Learning to Fly

The Wolves' shaky start is nothing to fret about. Yet, anyway.

Whether you're a swooning optimist or a reflexive cynic regarding the fortunes of the new and theoretically improved Minnesota Timberwolves, the team's performance in its first seven games of the 2003-04 season has given you ammunition. The glib thing to say is that there is no way of knowing the Wolves' capabilities just yet. Even if the squad was completely healthy, November's games figured to be spent on players learning each other's tendencies and sorting out roles.

But that shake-out scenario has been complicated and delayed. Two of the top six Timberwolves--Troy Hudson and Wally Szczerbiak--have yet to set their aching feet on the court, and probably won't until the Thanksgiving turkey is on the table. Meanwhile, the team's three most prominent off-season acquisitions (Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell, and Michael Olowokandi) are nicked by injuries that have hindered their play to varying degrees.

Since no one knows how much the missing-in-action and the walking wounded are retarding the Wolves' development, the team's mediocre 4-3 record to open the season can be viewed as heroic, humbling, or humdrum, depending on your bias. As someone who remains ultimately bullish on Minnesota's prospects this season, I'd like to focus on a few reasons why I've been disappointed in the team thus far.

Cassell enjoys scoring points much more than preventing them
David Kern
Cassell enjoys scoring points much more than preventing them

The prevailing consensus, backed by statistics, is that the Wolves have been playing solid defense. The ballclub is fourth among the NBA's 29 teams in fewest points-per-game allowed, and ranks in the top third in reducing the field goal accuracy of their opponents. But these numbers don't take into account the Wolves' inconsistency, or the woeful caliber of the offenses they have faced. At first blush, it's heartening that Sprewell put the clamps on Toronto star Vince Carter, that Minnesota's zone discouraged Orlando superstar Tracy McGrady into his first scoreless half in years, and that the Wolves exploited Miami's lack of interior offense by successfully concentrating on shutting down the perimeter. But these stalwart defensive stands are undercut by the fact that Toronto, Orlando, and Miami have scored the fewest points in the league so far.

On the flip side, the Wolves' D has already been roasted by New Jersey, Sacramento, and Utah, three teams that emphasize ball movement and penetration to the basket. It's already time to be concerned about Cassell's lack of lateral quickness when defending out on the perimeter. It's tempting to blame this deficiency on his nagging ankle and big toe ailments, but Cassell has always been, at best, merely an adequate defender. At age 33, he is using brains and dedication to compensate for slower footwork, yet Cassell has always been someone who enjoys scoring points much more than preventing them, so his defensive dedication is a question mark. After seven years in the Eastern Conference, where Jason Kidd and Baron Davis are the only two premier penetrating point guards, his move to the Western Conference foists upon him a daunting gauntlet of matchups with superb penetrators like Payton, Marbury, Francis, Nash, Bibby, and Andre Miller. That's not a pleasant future to contemplate after watching an inexperienced backup point guard like Utah's Raul Lopez routinely blow past Cassell during the first week of the season.

The Wolves are assuming that the personnel change from a chronically passive Rasho Nesterovic to Olowokandi at center will provide them with a more intimidating shot-blocker to redress any shoddy perimeter defense that results in drives to the hoop. Since he missed the entire preseason with a knee swollen from surgery, the Kandi Man's stamina and shot-blocking elevation are clearly not yet up to snuff. But the greater concern in the long run is his lack of court sense. Early on he's been too eager to leave his man and go for the shot-block, frequently generating chaos on defensive switches near the basket (which enabled Utah's big lug, Greg Ostertag, to look like Superman on rebounds and put-backs). Kandi also hasn't been a very adept passer or ball-handler, often committing the big man's cardinal sin of dribbling the ball before going up for a shot--one reason he's averaging nearly two turnovers per game despite spending most of his time on the bench. And he's only made two of seven foul shots so far.

Olowokandi's slow start makes it hard for the Wolves to send Kevin Garnett out to defend the perimeter against strong rebounding opponents. Before their southern games against undersized Orlando and Miami, the Wolves were last in the NBA in rebounding and almost at the bottom in free throw attempts and drawing fouls. Smart, aggressive play near the basket will be crucial against Yao Ming in Houston, Shaq in L.A., Duncan in San Antonio, and Amare Stoudemire in Phoenix. Mark Madsen's grit and desire enable him to flourish against mediocre opponents as Olowokandi's backup, but it's too much to expect him to hold his own against the aforementioned behemoths. And the other center, aged Ervin Johnson, really can only be deployed in very small doses or when the game is out of hand.

On offense, all of the new Timberwolves, but especially Cassell, need to realize that the scoring efficiency increases when KG handles the ball. Because Cassell is used to dominating his club's ball-handling, this will be a difficult transition. But Cassell will still generate plenty of shots pulling up for jumpers in transition on the fast break and posting up smaller point guards. Against Utah and Sacramento, Cassell got hot with his jumper but then kept shooting after he'd cooled off. The tendency was especially egregious in the Sacramento game, when he hoisted up three misses in the waning seconds of regulation instead of getting the rock to the club's superstar. In any case, it's not a good sign that Garnett is averaging two fewer assists per game than he was a year ago. The offense would benefit from more half-court sets with Garnett at the top of key, with the option of feeding Kandi down low, Cassell in the post, Spree on back-door cuts to the hoop, or Wally and Hudson--when and if they return--for three-pointers on the perimeter. (And if none of them are open, KG can take advantage of his single coverage and score himself.)

I still think this is easily the most talented Wolves squad in franchise history, one that will advance in the playoffs for the first time. There is a wealth of good things going on this year, including:

  • the improvement of Gary Trent
  • the tenacious D, judicious shot selection, and quiet leadership of Sprewell
  • the depth provided by Madsen, Trenton Hassell, and Fred Hoiberg
  • Cassell's flashes of savvy and marksmanship
  • KG's continued all-around excellence

Or just consider this. Even without Hudson and Szczerbiak, the team has three players who command a double-team when they have the ball in scoring position. The sky isn't falling; it's just a little cloudy.

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