The Picture of Health

Will an injury-free roster make the wolves better?

The three-headed monster of KG, Spree, and Sammy share a couch on Craig Kilborn's talk show. Assistant coaches Sidney Lowe, Jerry Sichting, and Randy Wittman get their nationally televised close-ups during the pregame introductions for the NBA All Star game, followed by Flip Saunders (low-fiving cheerleaders with casual elan) and Cassell and Garnett, who all proceed to help the Western Conference eke out a victory. The writers at Sports Illustrated, along with ESPN analyst Greg Anthony, predict the Wolves will become NBA champions. KG is the consensus MVP favorite. And the only team ahead of Minnesota in the conference standings, the Sacramento Kings, lose all-star Brad Miller to a sprained ankle and recuperated star Chris Webber to a suspension before the clubs square off at Target Center on Thursday, February 19.

These are heady times indeed for followers of the blue and green.

And, as Wolves' coaches, fans, and pundits are quick to remind each other, there is reason to believe the best is yet to come. The team will soon regain the services of a talented trio--Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson, and Michael Olowokandi--who have been sidelined for nearly the entire season.

One can certainly envision them providing the necessary boost to propel the Wolves to playoff glory. But before anyone gets too giddy, let's not ignore the possibility that a return to "full strength" could also disrupt the rhythm, complicate the roles, and scramble the chemistry that has fueled this resourcefully tenacious ballclub for the past 10 weeks. What follows is my take on the potential pros and cons accompanying each member of the returning threesome.

Troy Hudson is the most reliably positive addition, but has the least potential to significantly upgrade the team. Unlike Olowokandi and Szczerbiak, it's difficult to see how T-Hud cracks the starting lineup--he's not going to dislodge Cassell at the point guard spot, and the Wolves' perimeter defense suffers if he and Sammy share the backcourt for longer than three or four minutes at a time. His first aborted return from his ankle sprain was marred by a lack of thrust that showed he hadn't fully recovered. The second time back he felt too good about his jumper--chucking it up like he was still the deadly gunner who put the fear of God into the Lakers during last year's playoff series--with abysmal results.

Even so, Hudson's ball-handling and scoring prowess make him a valuable substitute at either guard position, but especially at the point, where the Wolves suffered through the inept vision, dribbling, and shot selection of Keith McLeod; unwisely failed to retain the mundane but steady Anthony Goldwire; and are now enduring the overconfident Darrick Martin backing up Cassell. Saunders quickly discovered that, as happened last season, Hudson was most effective with Garnett on the court to help him run the offense. But with T-Hud in the lineup, the Wolves can rest Cassell, who at 34 is playing heavy minutes, and still pressure opposing defenses with an aggressive pace. Plus, when Hudson is hot, the points come in bunches.

If Fred Hoiberg's brain could be transplanted into Wally Szczerbiak, the Wolves would have a viable shot at vanquishing the current Lakers Dream Team. Alas, all the things that make Hoiberg beloved by his teammates--rarely holding the ball longer than it takes to make a sharp pass or a high-percentage shot; playing heads up, mistake-free defense in the zone, on pick-and-rolls, and in man-to-man rotations; and generally stroking the club's star egos with his shrewd, enabling deference--are alien to Wally. Throughout his high school, college, and pro career, Szczerbiak has been one of his team's two primary scorers; he's accustomed to other players doing the little things to set him up. Where Hoiberg and other smart long-range shooters run away from the ball to create spacing, Wally's thirst for touches frequently has him running toward the ball-handler, which is one reason he is so easily trapped when he puts it on the floor.

All that said, Szczerbiak is one of the 10 most accurate shooters in the league, blessed with an up-to-25-foot range and a quick release on his jumper. He also excels in transition, getting out on the fast break with maniacal glee and fearlessly finishing layups in traffic with a blend of strength, hang-time body control, and a shot that can be feathery or fierce as the situation demands. But the dilemma Wally must confront and accommodate is that he could replicate his all-star performance of two years ago and still royally screw up this team. His old role has been thoroughly erased by more rounded or complementary players, and the Wolves' defense is much improved as a result. Can he acquire the selfless patience to give as much as he gets from his teammates on both ends of the floor, or is scoring the only way he can justify his playing time? If the former, he can provide Latrell Sprewell with eight more minutes of rest (the 33-year-old Spree is averaging 38.9 minutes per game), and hack an additional 10 minutes apiece out of Hoiberg's (25.9 minutes) and Trent Hassell's (28.5 minutes) floor time. If the latter, he'll often be the eighth or ninth man in the rotation, and won't dislodge Hoiberg from his crunch-time duty. Neither scenario befits a player making $60 million over the next six years, which is why you might see Szczerbiak made available in next year's expansion draft to stock the new Charlotte franchise.

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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