What Happened?

Everybody thought the Wolves would contend for an NBA crown this year, and some picked them to win it. Not anymore: how egos and contracts turned one of the league's highest-paid teams into middle-of-the-pack underachievers.

A little more than three weeks ago, with Cassell out with a hamstring injury and the team plummeting below playoff eligibility, Saunders finally juggled the starting lineup to reestablish the defensive identity that fueled last season's success. Four players who put a priority on taut man-to-man coverage and deft defensive rotations (Hassell, point guard Anthony Carter, and first John Thomas and then Ervin Johnson at center) found themselves in the game at the opening tap. Szczerbiak grooved the transition by graciously offering to come off the bench despite the noticeable improvement in his defense, shot selection, and turnovers. And the Wolves won seven of their next nine games.

 

During his first full season as the Wolves' coach, Saunders gave me the most sensible definition of team chemistry that I've ever heard. Good chemistry, he said, occurs when a just and consensual pecking order is established. Last season, through a serendipitous combination of injuries and what were supposed to be merely bit-part acquisitions, a pecking order fell together that was both synergistic and indisputable. Questions about the gelling of a ballclub with an abundance of offensive-oriented talent and volatile egos were resolved when injuries felled a troika of players--Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson, and Michael Olowokandi--who all preferred to play with the ball in their hands. In their stead, defensive-oriented role players such as Ervin Johnson and Trenton Hassell ascended to the starting lineup, and journeyman veteran Fred Hoiberg, once considered to be just an outside shooting specialist, displayed surprising versatility coming off the bench. As the planet's best basketball player, KG was obviously going to be top dog. But the absence of Wally, T-Hud, and Kandi enabled proud stars like Sammy and Spree to remain focal points in the offense while willingly falling in behind Garnett as Alpha-2 and Alpha-2a. The complementary starters Hassell and EJ came next, followed by the great enablers, Hoiberg and Madsen. In view of the team's unprecedented success, the injured trio were compelled to keep a low profile so as not to disrupt the prevailing good vibes. Only Gary Trent was outwardly frustrated with his status, and he was shown the door at the end of the season.

It was always flawed reasoning to assume that the Wolves would automatically be better this season with a full complement of healthy players. Even before Cassell, Spree, and Wally executed their preseason snits, the potential for chemistry problems existed. Sure enough, this year's pecking order is not nearly so clear-cut. Saunders has always been a "player's coach" by nature, which, among other things, means keeping locker-room controversies to a minimum and respecting the collective will of his team. Although I just criticized him for it, I understand why he chooses to grease the squeaky wheels as much as possible, be it Spree, Wally, or Cassell. And in one respect, it has been a successful strategy: Despite the inherent strife that comes with the team's profound underachievement, the Wolves' locker-room relations remain remarkably devoid of infighting, at least from the media's outside perspective. The team's pecking order continues to be consensual. Whether it is still just, however, is less certain.

No one is bumping the MVP from top dog status. And although Saunders occasionally docked Cassell some crunch-time minutes to deter his willful disobedience a few times earlier in the season, his clutch shooting, veteran savvy, and superb stewardship of the offense more than compensate for his defensive liabilities; he still holds the Alpha-2 position in the pecking order. But when the question turns to Sprewell's place in the order of things, the matter suddenly become a lot more complicated.

Cutting Sprewell's minutes or otherwise diminishing his role is risky business. Cassell, not to mention Spree himself, would no doubt take it as a personal affront. Nor is KG likely to endorse it. As the MV3, Sammy, Spree, and Garnett shared national magazine covers, late-night talk show couches, and playoff series victories together within the past year. Sprewell has earned his reputation as a big-game performer who rises to the challenge of playing in hostile arenas when the chips are down. As recently as last Wednesday night, his 22-point eruption in the third quarter against Atlanta showed that he is capable of carrying a team nearly single-handedly.

But there are some cold-blooded realities that are not in Sprewell's favor. After 12-plus years and more than 34,000 minutes played in this league, he has lost a step of quickness and a level of consistency in his performance. Once renowned for his slashing drives to the basket, he now averages barely two free throws per game. The seasons when he could be called upon night after night to lock up an opponent's most prolific scorer have yielded to nights like the January 21 game versus Seattle, when sharpshooter Ray Allen hit just two of 17 shots while being guarded by Hassell but erupted for 13 points, on five-of-five shooting, during the four and a half minutes of the second quarter when Spree was the primary defender. Last year, the Wolves posted a 13-2 record when Sprewell led the team in scoring. But last Wednesday's outburst against Atlanta marked the first time this season that Spree's offensive dominance propelled the club to victory.

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