In The Zone

The NBA embraces a long-prohibited defensive style. The Timberwolves are poised to cash in.

Six months ago, at the end of the NBA's 2000-2001 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise seemed to be toiling at a treadmill perched on quicksand. The reasons for the team's plight is no secret to most Wolves fans, who can no doubt recite the litany of big egos, bad luck, and front-office bumbling that has buffeted the franchise for nearly four years. Power forward Tom Gugliotta jumped to Phoenix because he couldn't get along with point guard Stephon Marbury. Marbury provoked a trade with New Jersey because he couldn't attain the salary and adulation accorded Wolves' superstar Kevin Garnett. Shooting guard Malik Sealy was killed in a collision with a drunk driver. Joe Smith was banished from the team and four future first-round draft picks were erased after NBA commissioner David Stern discovered that Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor had signed the power forward to an illegal contract. And two previous, theoretically promising first-round picks, center Rasho Nesterovic and point guard Will Avery, were proving to be, respectively, a major disappointment and an outright bust.

Thanks to the versatile majesty of KG and the resourceful retrofitting of six-year coach Flip Saunders, the team has managed to grab a low rung on the playoff ladder for five straight seasons, only to be summarily dispatched in the first round on each occasion by higher-seeded teams with the home court advantage. Knowing that the stasis was bedeviling the psyche of players and fans alike, Saunders boldly predicted that the Wolves would topple the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in last spring's playoff match-up. Instead, Minnesota averaged just 82 points a night and was thumped three games to one.

With a dearth of draft picks and Garnett's $126 million contract swallowing any chance to add an expensive free agent to the roster, it appeared the Wolves would be struggling just to make the 2002 playoffs, as young, hungry, and athletic Western Conference teams like the Clippers and Rockets continued to improve by leaps and bounds. Over the summer, prospective trades involving point guard Terrell Brandon and guard/forward Wally Szczerbiak didn't pan out. And so, with their customary share of the local entertainment dollar being challenged by a scrappy expansion hockey team playing in a brand-new arena just across the river, the need for improvement by the Wolves had taken on a bottom-line urgency.

Flash forward to the present. Since the end of training camp, most everyone connected to the franchise says there is a positive aura surrounding the team. Garnett claims it's the happiest, most unified Timberwolves ensemble of his six-year career. Saunders says the twelve-person roster has more depth than any in franchise history. And, sitting in front of his locker after a November 2 win over Memphis, Szczerbiak beams like the Cheshire Cat on crystal meth: "Man, I can't believe how good I feel physically right now." Ratifying the feel-good vibe, Minnesota has opened the season with six straight victories, the best start in its 13-year existence.

"We're going to have a stinker sometime in the next two or three weeks because of overconfidence," assistant coach Jerry Sichting predicts. "But it's almost scary how well these guys are playing and communicating with each other right now."

 

So what happened during the off-season?

Arguably, nothing. The Wolves' early-season giddiness might just be the flip side of desperation and, in the end, the grind of an 82-game campaign might once again see the team watching from the sidelines on or before the end of the first round of the NBA playoffs.

But let's sip the Kool-Aid for a minute. Maybe the ongoing maturation of Garnett, the greater reliance on Szczerbiak at his new shooting-guard position, and the sagacity of Brandon at the point adds up to a three-pronged dynamo that will regularly take the Wolves' always exciting passing offense into triple digits. Maybe the reacquisition of wayward son Joe Smith (Mr. Congeniality in the locker room, an indomitable grinder on the court), the acquisition of seven-foot-one center Loren Woods in the second round of the draft, and the bargain-basement signing of the muscular forward Gary Trent (a bruiser with a bum knee), will finally provide the team with the length, width, and pith it has so often lacked beneath the basket.

Maybe the most significant factor for the Wolves this season will involve not a player acquisition or a position change, but a new rule that allows teams to deploy zone defenses along with the league's previously mandated man-on-man coverage.

Zone defenses enable teams to double- and triple-cover other players even when the ball is not in their hands, leaving other opponents relatively unguarded in the process. It is meant to curb the dominance of behemoths like the Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal and prevent offenses from clearing out one corner of the court so that a particularly quick, athletic scorer like Allen Iverson or Vince Carter can gain the advantage over a single defender. Offensively, it is intended to promote ball movement, accurate outside jump shooting, and a more balanced scoring attack.

In other words, the rule change is tailor-made for the Timberwolves. Minnesota's defense has always been tormented by the single-coverage match-up. And on offense, the Wolves' crisp passing attack and bevy of midrange jump shooters will discourage most opponents from even attempting to use the zone. What's more, zone defense maximizes two of the Wolves' biggest assets--KG's freakish physical skills and Saunders's ingenuity. Garnett is a seven-foot gazelle quick enough to adhere to jitterbugs on the perimeter and long enough to slide down and double-cover big men beneath the basket. At its best, a zone provides blanket coverage with quiltlike cohesiveness. Garnett's range authorizes the Wolves to spread its blanket wider than most any other team in the league.

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