The Picture of Health

Will an injury-free roster make the wolves better?

No injured player is more vital to the Wolves' playoff fortunes than Michael Olowokandi. Saunders has done a deft job of mixing and matching Mark Madsen, Ervin Johnson, and Oliver Miller at center in Kandi's absence, but that won't suffice in a bruising second-round matchup with the behemoths in L.A., San Antonio, or Sacramento. Madsen has been the most effective pivot man against most foes because he boxes out well and keeps errant shots up for grabs, giving KG the room and wherewithal to snag more rebounds. But even with his yeoman intensity, Madsen is overpowered by the Shaqs and Duncans of the world, and both Miller and Johnson lack the foot speed and endurance to do much better.

To put it mildly, the Kandi Man has a lot to prove. First of all, he's got to realize that any points the Wolves' centers register are a bonus in the team's offensive scheme--interior defense and rebounding are the priority. During his abbreviated stint at the beginning of the year, his defense on the pick-and-roll was horrendous, his shot-blocking decisions were ill-advised, and his offense was too selfish and prone to turnovers. Right now, his head and his heart are both suspect. He had surgery on one knee near the beginning of preseason without fully vetting the decision with the Wolves' front office; then injured his other knee by favoring it to compensate for the first bum wheel. Two weeks ago he explained his chronic soreness by saying every player is sore at this time of year--apparently, by his logic, even those who aren't playing.

Despite this sorry recent history, the Wolves would have been crazy to trade Kandi to Orlando for undersized power forward Juwan Howard, as rumored in the media. Olowokandi was once the top pick in the NBA because he is even now a relatively rare commodity--an athletic seven-footer with a gusto (if not a genius) for playing defense. On the rare occasions when the Wolves have been beaten in recent weeks, opponents have pounded them on the boards for second-chance points off offensive rebounds, or simply scored in the low post off the half-court offense. Kandi needs to step up, literally and figuratively, to prevent that from happening. Until and unless he does, talk of a championship is equal parts wishful thinking and hot air.

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