No More Smiles

The Wolves' slump brings grimaces and gritted teeth

These are grim times for the Wolves, who tonight finish up a month of fragile mediocrity that can no longer be dismissed as a bump in the road. Although there have been some noticeably dreadful individual performances during this stretch, the malaise has been borne of dysfunctional teamwork, especially on offense. The Wolves' field goal percentage, free throw attempts, and assists are down significantly while their turnovers have risen. Their deadly cool efficiency and aplomb have vanished, replaced by a toxic mixture of heedless grit and self-conscious hesitation.

The simplest explanation is that incorporating Olowokandi, Hudson, and Szczerbiak into the playing rotation upon their return from injury screwed up the team's rhythm and chemistry. True, but let's not blanket the blame equally over the entire trio. The Kandi Man has been a colossal bust, a synergy sucker at both ends of the court. His knowledge of the team's defensive rotations actually seems to have regressed over time, from clueless to requiring a seeing-eye dog to fulfill his responsibilities. On offense, he shoots far more frequently and much less accurately than any of the team's other three centers do.

T-Hud has two valuable attributes--the ability to score in bunches from long-range and the capacity to accelerate the pace of the game with his quickness--that have been severely diminished by his chronically bum ankle. While he can't be faulted for injury, his mentality when running offense has been diametrically opposed to the tenets of Point Guard 101, which dictate becoming familiar with and then enabling the scoring strengths of your teammates. Instead, the other Wolves must adjust to Hudson's proclivities when he's on the court. His strategic awareness has been specious enough that it's often left to Kevin Garnett to bring the ball up and dictate the half-court sets when Hudson is playing, further taxing the Wolves' already overworked superstar.

By contrast, Szczerbiak is playing pretty well, emerging as less of a defensive liability than ever before and seeking out, almost to a fault, an open teammate to whom he can deliver the extra pass. But as with most pure scorers, his shooting groove is best established by an unfettered ego, and Wally hasn't yet figured out when to unchain the beast. I'd provide him reliable minutes in the second half of the third quarter as one of the team's top two scoring options. Otherwise, let the self-discovery continue.

As bad as Kandi and T-Hud have been, they're not the most worrisome aspect of the club's recent woes. The personality of this team is ultimately defined by its three stars, and for most of this month the dominant personality trait has been fatigue. Whether the drag is mental or physical is uncertain, nor am I sure which would be more troubling.

Sam Cassell is the key to the offense. Back on February 25, he missed the New Jersey game with tendinitis in his left ankle. Since then, his points per game have dropped from 20 to 15, and his shooting percentage has sagged from 50 to 44. In the meantime, Cassell was probably the most perturbed Timberwolf about the failed force-feeding of Kandi into the starting lineup, preferring to work with his longtime teammate Ervin Johnson. He has become increasingly foul-prone and cantankerous with officials. Wolves fans are mourning the absence of the sly, arrogant Sammy who would come down the floor on a semi-fast break, wait for his man to catch up, lean into him to draw the foul, and lean away as he canned the jumper. Also MIA are those magical moments of December through February, when Cassell routinely announced the ends of games with a series of dagger-in-heart fourth-quarter jump shots. Whatever the cause of his slump, the Wolves' brain trust should be ashamed for not keeping a third point guard on the roster to spell him during the games when Hudson was hurt.

Cassell's diminishment has forced more of the crunch-time scoring burden onto KG, adding another item to his impossible checklist. Hudson is hurt or otherwise bereft of point guard wisdom? Let Garnett run the offense. Kandi is fundamentally flawed? Let KG be the defensive stopper and primary low-post offensive threat in the paint. And when he's good and weary from all this added responsibility, let's make him the go-to guy down the stretch. After all, it's not like he has seven straight first-round playoff series losses to think about. Over the past 19 games, he's led the team in assists 11 times, in scoring 13 times, in rebounds 17 times. He should be fresh for the playoffs.

Which brings us to Latrell Sprewell, who has been as paradoxically frustrating and compelling as a Zen koan. When he leads the Wolves in scoring, the team's record is 11 and 2, but he is more likely to clank his way to a single-digit point performance. The Wolves are 28 and 6 when Spree, the team's best slasher, goes to the free-throw line more than four times a game, yet he has jacked up 93 more three-pointers than any other Timberwolf. Aside from the delirious overtime win against Sacramento in December, was there a more electric thrill this season than when Spree undressed San Antonio's Manu Ginobelli on two straight possessions at the Target Center last week? He made 12 first-quarter points... and finished with 20. The next night against Denver it was single digits. And in the subsequent two games in L.A., he scored 31 points in the first halves, and just six after intermission. Let's give Wally and Fred Hoiberg the bulk of his third-quarter minutes and see what happens.

For Spree and Cassell, who are 33 and 34 years old, this upcoming, inevitably competitive first-round playoff series represents one of their last postseason hurrahs. Let's hope it's a hearty one.

 
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