A Silly, Stupid Controversy

During last week's All-Star break, Timberwolves fans kept asking me some variation on the same question: "Do you think Wally Szczerbiak's getting frozen out of the offense?" So I'm devoting this column to explaining why I don't have much patience for the subject.

It seemed most apparent that Wally wasn't in the offensive flow two weeks ago, in the first half of the Wolves' meltdown against Cleveland. Ever since mid-December, when Minnesota blew a huge lead in the fourth quarter against Dallas, Kevin Garnett seems to have made it a personal mission to take the ball to the hoop whenever the team is on a long scoring drought (a tactic that Wolves fans have long been clamoring for). In Cleveland, KG became less pass-oriented than usual and his teammates obliged. The problem: Garnett wasn't converting lay-ups in traffic or short jumpers in the paint. The entire club regressed into chaotic disaster.

A few days later, in a home loss to the Sacramento Kings, Szczerbiak stood open and called for the ball. Point guard Chauncey Billups passed to Garnett instead. The oversight was discussed in the team huddle during an ensuing timeout and, after the game, Szczerbiak answered with a terse "no comment" when asked if the team was running enough plays designed to get him the ball. Still, Szczerbiak attempted just five shots in the second-half of the game and the notion that he was being "frozen out" of the Wolves' offense hit the newspapers the next morning.

To my mind, the controversy is both silly and stupid. It's silly because the evidence that Wally is being frozen out is shaky, to say the least. A night after the Cleveland fiasco, in a loss to Philadelphia, Szczerbiak jacked up 22 shots, eight more than anyone on the team. In the Kings game, both teams relied on their superstars for offense: Sacramento's Chris Webber had 25 shots, KG had 23, and no one else on the floor had more than 15. Sacramento's Peja Stojakovic, a deadly scorer who deserves the ball at least as much as Szczerbiak, had 14 shots, one more than Wally, who was being well-guarded by defensive specialist Doug Christie for most of the contest. For the season, Szczerbiak is second on the team only to KG in shots attempted and, much more so than in his two previous years, is the obvious second option (again behind Garnett) in the Wolves' offense. Indeed, the primary reason why Szczerbiak made the All-Star team this season was because the point guards and KG (who is averaging nearly six assists per game) are feeding him the ball.

The issue is stupid because it needlessly rejuvenates questions about how well Wally and KG get along. Ever since the two got in a fracas at the beginning of last season, they have faced a steady litany of queries from reporters on the subject. The truth is, they will probably never be best of buddies. Last year, after Szczerbiak got in an on-court scrap with Dallas's Juwan Howard, KG remarked in a post-game interview that he had spoken to Howard before going into the locker room, then added that "Wally can be a feisty, abrasive guy sometimes." The unmistakable inference was that, of the two combatants, KG had more sympathy for his opponent (and friend) than he did for his teammate.

This year, as Garnett has gracefully accommodated and enabled Szczerbiak's expanded role on the team, the irresistible, and somewhat inaccurate feel-good story has been how close the two have become. Having doubtlessly grown tired of the innumerable past references to friction between them, Wally and KG have dutifully pumped up this angle. Now the issue is on the table again. The one or two times Szczerbiak hasn't gotten the ball enough, KG has exerted a more dominant role; in the case of the Sacramento game, with the assistance of Billups, KG's best friend on the team.

The final reason the Szczerbiak controversy is silly and stupid is that it obscures the real reason for the Wolves' lackluster play of late. Lousy defense. In this regard, Szczerbiak has been as culpable as anyone on the team. In a 21-point loss to Detroit that crystallized the Wolves' recent slump, Jerry Stackhouse went off for 40 points, most of them against Szczerbiak. A week later, in the Cleveland debacle, Wesley Person erupted for 27 points--again, mostly against Szczerbiak.

The Wolves are enjoying their best season in franchise history largely because of the way their defense jump-started their offense during the first 40 games. By forcing their opponents to miss shots and turn the ball over, they ignited a fast break attack and scored plenty of easy buckets in transition. Conversely, during Minnesota's recent slump, opponents were making shots and those fast break opportunities were foreclosed.

Ironically, nobody benefits from the team's transition offense more than Szczerbiak, who runs the floor and finishes drives better than anyone on the ball club. Furthermore, when Wally is thriving in the running game, it seems to improve his shooting rhythm and enhance both his confidence and that of his teammates, who look for him more often in half-court sets. The point is, porous defense deprives Szczerbiak of scoring opportunities more often than any slights or oversights by KG or the point guards.

After a ragged performance against San Antonio last Monday tagged the Wolves with their sixth loss in eight games, coach Flip Saunders pushed his squad through a tough, defense-oriented practice the next day. The gambit paid immediate dividends, as Minnesota put the clamps on a good Portland team for a vintage victory on Wednesday. In the locker room after the game, the joyous and obviously relieved players cited the team's renewed commitment to defense as the key, admitting that they had lapsed into bad habits and taken that aspect of the game for granted. No gimmicks or special strategy was utilized, they agreed; all that was required was an increase in their focus and intensity. It was an unintentionally damning indictment of their play during the previous two weeks.

"We got back to fundamentals," Szczerbiak said. "Playing good individual defense and having the confidence in our teammates to back us up." When the defense isn't playing well, does that confidence begin to go away? I asked. "You totally misunderstood what I just said," Szczerbiak answered, obviously annoyed and jumping to the conclusion that I was choosing to emphasize potential friction between him and his teammates instead of seeking a deeper understanding of why the defense had deteriorated in recent weeks. His pique vanished when another reporter asked what it would be like to be in his first All-Star game alongside KG.

"Oh, he's going to be like my big brother, like he always has been," Szczerbiak gushed. "I'm very thankful that he'll be in that locker room. As I've said before, I feel really good about how happy he's been for me making the [All-Star] team."

The feel-good spin and the silly controversy are opposite sides of the same coin. Let's hope that a continued commitment to solid team defense renders both issues moot in the weeks ahead.


Britt Robson posts his Timberwolves column online at www.citypages.com every Monday during the NBA season--and maybe more frequently, if the mood strikes him.

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