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An Emergency Prescription

As the Wolves flirt with a .500 record and a tumble into the field of NBA lottery teams, everybody's got an opinion about whats wrong and how to fix it. Heres 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 wouldnt 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 hell 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.

 

Two weeks ago, after Carter shone in a blowout victory against Washington following another miserable performance by Hudson, Saunders benched T-Hud in favor of AC against the Knicks. Carter played admirably, as he has all season, registering a plus-five in point differential during the time he was on the court during an eventual 13-point loss. Meanwhile, Hudson's agent was castigating the Wolves for expecting too much from his injured client, as asked that T-Hud be traded. Saunders's inexplicable response was to reinsert Hudson as the primary backup behind Cassell for the next four games, and to start him Saturday night (in a rematch with Washington, no less) when Cassell was waylaid by a pulled hamstring. The misjudgment in that maneuver was evident to anyone who watched the game.

AC, Wally, and Hoiberg comprise a complementary troika. As Wally said after the first Washington game, "You better get your track shoes on when AC is in the game, and I love running the floor." In addition to providing an extra gear in transition, Carter also probes for possible penetration in the half-court sets, forcing defenses to react. His primary weakness is inaccuracy on his jump shot, but surrounding him with Szczerbiak and Hoiberg, the team's most reliable marksmen, relieves that pressure. Carter doesn't have Cassell's court vision or ball-handling ability, but here again, Hoiberg can lend a hand. People forget that Freddie bailed the Wolves out at point guard during the playoffs last year, and the fact that he's committed just ten turnovers the entire season thus far is a testimonial to his sage decisions. Besides, this second unit is perfect for deploying Kevin Garnett at the high post in the half court sets, where he has options to hit Wally cutting to the hoop, dish it out to Freddie at the three-point arc (where he is the league's most accurate shooter), or spinning toward the hoop for a drive or turnaround jumper.

On defense, Carter's energetic tenacity makes him far superior to Cassell at applying perimeter pressure, enabling the Wolves to sit Hassell. And Wally, Hoiberg, and KG has worked well with each other at both ends of the court this entire season.

The hard part in any proposed player rotation is figuring out a way to rest KG. One of the goals before the season was to provide him with more breathers, but given the Wolves' woes, Saunders has been loathe to sit him. I'd bring Griffin in at center at some point during the second quarter, and soon afterward shift him to power forward for a good four or five minutes. If the team starts to struggle, juggle the lineup to address the need, bringing back Hassell, EJ (or Madsen, when he recovers from his fractured thumb), or Spree if the problem is on defense, and Cassell if the need is an upgrade on offense. The point is, KG can't keep playing 40 minutes a night as the team's leading scorer, rebounder, and assist-maker and still be fresh for the playoff grind. Somehow, Saunders has to find another 3-to-5 minutes of bench time for his superstar. I have no solution for that dilemma.

In the second half, the third quarter optimally should feature the same substitution patterns as the first quarter, but there will inevitably be adjustments owing to matchups, foul problems, and the size of the lead or deficit. Whenever possible, Saunders needs to opt for defense over offense as the priority, and reward players accordingly. The possible exception is Cassell, who, unless he is getting thoroughly roasted on defense, belongs on the floor during the game's key minutes. Garnett's improved footwork and aggressiveness toward the hoop have added another dimension to the team's crunch time options, but having Cassell (and Eddie Griffin, if he can ever regain his shooting touch outside) in the lineup prevents opponents from mauling him with double and triple teams at precisely the time when he is most weary. When the Wolves are firing on all cylindersmeaning most of last year and during their impressive four-game road trip six weeks agoa vital component of their success has been Sammy's crunch-time shooting in the fourth quarter.

Never before in the "MV3 era" have the Wolves been as dysfunctional and beleaguered as they are this month. The time for patience is long gone. The recent controversy over whether or not Saunders will be fired has been comically misinformed, started by the trio of bobos on ESPN (Sam Smith, Greg Anthony, and Tim Legler) who feel compelled to pontificate with more noise than knowledge in order to keep viewers tuned in. They obviously have no inside sources on the ballclub, or they'd know that owner Glen Taylor is not near the breaking point with either Saunders or Kevin McHale. Taylor is running out of patience with Sprewell, and, to a lesser extent, Cassell, however, as demonstrated by his statement that he won't even try to negotiate new deals with either player until after the season.

 

If Flip's head isn't on the chopping block, however, he does bear some responsibility for allowing some playersHudson, Spree, and Cassell, in that orderto pop off without repercussions, even as they underperform on the court. Always a player's coach, Saunders has also always enjoyed an ideal situationa supportive owner, a longtime friend and former teammate as his personnel guy, and the league's most industrious, talented, and unselfish superstar to set the tone in the locker room and out on the court. Now he is fast approaching the point where he must become more of a taskmaster and disciplinarian to motivate his team, going from mere words about selfish play and lack of defensive intensity to reducing minutes and restructuring his system to de-emphasize those who aren't giving him what he needs and expects.

On this veteran team of supposedly gritty characters, everyone assumed that kind of thing wouldn't be necessary. But at 17-15 nearly halfway through the season, a lot of expectations are being diminished by this ballclub.


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