Flip Flop

The Wolves are ailing--and the coach must find the cure

What a mess. The psychological pratfall the Timberwolves have taken over the past seven weeks finally found its way between Flip Saunders's ears Saturday night as he overcoached his team out of whatever slim chance it had of beating a more confident and capable Portland ballclub.

After the game Saunders complained that the Wolves were settling for too many jump shots and not going to the hoop enough in the second half. Then why substitute Anthony Peeler for Felipe Lopez with his team down by a point with just 3:49 left? Peeler epitomizes outside j's over inside drives--he has attempted 225 three-pointers and only 45 free throws. In one-fourth as many minutes played, Lopez has attempted 28 threes and shot 40 free throws. Lopez is also a taller, quicker defender and thus better able to match up with Portland's Bonzie Wells and Scottie Pippen, who killed the Wolves down the stretch. And it wasn't as if Peeler was hot--he'd missed all five of his field-goal attempts and has a long history of being pretty consistently on or off during the course of a game.

Saunders also shot the Wolves in the head by playing Russian roulette with his point guards. Newcomer Robert Pack played the first five minutes of the fourth quarter before being replaced by Chauncey Billups, who in turn was lifted in favor of Pack at the same time Saunders was bringing Peeler in for Lopez. Then, exactly one minute later, it was Billups back in and Pack on the bench. To cap it off, both point guards played the by-then meaningless final 30 seconds of the nine-point loss. Right now Billups needs a shot of confidence and Pack is trying to figure out what role Saunders envisions for him on this team. Both purposes were ill-served by the coach's yo-yo desperation.

I've always been a pretty staunch supporter of Saunders. The knee-jerk response of vocal Wolves fans who have called for his removal during these wretched past seven weeks is simplistic, short-sighted nonsense. Flip is among the top ten coaches in the NBA. Since many of those calling for his head are the same people who have underrated Terrell Brandon's importance in running the coach's complex offense, it bears repeating yet again how much the Wolves have been hampered by TB's injury. That doesn't mean Saunders should be above reproach. He has been, after all, the one in the pilot's seat during the team's spectacular crash.

When the season began, Saunders claimed that the match-up zone schemes he'd instituted to take advantage of the new league rules would be a permanent advantage for the Wolves. Even as opponents became familiar with the schemes, he reasoned, his team would become more adept at executing them, and, furthermore, would play better man-to-man defense. While the coach deserves credit for being ahead of the curve, it's now pretty apparent that the zones are less effective as the novelty has worn off. The Wolves' defense is better overall than it was last season, but not as disruptive in either the zone schemes (which are deployed less often) or the man-to-man as it was two months ago. Additionally, during the team's extended funk, opponents have riddled the Wolves with scoring spurts and found baskets easier to make in the fourth quarter.

Saunders bears some responsibility for the woeful play of Marc Jackson. It seemed as if the Wolves had pulled off a coup when they acquired Jackson from Golden State a month ago in exchange for the aging and rarely used Dean Garrett, especially after Jackson produced a bushel of rebounds, some bruising picks, and a few timely baskets in his first two or three games. But Saunders has used Jackson primarily as a classic back-up center, responsible for jousting with opposing behemoths down under the basket, and it's increasingly obvious that Jackson is not well-suited for the role. During his break-out rookie season last year, Jackson's bump-and-grind style was more effective at power forward, where the physical matchup was less imposing and gave him more opportunities to shoot the midrange jumper or crash the boards from the wing. Owing to his extended inactivity at Golden State early in the year and the confined nature of his low-post responsibilities at center, he hasn't developed an offensive rhythm and is getting overwhelmed on defense. With no other back-up center, and Gary Trent, Joe Smith, and Kevin Garnett as other power forward options, its understandable that Saunders is using Jackson this way. But mentally and physically, at center or power forward, Jackson needs more moving and less bruising to scrape the rust off his skills.

The most delicate and difficult thing Saunders needs to do if he's to rescue his team from impending playoff disaster is tinker with his top two players, Kevin Garnett and Wally Szczerbiak. For the past few years, Flip has treated KG with extreme deference while using Wally as his whipping boy. In both cases there's just cause: Garnett is a versatile, relatively selfless superstar with a huge heart, and Szczerbiak can be a concentration-deprived, gaffe-laden annoyance. It's not wrong to try to keep KG totally happy--to a point. In that sense it's probably no coincidence that the Wolves have gone out of their way to acquire and accommodate not only KG, but his best buddies on the team, Chauncey Billups, Joe Smith, and Anthony Peeler. But who hasn't noticed that all three players have taken a large step backward during the past two months?

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