Hopeless

Despite KG's best efforts, it looks like another year, another one-and-out for the troubled Wolves. If they're lucky.

For what it was worth, Wolves fans eventually got to see Gugliotta and Marbury receive their comeuppance. By the early part of last season, Googs had incurred enough ailments and injuries to make one think of vengeful shamans with voodoo dolls. Marbury, his new sidekick in the Phoenix desert, seemed to rack up more tattoos than victories during two years in Jersey before being mercifully traded out of town. Meanwhile, Brandon's steady, selfless proficiency was a balm that afforded Saunders the overall team stability to innovate and gave KG the room to mature into the league's most versatile player. On defense, the Wolves used Saunders's new matchup zone to confuse opponents; on offense, the team's crisp ball movement and the tendency of opposing defenders to focus on KG gave Wally Szczerbiak the opportunity to prove he was indeed one of the NBA's deadliest shooters. Through the first half of the season, the Wolves sported the league's third-best record and both Garnett and Szczerbiak were named to the All Star team.

It's been all downhill from there.

A week before the All Star break, Brandon was lost for the season, and maybe for good, when he suffered a cartilage fracture in his left leg. Around the same time, a reporter from ESPN The Magazine spent about 10 days covering the team. On March 4, the magazine published a story in which a handful of Wolves, particularly Brandon and backup point guard Chauncey Billups, essentially accused Szczerbiak of being a ball hog. Billups even went so far as to claim Szczerbiak stole passes intended for his teammates. Those corrosive sentiments contributed mightily to the Wolves' stagnant offense (marked by alternating bouts of timidity and heedless aggression from Szczerbiak) and overall lack of synergy during the second half of the season.

As if the Wolves players didn't face enough distractions and uncertainties, former NBA stars Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley lambasted Garnett for not shooting more often during the team's wretched three-game playoff series against Dallas. Their knee-jerk, bone-headed analysis betrayed a fundamental ignorance of KG's strengths (intuitive teamwork and an ability to dominate without scoring) and weaknesses (emotional volatility that creates a tendency to try to force the action at crunch time). Although Garnett eloquently rebutted his critics at the time, his frustrated comments during the off-season (while taping a sneaker commercial and in an interview with GQ) suggested that Johnson and Barkley hit a nerve.

As for the ruckus over Szczerbiak's need for the ball, Saunders now says, "It's always a tough situation when you've got guys playing who are trying to get a new contract. Sometimes it becomes more individual than team-oriented. When we lost Terrell, we didn't have the luxury of sitting those guys and playing somebody else."

"Those guys" almost certainly includes Billups, who signed a long-term deal with Detroit during the off-season. It may also include Szczerbiak, who unsuccessfully sought to extend his Wolves contract (which expires at the end of this year) at the maximum salary rate allowed under league rules. In any case, when Brandon went down last year, it was easy to see how Billups, holding the reins in Saunders's point-guard-centric offense, and Szczerbiak, the newly crowned All Star, might both stake a claim for second place in the pecking order.

The departed Billups was Garnett's best friend on the team. Szczerbiak, who, despite his transparent protests to the contrary, has never gotten along very well with KG, will be playing for a new contract this season. "Our chemistry is better than people think," Saunders insists. "Wally and KG had a long talk together, with me present, prior to this season. They are very much on the same page and very much understand that how they go will be the way the team goes."

Saunders had better be right, because in many respects, his new motion offense emphasizes teamwork as much as talent. Theoretically, the players running the system can be interchangeable. There will be fewer set plays meant to get the ball to a certain person in a certain place on the court, and more spontaneous reads and reactions designed to exploit weaknesses in opposing defenses as they respond to the Wolves' perpetual motion. "Scary as it may seem, that's the way we all used to play," says McHale, in grumpy old man mode. "You'd go to a gym and play pickup ball and you've got 10 guys all running around and moving. Last year our offense started out moving the ball very, very well. But by the end of the year, I was so frustrated I would just sit in my seat and be pissed the whole game because the ball would just stay on one side of the floor. It's very easy for me to guard you if you stay on one side of the floor. It's very hard for me to guard you if you are moving, if you are unpredictable.

"This isn't rocket science; it's just basketball. You need guys who know how to play, guys that can feed off each other. You and I can beat two guys better than us if we know how to play."

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