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.

Brandon is within his rights to chafe at criticism that he's too laid-back. A player's temperament is, after all, what it is. And when the Wolves emerge from their onslaught of injuries and can operate on all cylinders, his stoic professionalism might help balance the emotionalism of, say, Kevin Garnett, who is prone to try to do too much. But when the club is slumping, the divergent demeanors of its two best players are a detriment, corroding team chemistry and exacerbating an already bad situation. That's how you get pasted eight times in a row by the likes of Dallas and Golden State.

There's no denying that the union of Brandon and the Wolves was a shotgun wedding born of the collective-bargaining agreement. (The NBA allows teams to exceed the salary cap to sign their own players, and because most contending ballclubs--the Wolves included--are already over the cap and thus unable to sign quality free agents at market value, neither Brandon nor the Timberwolves had a more appealing alternative.) But two dozen games into a six-year contract, badmouthing Brandon or offering him up in exchange for someone mediocre isn't productive. Instead the team ought to be finding ways to strengthen the marriage.

Fortunately, that has begun to happen. With forwards Sam Mitchell and Joe Smith healthy again and Malik Sealy replacing Anthony Peeler at starting shooting guard, it's no coincidence that the Wolves are winning again. No one on the team has suffered more than Brandon from Peeler's dreadful inconsistency this year. Instead of sticking the jump shot and stretching the defense after Brandon had set him up, Peeler has usually either thrown up a brick or made an extra, unnecessary pass. Meanwhile, his shoddy coverage and lack of foot speed on defense offers no safety valve for Brandon's lapses.

The Wolves' two games against Seattle, played 15 days apart, show what a difference one substitution can make. In the first contest, the Sonics' Gary Payton used his height advantage and superior tenacity to score at will on Brandon; then the game's best small defender hounded Brandon relentlessly at the other end of the court. In the second game, Saunders was able to guard Payton with Sealy--a taller, more fundamentally sound defender than either Brandon or Peeler. The switch also forced Seattle to guard Brandon with lackluster defender Brent Barry, resulting in a slew of uncontested jump shots for the Wolves' reinvigorated point guard. When Brandon was covered, he dished to Sealy, who canned more than half of his 15 shots. With Mitchell, Smith, and Sealy replacing two rookies (Szczerbiak and Radoslav Nesterovic) and an underachiever (Peeler) in the crunch-time lineup, the Wolves' defense finally displayed a little of the spine and smarts that got Minnesota into the playoffs last year.

 

But here's the rub: With three-quarters of the season remaining, it's a certainty that even if the Timberwolves claw their way into the playoffs, they'll be first-round fodder for some vastly superior club. And if they don't reach the postseason, a chance at the lottery isn't part of the equation; they traded this year's top draft pick in the deal that brought Dean Garrett and Bobby Jackson from Denver. Taking the long view, there's a case to be made for seasoning the young players rather than attempting to win by any means necessary.

For instance, there are certain scenarios in which Garrett may be a marginally better performer than Rasho Nesterovic this season. But Garrett is a 33-year-old mediocrity, while Nesterovic is 23 and has the potential to get better. And since Rasho seems to perk up with the symbolic honor of being in the starting lineup, why not force-feed him as many minutes as his confidence can handle?

Second, if the Wolves really plan to sign Joe Smith to a big contract, they'd better find out how well Szczerbiak can play at shooting guard. Before the season began, the team's top draft pick had a reputation as a deadly long-range shooter but a dubious penetrator and defender. Thus far the reverse has proven true--an indication that Szczerbiak may be better suited to play small forward. If so, the Wolves have a surfeit of front-line personnel under the age of 25. Assuming Peeler never shakes the doldrums, they also have no credible long-range shooting guard to stretch defenses out on the perimeter. Better to find that out now.

And finally, William Avery needs more minutes at point guard. Although his inexperience is woefully apparent whenever he steps onto the court, flashes of NBA-caliber talent are equally obvious. Before the season, Saunders had talked about playing the injury-prone Brandon no more than 30 minutes per game. Yet despite all the criticism over Brandon's play, the coach has felt compelled to leave him in longer--an average of 35 minutes per contest. Bobby Jackson is not the point guard to pair with a mature Kevin Garnett for a legitimate championship run in 2003 or '04. Avery might be.

And Terrell Brandon--where does he fit in next month, next year, and for the duration of his megabuck contract? Is the 29-year-old point guard a bridge to Avery? A hasty mistake who will become tantalizing trade bait for a bona fide big man in the near future? Or one of the two or three pillars upon which the post-Marbury/Gugliotta Timberwolves intend to rebuild their franchise? Right now no one seems to have an answer, and Brandon is playing more and the Wolves are enjoying it less than anyone would have anticipated just two months ago. It's an expensive game of wait-and-see, an unsatisfying verdict caught somewhere between a mistrial and a hung jury.

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