A Strategy for the Stretch Drive

It's time for Coach Flip Saunders to prune his player rotation
David Kern

Okay, recess is over. For nearly four weeks now, the Timberwolves have experienced the full complement of healthy players that was so long awaited earlier this season. All of those returning from injury have had enough playing time to knock off the rust and get acquainted with their teammates. During this period, the team has lapsed into a stagnant waltz--win one or two, lose one or two--that needs to be banished over the final 15 games of the regular season. Otherwise the pressure to overcome the franchise's first-round playoff rut could further stifle the synergy that was once so apparent.

It doesn't matter where the Wolves are seeded, so long as they have home-court advantage in the first round. The odds of catching Sacramento are scant, and whether the Wolves finish second, third, or fourth in the West, their odds of drawing any one of three comparably dangerous opponents--Dallas, Memphis, or Houston--remain about the same. What does matter is regaining confidence, rhythm, and momentum heading into the series. In that sense, the next month should have a major impact on the reputation of coach Flip Saunders. The decisions he makes to try to reinvigorate his team will determine whether he can prune and burnish a deep and talented roster as capably as he motivates gritty underdogs.

By now, every Wolves fan has opinions, if not a detailed strategy, about how to shake the club out of its doldrums. Here are mine.

To some extent player rotations are dictated by early foul calls and opposing matchups. With that caveat, I'd reduce playing time for Trent, Miller, and Szczerbiak, give more minutes to Johnson, Hoiberg, and Madsen, and use Olowokandi and Hudson in specific situations, with a quick hook for poor performance. The thinking here is that serious playoff contenders place a priority on defense and strive for a blend of star actors and stabilizing role players. KG, Cassell, and Spree are obviously the stars, and need to play 35 to 42 minutes a game (with a lower minimum for Cassell if Hudson has the hot shooting hand). Of the role players, Trenton Hassell is the easiest call--he's a shut-down defender who deserves to maintain the 28 to 35 minutes he is getting.

Trent needs more minutes than the team can afford to play him to get in rhythm. In the current scheme he's turnover-prone and undersized on defense. Madsen is a better option when KG needs a rest at power forward, and also merits time in the pivot against smaller or overly casual opposing centers. Miller's round body and comeback saga make him a fan favorite, but he's neither quick nor shrewd enough to play quality defense. Szczerbiak is the toughest guy to bump to the bench, because he's busting his tail to become an adequate defender. But Wally, a born star actor, is if anything trying too hard to be a role player--he's passed up more good shots in the last month than in the previous three years--and is clearly at war with his natural instincts and set of skills on the court.

Kandi has the size and athleticism to match up with the biggest, baddest centers in the league, but his decision-making on dribble penetration and the pick-and-roll is killing this club on defense. Hudson should be inserted early in the game because he's often hot right out of the chute. But if he's clanking or not dishing assists off penetration, sit him after six minutes until near the end of the third quarter.

Johnson's absence is the single biggest reason for the team's desultory play. He's nearly as slow as Miller but twice as smart on defense, and sets a devastating pick on offense--he and Cassell are synergy incarnate at both ends of the court. A base lineup of the three stars, Johnson, and Hassell comprises one of the three best defenses in the league against most opponents, and Hoiberg and Madsen have proven to be fourth-quarter gems in the same vein.

Put simply, the Wolves should rely on their bread and butter and abandon what doesn't work. On offense, that means more of the high-post pick-and-roll between KG and Cassell, or double picks with KG and EJ freeing up Sammy. When opponents counter with aggressive perimeter traps, swing the ball to Spree for penetration to the hoop, to Hoiberg for the open three-pointer, or to Hassell, who is quietly proving he can knock down the mid-range J. Don't feed the centers in the low-post unless they're wide open. And tell Spree to stop jacking up threes--he's tried a whopping 232 and made 71.

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