront the same tight man-to-man defense that he's better equipped to solve. This is where Brandon's inherent unselfishness works against the team: He needs to compromise between driving and dumping by using his quickness to create his own jump shot more frequently, especially in the late stages of close games. That's the sort of leadership $60 million is supposed to purchase.

Brandon's most glaring flaws this season have been on defense. Granted, he ranks among the top ten in the league in steals, a testament to his quickness and court vision when opponents are running the fast break in transition. But a fair share of those steals have come in the half-court defense when Brandon anticipates a pass and abandons his man--a risky strategy that can yield too many open jump shots. More open jumpers rain down when Brandon elects to weave his way beneath an opponent's pick-and-roll screen rather than fight his way through it. Add to that a liability beyond his control--at five-eleven, he can be exploited by taller point guards near the basket--and you've got a defender whose value is less than the sum of his gaudy steals total.

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