Hope After All

Maybe the Timberwolves can get closer to the promised land. Maybe.

After the Timberwolves had overcome Utah for their 15th straight homet victory in a game televised by ESPN last week, coach Flip Saunders said he had a query from the national press corps that he wanted to pass along: Why is the local media so negative? "I'm just telling you what they asked me," Saunders coyly remarked.

Fair enough. Speaking only for myself, I've been down on the Wolves' chances this year because their prospects for bottom-line improvement--getting past the first round of the playoffs--seemed as dire as ever. They play in the brutal Western Conference, where at least a half-dozen teams possess more talent, and are constrained by the salary cap from significantly upgrading their roster. (Even the misinformed scenario I proposed last week--waiting for Kevin Garnett's current contract to expire and adding free agents before re-signing him--isn't possible under league rules.) I suspect similar doubts led the national media (mainly TNT and ESPN) to schedule only three of the Wolves' first 61 games. As a result they have expended inordinate amounts of ink and airtime extolling marquee figures Yao Ming, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant, while giving KG, who has outperformed them all, short shrift.

A dour attitude toward the Timberwolves just makes sense. After watching them roar to 19 wins in their past 22 games, however, I'm tired of favoring my jaded brain over my throbbing heart. Forced to choose, I'd still predict that Minnesota will fall in the first round of the playoffs next month, but that seems less sure than ever before. The Lakers' early-season stumbles have made it likely that the fourth seed in the conference playoffs will not be a member of the league's traditional elite, an unexpected boon to a Wolves squad that looks to finish fourth or fifth. Indeed, if Garnett et al. can manage to win more than half of their next ten games (while running the gauntlet against West Coast opponents, beginning tonight in Seattle), it will be time for us die-hard skeptics to reconsider. At the very least the Wolves have made a mockery of the headline--Hopeless--attached to my season preview back in October. There's hope to be had if you want to embrace it. Here's why.

KG! KG!

I know I keep raving about the guy, but on a team where a number of players have stepped up, Garnett's improvement has been the most significant factor in the Wolves' unexpected success. He has no glaring weaknesses, can play or defend every position on the court, is channeling his emotions more effectively, has stepped up in crunch time, has established himself as a low-post scorer who draws fouls that create free throws, rebounds like a banshee, passes like a wizard, and practices and plays hard every day without getting hurt. Perhaps most importantly, Garnett--like nobody since Magic Johnson--does something on almost every play that improves his teammates. Suffice to say that, on paper, there are at least a dozen teams with more talent than the Wolves. But with KG as the inexorable catalyst and enabler, Minnesota has compiled the fifth-best record in the NBA.

Confidence-Breeding Consistency

For the first time in franchise history, the Wolves have thus far avoided a horrendous stretch of play. Last season, the Wolves twice dropped three games in a row, got walloped by 25 points or more on three occasions, and finally collapsed in early March with a seven-game skid. These embarrassments preyed on the psyche of a franchise that was already fragile. This year's squad hasn't lost three in a row since the first two weeks of the season, hasn't been beaten by 25 points or more, and has reeled off 17 straight victories at home. The result has been a synergy of confidence and rhythmic cohesion on offense and defense.

Harmony

From Terrell Brandon's preseason declaration that he'd be content to pocket his $10 million grooming Chauncey Billups to replace him, to the ESPN The Magazine article in which Wally Szcerbiak's teammates ripped him for being a ball hog, the Wolves didn't exactly exhibit a lot of esprit de corps last year. Add to that the team's previous parade of distractions--Chuck Person, Christian Laettner, J.R. Rider, Tom Gugliotta, Stephon Marbury-and this season's racial pop-off by hapless Loren Woods and Gary Trent's pouting over playing time are relative oases of calm.

Perimeter Defense

The team has rarely defended the three-point shot particularly well, but last year the flailing tandem of Billups and Szczerbiak really let opponents cash in, sinking better than 37 percent from trey territory. This season, point guard Troy Hudson is a decent upgrade over Billups and Brandon, but the real perimeter stoppers have been guards Kendall Gill and Anthony Peeler. Gill, an Extreme fighting buff and overall fitness freak, is the more physical of the two. A consummate pro signed at a bargain price, his defensive tenacity made him arguably the Wolves' second most valuable player during the first six weeks of the season.

During that same period, Peeler was pathetic, a supposed shooting specialist who clanged the rim twice as often as he swished the cords. Even with his above-average passing skills and court vision, he was killing the team. He soon became a lightning rod for fan and media abuse. But Saunders has always had a soft spot for A.P., and told him that if he hunkered down on defense, his wayward jumper wouldn't cost him playing time. A dramatic transformation in Peeler's game occurred during the second half of a late-January tilt against the Clippers, when he keyed the Wolves' comeback victory by shutting down Quentin Richardson, derisively mimicking Richardson's patented fists-to-the-temples showboating as he walked off the court. Suddenly, for the first time in his 10-year career, Peeler has made shutting down his opponent a higher priority than scoring, pumping himself with angry thoughts before every game. He's become the Wolves' second-best on-the-ball defender (behind KG, naturally) since then.

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.

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