By Jesse Marx
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For the past few years now, Kevin McHale's grumpy old man routine has been in full flower during the Wolves' annual meet-and-greet with the media a day before the opening of preseason practices. In the course of his pro forma lament about how watered down the NBA's talent pool has become since the halcyon days when he played, McHale has routinely identified an aspect of the Wolves' performance during the previous season that made him "want to puke" as he watched from his seat a few rows up from center court. A year ago it was lackluster ball movement. This year it was the club's lack of defensive effort and intensity.
"The idea that somebody can't play defense is the biggest crock of crap I have ever heard in my life. I will not accept it from anybody. Defense is all about commitment and desire and discipline and that's what we've got to have," he began. "Guys lived in the paint against us last year. They had too much penetration and it collapsed our defense. The key is keeping the guy in front of you and containing the perimeter. Inside of 12 feet [from the basket], a team's shooting percentage is very high; outside of that, it is not. The only two ways to get the ball in the paint are to pound it in off the pass or dribble it in. We were pretty good about denying the pass, but we were very poor off the dribble. When people go to the basket, our big guys either have to block the shot or knock them down. It can't be a freeway or a lay-up fest. Sometimes last year I thought that we were the little flag girls on the side of the road.
"How committed are you to this?" McHale asked, as if the assembled throng were Wolves players rather than reporters and photographers. "When you don't do it, you need to sit on the bench."
One could quibble with the particulars of McHale's rant--last year the Wolves actually improved their defensive performance over the previous season and ranked in the top third of the league in limiting the field goal percentages of their opponents--but not with its essence. In basketball, as in nearly every other team sport, offense garners the headlines while defense earns the rings. Last year, the San Antonio Spurs became NBA champions despite shooting just 39 percent in the final playoff series, relying instead on a yeoman team defense that featured extraordinarily cohesive (and largely unheralded) role players such as Malik Rose and Bruce Bowen. Even if they find a way to maximize their offensive firepower, the Wolves can't seriously contend for a league crown without coalescing into an elite defense. Given the level of grit, guile, and athleticism among the team's new roster, the odds of that happening are long, but hardly impossible.
Begin with Garnett--the league's most versatile shutdown defender, a disruptive praying mantis in Saunders's matchup zone schemes, and an inspirational leader who makes his teammates better at both ends of the court. KG can't do everything, however, and since the death of Malik Sealy, the Wolves have lacked the ability to defend opponents who possess more than one offensive weapon. That's where the acquisition of Sprewell comes in. For more than a decade, Spree has drawn the assignment of dogging his opponents' most productive small forward or shooting guard. Among the NBA's starting perimeter defenders, only Gary Payton and Scottie Pippen have logged more playing time. Although he freely admits, "I'm not nearly as quick as I was when I was 25," his veteran savvy, wiry physique (he looks and plays an inch or two taller than his listed height of 6'5"), and contagious intensity have forestalled a precipitous decline in his defensive prowess. Any concessions to his age have been made at the other end of the court, where he is increasingly apt to launch three-pointers in lieu of slashing drives to the hoop.
Spree's joyous passion for the game has enabled him to engender respect around the league despite the nasty skeleton in his closet--six years ago, he was suspended for seven months for punching and choking P.J. Carlisimo, his coach at Golden State. Before the intersquad game that culminated the Wolves' preseason camp in Collegeville, he came up behind assistant coach Don Zierden and spun him around with a playful bear hug. Both men wore broad smiles and nobody in the building batted in eye. Like Cassell, Sprewell is not above exercising a veteran's caprice--he was a no-show at the team's media day and has taken his sweet time recovering from a preseason injury to his achilles. But when the games start to count, he won't require badgering from McHale in order to deter penetration out on the perimeter.
Supplanting Nesterovic with Olowo-kandi at center should add more assertiveness to Minnesota's interior D. Rasho mastered the intricacies of Saunders's zone matchups and rotations better than anyone besides KG, yet, betrayed by his gentle nature, he too often shunned the follow-through necessary to transform deterrence into intimidation. During his four-plus years with the Wolves, he probably endured 10 facials for every flagrant foul he meted out. That won't happen to the Kandi Man, who takes pride in shot blocking and has impressed his coaches with vertical quickness. At the same time, it's unlikely that Olowokandi can match Rasho's knowledge and disciplined fidelity to the team's defensive rotations, especially now that minor knee surgery will deprive him of playing time for most or all of the preseason.