By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
As the Wolves flirt with a .500 record and a tumble into the field of NBA lottery teams, everybody's got an opinion about what’s wrong and how to fix it. Here’s mine.
The team's most glaring weakness so far is perimeter defense. The starting backcourt of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell is 69 years old and incapable of containing younger, more athletic opponents. Afraid of being beaten off the dribble, the Wolves consequently fail to apply pressure on the perimeter, a major reason why they currently rank 26th among 30 teams in three-point shooting percentage allowed (36.7 percent, compared to last year's 29.3 percent) and are next-to-last in steals.
Even yielding this room outside, they have difficulty preventing opposing guards from penetrating into the paint. This area is patrolled by the club's quartet of centers, who are aged (Ervin Johnson), clueless (Michael Olowokandi), undersized (Mark Madsen), and raw (Eddie Griffin). All but Griffin are also exceptionally foul-prone, hearing the ref's whistle at least once every six minutes of play. EJ and Kandi in particular have not adjusted to the tighter restrictions on hand-checking, and pick up needless fouls that wouldn’t have been called a year ago. But none of the four has been particularly adept at deterring penetration, and all have been inconsistent playing the pick-and-roll.
While hardly a sure-fire cure, I'd return to last year's starting lineup. That puts Trenton Hassell, the Wolves best perimeter defender, back at the off guard position, and slides Sprewell over to small forward, where the step he has lost is less injurious to the team's D. It also returns Johnson to more regular duty, primarily because he is the best of the crew at mitigating Cassell's defensive lapses, and the most reliable at executing rotations and deciding when to challenge drives to the hoop.
This strategy unfairly kicks Wally Szczerbiak to the bench. Szczerbiak's defense has significantly improved this season and he doesn't deserve the heat he has been taking from some fans who reflexively link the Wolves defensive decline with Wally's woeful reputation at that end of the court. In training camp, Szczerbiak bitched about his need to start, then backed it up with the finest all-around play of his career over the past month and a half. Two weeks ago, he magnanimously went to coach Flip Saunders and offered to sit if it would help the team. Right now it would, for a couple of reasons. Benching the high-profile Spree would create too much of a distraction both in the locker room and around the league. He's a member of last year's "MV3," a proud, ultra-competitive but physically declining star, currently in the last year of his contract, and, because he has fought back from enormous (if self-created) adversity in the past, still somewhat delusional about his future value.
In addition, there is sure to be some lingering confidence and familiarity among last year's starters due to the success they enjoyed, and the Wolves need that kind of attitude boost to help reverse their dreadful freefall. It's a weird but necessary scenario: Wally has proven himself, and can thus afford to be selfless. Now it is incumbent upon Spree and Sammy, who bitched mightily about their contract status, to walk their talk after being surrounded with personnel that optimizes their virtues and minimizes their shortcomings. If they can't perform up to past capabilities (particularly Sprewell), it's better to know now, before the trading deadline has passed and the playoffs are upon us.
If and when EJ racks up a pair of first quarter fouls, Saunders should go with Kandi, who likewise will be whistled twice if he's active on defense, but should get the Wolves into the second quarter. Sometime near the end of the first quarter, Saunders should sub in a second unit that includes Wally for Spree, Fred Hoiberg for Hassell, and, most importantly, Anthony Carter for Cassell.
Deploying AC instead of Troy Hudson as the team's backup point guard (and starter if Cassell's hamstring is still bothering him) is a no-brainer that should have occurred weeks ago. The other day I asked the club's Strength and Conditioning Coach Thomas McKinney who was the hardest worker on the roster. After being pushed past the politically correct answer ("They all work hard."), McKinney replied, "Anthony Carter. He's unbelievable. I know I have to wake up early and get down here [to the arena] because he’ll be waiting for me."
By contrast, Hudson says his chronically gimpy ankle stiffens on the bench after he has played for a while and then sat for a prolonged period, complicating his availability. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the injury is preventing him from vigorous defense or an appropriate spring on his jumper, which hasn't prevented him from firing at will, at less than 37 percent accuracy. T-Hud also claims to be confused about what role the team wants him to play. It's best for all concerned that he be allowed further time to heal completely, and to see what Carter brings to the backup point position, in the hopes that he'll pick up a clue.