Passing Into Greatness

Everything's going the Timberwolves' way. But is everything enough?

Seven weeks ago the Minnesota Timberwolves were one of the worst teams in pro basketball. Today they're one of the best. How does a ballclub post a 7-13 mark in its first 20 games, only to reverse itself with a remarkable 16-4 run in its next 20--against superior competition? The simplest and most obvious explanation is that the Wolves have put together the best passing offense in the NBA. Even with the team's early-season doldrums, by last week Minnesota had racked up the most assists and fewest turnovers of any team in the league, generating an incredibly efficient ratio of nearly two assists for every turnover.

Proper passing epitomizes teamwork, so just about every player getting substantial minutes in the Wolves' rotation (plus coach Flip Saunders, the man doing the rotating) deserves credit for this most successful period in the history of the franchise. Some contributions are more equal than others, however, and putting some order to the honor roll makes it easier to dissect the details of the team's renaissance.

The valedictorian of nearly every Minnesota victory is, of course, Kevin Garnett. When the Wolves were on the skids, opposing defenses were collapsing upon the star forward, daring him to either try to score over three people or discipline his competitive zeal enough to cede the ball to an open teammate. Working against the quality of his decision-making was inexperience (he'd been the focal point of the offense only since the middle of last season, when Stephon Marbury was traded), recent past performance (he began the year in a shooting groove that had him believing he could score regardless of the circumstances), and the failure of his teammates, who frequently clanked the open shots his passes provided them.

But Garnett persevered, and he got smarter. After the Wolves beat a tough Portland team to inch their way above .500 in early January, he sat at his locker and said, "Different teams try to trap you in different ways, sometimes with the point guard, sometimes with the big guys. I've finally watched enough tape to know where the double- and triple-teams will be coming from."

Armed with that knowledge, he began countering the traps with well-timed passes that catalyzed the Wolves' half-court offense. As the team leader, Garnett was contagious in his selflessness. Ironically, his assist rate rose only slightly and his turnovers remained the same during Minnesota's 20-game turnaround. That's because his passes out of the traps usually ignited a sequence of ball movement that often brought the rock back to him in a better position to score. His shooting percentage jumped from 46 percent (when he was stubbornly forcing shots into the teeth of the traps) in the first 20 games to a whopping 54 percent in the next 20. Having established a willingness to give up the ball early in games, KG has gotten defenses away from their trapping tendencies enough to take over the scoring burden at crunch time, especially during close games on the road.

Thus far this season, Garnett may not be the league's MVP (Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal and Seattle point guard Gary Payton have better credentials), but it's hard to imagine a more complete player. Right now KG ranks fourth in the league in rebounding and has hit more than 40 percent of his three-point shots. Among forwards, only Grant Hill and Scottie Pippen have more assists, and neither comes close to his rebounding totals. Conversely, Tim Duncan has more rebounds but not nearly as many assists. Garnett is also among the NBA's top 12 in steals and, after a bit of a slump, is back to being a monstrous defender (his snuffing of Karl Malone and Antawn Jamison are the main reason for the Wolves' road victories at Utah and Golden State).

 

Garnett's stellar play is no revelation. Malik Sealy, on the other hand, has been the year's most pleasant surprise. The Wolves' reversal of fortune directly coincides with the insertion of Sealy into the starting lineup. A 42 percent shooter over his seven-year career, Malik has suddenly converted more than half his attempts this season, making him the most accurate marksman among all NBA guards. Like Garnett, Sealy has elevated his game through smarter shot selection. Moving with a veteran's savvy without the ball, he has exploited the seams in opposing defenses for a plethora of uncontested jumpers. More important, he has refrained from jacking up shots that short-circuit his team's offensive flow.

Ask Sealy why he's playing at a career peak and he mentions confidence, born of a rigorous off-season conditioning program. For years he has lost weight and broken down during the course of the long NBA campaign. This season he arrived in training camp with five to ten pounds of additional muscle that has enhanced his stamina without sacrificing any quickness. Although he's in the last year of his contract (hence the off-season workouts), Sealy never got ruffled when Anthony Peeler and Wally Szczerbiak were given more playing time earlier in the season. "My time will come," he correctly predicted. So far he has been the Wolves' most consistent performer, abetting the increased range and accuracy of his shots with typically tenacious defense (a huge improvement over Peeler in the backcourt), gritty rebounding, and the stabilizing attitude of an eighth-year pro. He is exactly the kind of invaluable role player that makes a fair team good, and a good one great.

Too long in the shadow of his more famous friend and benefactor, Kevin McHale, coach Flip Saunders is enjoying his finest season in Minnesota. It's one thing to make a horrible team respectable, as Saunders and McHale had done during their first couple of years at the helm, and quite another to resurrect a squad that was on the brink of disintegration, having lost two of its top three players the previous season. When the Wolves posted gaudy assist-to-turnover ratios early in Saunders's tenure, it was easy to attribute the credit to the club's wunderkind point guard Marbury. But now that Minnesota has actually improved upon those numbers with a much different floor general in Terrell Brandon, Saunders's offensive prowess should be given its due.

He benefits from having a coachable superstar such as Garnett setting an example on the court and an outspoken motivator like Sam Mitchell setting the tone in the locker room. But Saunders has earned the loyalty and respect of those two, and he has managed to be a "player's coach" without conceding any lapse in discipline or (recently, at least) mental toughness. It could be argued that Saunders was too slow to pull Peeler from the starting lineup, yet the coach's decision to feed his enigmatic shooting guard plenty of minutes, even off the bench, has paid off in a Peeler resurgence over the past six weeks. Even more impressive, Saunders's daily work with backup point guard Bobby Jackson during the off-season rebuilt Jackson's confidence, enabling him to pare the weaknesses (shooting, fancy passing) and hone the strengths (defensive quickness, penetration) in his game. At the end of last year, who would have thought the Wolves could beat Indiana and Utah back-to-back with Jackson at the point?

Finally, the Wolves' team chemistry is at an all-time high. Sure, nothing succeeds like success, especially when you've got fresh memories of a horrendous eight-game losing streak. But this team seems primed to weather the inevitable valleys that await them over the next three months. The pecking order is well established, with KG and Brandon (in that order) on top. As for the role players, some extremely positive examples are currently being set. Joe Smith, who is ideally suited to be a power forward (or even a tall small forward) and who is awaiting a contract extension, has served as a backup center without complaint, scrapping for rebounds and deploying his body like a punching bag to draw charging fouls on opposing behemoths. Sam Mitchell, who has long prided himself as a fourth-quarter warrior, has seen those minutes diminish at the expense of Sealy and (more irksome) Peeler without flashing his temper. Szczerbiak, the cocky rookie who was the team's second-best player during the season's opening month, still busts his tail and has actually started to pass more despite falling out of Saunders's regular rotation. And Peeler has responded to his role off the bench with a confidence and energy that was lacking for more than a year.

Simply put, this is a sure-fire playoff team--and perhaps one that can progress beyond the opening round for the first time in franchise history. Minnesota faces an easier schedule during the second half of the season, and if the team manages to leapfrog over Utah and San Antonio in the Midwest Division, they'll earn a first-round home-court advantage against the seventh seed in the Western Conference. Otherwise, Wolves fans should pray for a seventh seeding come playoff time, which would likely match up the team with either San Antonio or (better yet) Utah. The alternative would likely be an eighth or a sixth seed, which would probably land Portland or the Lakers on the road in the first round. Great passing offense or not, that would spell exit.

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