This Is It

The future is now

As for who calls the shots on offense--which will be drawn from the same playbook as in previous years--indications are that Saunders will give his players greater latitude. "With more talent, it's easier to let the players play to their strengths," he says, noting that the team's increased depth and versatility will make it easier to identify and exploit matchups. "The coaches' job is to give them enough guidance in practice so that hopefully the veterans understand what we want to do during the course of the game."

"This is now a veteran team," echoes Cassell. "Spree comes in with baggage, I come in with baggage, Kevin and Wally have their baggage. Flip doesn't want to be calling the plays; he wants us to be able to figure it out on our own."

 

Clockwise from bottom left: Sam Cassell, Troy Hudson, Michael Olowokandi, Wally Szczerbiak, and Kevin Garnett; add in Latrell Sprewell, Mark Madsen, Fred Hoiberg, and Ervin Johnson, and the Wolves have their strongest roster in team history
David Kern
Clockwise from bottom left: Sam Cassell, Troy Hudson, Michael Olowokandi, Wally Szczerbiak, and Kevin Garnett; add in Latrell Sprewell, Mark Madsen, Fred Hoiberg, and Ervin Johnson, and the Wolves have their strongest roster in team history

If by "baggage" Cassell means a need to handle the ball, he's absolutely right. Meaningful touches of the rock will be a precious commodity in the Wolves' offense, which suddenly has a surfeit of assertive playmakers. The superstar Garnett is the de facto go-to guy and way station for ball movement, but Sprewell and Cassell were both the primary ball-handlers on their respective teams last year. Wally Szczerbiak, whose defining attribute is deadly accurate shooting, was accused by his teammates of being a ball hog during his all-star season two years ago. And the streaky Hudson freely admits that if he hits two or three shots he's going to jack up two or three more to see if he's on a roll.

The party line among players and coaches is that, aside from Garnett's primacy, the ball will gravitate to the player with the most advantageous matchup and/or the hot hand. In other words, a player who goes off for 30 points one night shouldn't pout if his teammates don't force-feed him the ball the next few games. "Everyone wants to talk about our chemistry," Saunders says impatiently. "I define chemistry with one word: sacrifice. Sacrifice for the good of the team."

Sacrifice isn't always easy to come by in today's ego-glorifying sports-entertainment industry. Yet there are plenty of reasons to think that the Wolves will pass this portion of the chemistry test. In a league where it's axiomatic that a franchise takes on the personality of its best player, KG is arguably the NBA's most selfless superstar and hands-down the best passing seven-footer playing today. Sprewell and Cassell are at points in their careers where winning takes precedence over money and adulation. Saunders's offensive schemes provide a ready-made template for effective ball movement. And for all their scoring capability, the new Wolves are the only franchise to boast four players--in order: KG, Cassell, Hudson, and Sprewell--among the league's top 32 leaders in assists.

The Wolves also have a new crop of centers whose effectiveness doesn't depend on their offensive contribution. That can't be said about last year's incumbent, Rasho Nesterovic, who had soft, sure hands and a jump shot to match, which made him an ideal beneficiary of KG's interior passes and Minnesota's second most consistent scorer. The lone player among the eight departures that the Wolves were sorry to lose, Nesterovic exercised his free agent rights and signed with San Antonio in July, in between the trades for Cassell and Sprewell. For a brief moment, the team seemed to be in a real bind--you don't advance in the playoffs with Ervin Johnson and Marc Jackson as your centers. But the next day, McHale and Taylor boarded a plane to Los Angeles and personally convinced free agent Michael Olowokandi to sign a three-year contract for less money than they would have paid Rasho.

How the Kandi Man will perform this season is anybody's guess. Estimates of his potential have been overinflated ever since the clueless Clippers selected him with the top pick in the 1998 NBA draft. Yet he does possess the key ingredients--a large, nimble body and comfort with combat--required to credibly joust with the behemoth centers in the Western Conference. By blaming his retarded development on the dysfunctional atmosphere that pervaded his five years with the Clippers franchise, he unintentionally damns his capacity for self-motivation. For a seven-footer who operates down near the basket, his shooting accuracy is horrendous--he's never converted even 44 percent of his field goals or made two-thirds of his free throws in a single season.

But as luck would have it, Olowokandi is probably a better fit on the revamped Wolves' roster than Rasho would have been. Even if his offensive skills continue to stagnate, he will benefit from playing alongside Garnett, who often draws the opposing center to double-team him and then shovels a pass to the open big man. Kandi's tendencies on offense will also create better spacing for the Wolves down near the hoop. While Rasho is rightfully regarded as the more polished scorer, he often generated points by driving across the paint or down the lane, or by tossing in short jumpers in the area between the charging circle and the free-throw line. But that's also the preferred terrain for KG's inside game. By contrast, Olowokandi likes to initiate his offense with his back to the basket deep in the low post, which will provide Garnett more room to operate. But Kandi's greatest contribution to the offense might come at the other end of the court, where his assertive rebounding and shot-blocking will catalyze the Wolves' fast break and generate points in transition.

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