One For The Team

In praise of Fred Hoiberg

After the Wolves lost to the Knicks in New York on December 29, the big news on the player-substitution front was that coach Flip Saunders had benched Troy Hudson and installed Anthony Carter as the backup point guard. This was during the time when Hudson’s agent asked that his client be traded and Hudson proclaimed himself confused about his role on the team. It turned out to be a brief spat. Hudson later hurried to clarify that he has no desire to be traded, and Saunders reinstalled him in the rotation the very next game.

More recently, although Carter has been starting while Sam Cassell sloo-owly recuperates from his hamstring injury, Hudson has been garnering nearly twice as many minutes as AC at the point. And while T-Hud’s peripheral vision has expanded slightly beyond the circumference of the basket, he remains first and foremost enamored of his own jump shot.

A less heralded but more significant change in player minutes beginning with that Knicks game was less court time for Fred Hoiberg. Unlike Hudson, who at the time was short-circuiting the offense at an alarming rate with his prolific bricks, there was no good reason for Hoiberg to languish on the pine. All season long, he had been one of the precious few Wolves to reprise his stellar play from a year ago; if anything, he had exhibited marginal improvement as an outside shooter, defender, rebounder, and sage decision-maker. But with the team in the doldrums and Saunders feeling like he needed to shake up the mix on his ego-laden squad, Freddie essentially got benched because Saunders knew he wouldn’t squawk about it.

The fundamental unfairness, not to mention stupidity, of this strategy became more and more apparent through the entire first half of January. A few readers emailed me asking why Hoiberg wasn’t playing, with a couple reminding me that I’d been a staunch early champion of Freddie’s game shortly after he joined the Wolves last season. Still, I cut Saunders some slack because I knew the coach was in a delicate position. His most noteworthy underachiever was (and is) Latrell Sprewell, one of last year’s vaunted MV3 and a leader in the locker room who is working on the final year of a long-term contract. Benching Spree would create a lot of publicity and potential unhappiness that would almost certainly extend to Cassell and might even infect the team’s franchise player, Kevin Garnett. Meanwhile, the Wolves needed Trenton Hassell’s perimeter defense in the lineup, and Wally Szczerbiak’s gracious offer to come off the bench despite his marvelous season thus far needed to be rewarded with significant minutes once he did step on the court. For political reasons, Hoiberg was the odd man out.

But last Monday, after the Wolves had been spanked at the Target Center by a Toronto team that had dropped 11 straight road games, I asked Hoiberg if he wasn’t feeling just a tad bit peeved by his lack of playing time. Hoiberg, who had just gone scoreless in a mere ten minutes of action, was firm in his response.

“Not at all,” he said. “Quite frankly, I know I’m lucky to still even be in the league at this time. I don’t feel cheated and I’m not going to complain.” But you are incredibly valuable to this club with your long-range shooting, rebounding, defense, and lack of turnovers, I persisted. “Well, a lot of people are valuable. We have an incredibly deep team,” he countered. “My job is just to play the best I can when called upon. The important thing is to always be ready, and to fulfill whatever role you are called upon to do.”

Obviously, Hoiberg will never toot his own horn. So let’s let the numbers speak on his behalf. In the 12 games between December 29 and January 19, Freddie played a measly total of 107 minutes--less than nine minutes per game. During that stretch, the Wolves compiled a horrendous 3-9 record.

When Sprewell was hindered by a bout with the flu before Friday night’s game against Seattle, Saunders finally had an opportunity to provide more minutes for Hoiberg in the rotation. The result was that Freddie knocked down three of four three-pointers and registered 11 points in 23 minutes of action during a tenacious Wolves victory that optimists inevitably heralded as a turning point in their season. The next night against Portland, Hoiberg helped quell a furious comeback by the Trailblazers by notching 13 of his 15 points (in just 15 total minutes) in the fourth quarter.

A persuasive case can be made for Hoiberg being the second most-valuable Timberwolf this season, behind only Garnett. When Hoiberg plays more than 20 minutes, his team’s record is 9-2, versus 12-17 when his minutes are below 20. When he scores eight points or more, the Wolves are 10-2.

Hoiberg has been the NBA’s most accurate three-point shooter for weeks now, and is currently converting 50.7 percent of his treys. In a league where staunch defense and taking care of the basketball are the two prime ingredients of a championship contender, he is second on the team in steals despite being eighth in minutes played, and has turned the ball over a grand total of ten times all season, or once every 57.4 minutes of play. And he is rebounding the ball at a higher rate per minutes-played than any non-center or non-power forward on the team.

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