By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
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Against particularly creative point guards and deadly outside shooters, Saunders will also occasionally throw up a 1-2-2 zone defense with KG wreaking havoc on the perimeter or flash center Rasho Nesterovic out to double-team the guard while Garnett drops back to cover Rasho's man. Coupled with the efforts of Gill and Peeler (and to a lesser extent Hudson), it has morphed the Wolves into above-average perimeter defenders who allow opponents to convert just 34.4 percent of their long-range attempts. A peripheral advantage to deploying Peeler and Gill on the perimeter is that it provides Szczerbiak with better-suited match-ups against opposing forwards. Since going with this relatively smaller starting lineup, the Wolves have won 12 of 13.
More Versatility On Offense
Under Flip Saunders, mid-range jump shots have always been the Wolves' bread and butter. But this year, that style is a preference rather than a necessity. Garnett's emergence as a low-post scorer (due to better footwork and more aggressiveness) plus his increasing ability to feed Rasho cutting toward the basket (due to KG's great vision and deft passing touch and Nesterovic's reliable hands and physical coordination) provide the Wolves with the most potent interior offense in franchise history. Meanwhile, out on the perimeter, Szczerbiak, Hudson, Peeler, and even Gill give the team its most diversified long-range scoring threat. Although Saunders prefers not to feature it, the Wolves have converted nearly 39 percent of their treys since the first of the year, which ranks near the top of the league. (Meanwhile they remain among the bottom three teams in the number of three-point attempts.) Even if Minnesota mostly shuns the long bomb, opponents have to respect its prowess. Consequently, with KG and Rasho operating down low and the other players properly spaced out on the perimeter, opponents often have to pick their poison: Double-team Garnett or leave a sharpshooter open outside. Either way, the Wolves have made them pay recently, converting a remarkable 50.1 percent of their shots in the month of February.
Savvy Coaching and Personnel Decisions
There are a few nits I'd pick regarding Saunders' coaching patterns. When he substitutes both Marc Jackson and Gary Trent for KG and Rasho late in the first or early in the second quarter, opponents almost invariably stage a comeback by attacking the team's weakened interior defense. Is the chemistry between his two big men so productive that he can't stagger their rests and allow one of them to shore up the second unit? (This will become less vexing when Joe Smith returns from his latest injury.) Saunders also leaves his stars and starters in too long for my taste when the Wolves have a large, seemingly safe lead late in the fourth quarter. And it baffles me why he doesn't better accent and hone his team's three-point shooting capability, especially since it is one way to spring an upset over a more talented opponent in the playoffs.
But whether or not these quibbles have merit, Saunders has taken a team of mediocre talent, beset by injuries, and won 40 of 61 games. On the basis of what he's done so far he deserves consideration for Coach of the Year. While it's undeniable that Garnett's monster year is making him look particularly smart, he has had a hand in KG's improvement, both by challenging him to be more aggressive and by structuring the offense around his superstar's unique set of skills. For years Saunders has implemented one of the league's most complex and comprehensive set of plays for the half-court offense. This season, he abetted it with a motion offense that has proven to be an effective backup strategy when the set plays break down, or when he wants to stimulate more ball movement and freelance creativity on the court. He has also fostered an impressive degree of communication and coordination from his players when deploying a variety of zone and man-to-man defensive schemes. His abiding faith in Peeler, against heavy odds, is paying huge dividends.
Finally, as much as I and many others have criticized the personnel decisions of Kevin McHale--signing Joe Smith, legally and illegally, drafting Will Avery, etc.--it is time to acknowledge that his admittedly minor tinkering during the off-season has contributed to the Wolves' success. Specifically his revamping of the backcourt personnel--signing Gill, Rod Strickland, and Mike Wilks, and paying less than $3 million for Troy Hudson--have proved to be positive moves. Trading a washed-up Doug West for Peeler five years ago has never looked better.
Ultimately, McHale's tenure will stand or fall on validity of his contention that familiarity and continuity are nearly as important as talent in building a team. That philosophy seems more credible now than at the beginning of the season. Whether it will remain so in six weeks is less certain. Until then, there are reasons to hope, and to enjoy the ride.