A couple of weeks ago, Minnesota Timberwolves personnel director Kevin McHale and Coach and General Manager Flip Saunders sent out a letter to the team's players, reminding them that each would have a specialized program to work on this summer and informing them that anything less than a spot in the playoffs would be an unacceptable conclusion to the 1996-97 season. Since the woeful Wolves have never won more than 29 out of 82 games over the course of their seven-year history (and that was more than five years ago), it's possible that more than a few players chuckled as they discovered what a relatively lofty goal had been set for them. But there are reasons to believe that the letter represents something more than the hollow rhetoric common to unsuccessful teams in the off-season.

           During their first year running the team together, McHale and Saunders proved themselves to be bold, shrewd risk-takers, drafting teenager Kevin Garnett straight out of high school last June, firing then-coach Bill Blair and replacing him with Saunders in December, and trading marquee center Christian Laettner for the lower-profile Andrew Lang in February. That all of these maneuvers were initially easy to criticize, yet evolved into an efficient, coherent agenda for improving the team, is a tribute to the managerial prowess of the McFlip regime. If the Wolves can add a quality point guard and a couple of capable role-players coming off the bench (preferably an outside shooter and a coordinated big man), then, incredibly enough, this team could be in the playoff hunt next year.

           That's the sunny side of the equation. There's at least as good a chance that the Wolves won't be able to obtain or groom a good point guard so quickly, that the team's pervasively corrosive chemistry won't be completely reversed despite a training camp and a full year under Saunders's tutelage, and that the playoffs will remain a pipedream when spring rolls around. Right after the playoff season ends, league rules permit the Wolves to offer Garnett a huge raise and long-term extension of his contract. Another losing season might persuade him to reject the deal and exercise his right to become a free agent in '98. And if that happens, the team's fortunes will fall into a sinkhole faster than you can say Jack McCloskey. The plausibility of this doomsday scenario explains the urgency behind the Wolves' playoff proclamation. Never before has short-term success meant so much to the club's long-term future.

           The official beginning of this pivotal season is the NBA's collegiate draft, which will be held next Wednesday evening. As always, the players most coveted by the Wolves (this year it's point guards Allen Iverson of Georgetown and Stephon Marbury of Georgia Tech) will be gone before Minnesota exercises the league's fifth overall selection. With the need to upgrade at point guard such an abiding priority for this team, there is considerable speculation that the Wolves will settle for third-best and draft Steve Nash from Santa Clara, who is taller (6-3), steadier, and probably more refined than Iverson or Marbury in terms of his fundamentals and getting his teammates involved in the game, but is less explosive athletically and thus may have difficulty thriving at the pro level. Which players teams will draft has always been something of a chess match, and the Wolves aren't about to tip their intentions. But they seem genuinely torn about taking Nash.

           "If you have one of the top five picks, you get a guy who has a chance to be an all-star player. You don't take a guy who doesn't have the same ability just because you have a need; otherwise you are giving up too much," says Saunders. But minutes later, he adds, "We might decide that Nash is a better chemistry blend than someone who maybe has more talent. Or we might feel that Nash is never going to be an all-star in this league and another guy is, and go in that direction."

           This much is clear: Nash is not regarded as the ideal solution. After using a committee of point guards last year, Saunders really wants to hand the position over to one player this season, and it is hard to imagine the Wolves making a playoff run with a solid but unspectacular rookie doing on-the-job training at the point. Although Saunders naturally won't comment, it is no secret that the Wolves would like to trade shooting guard J.R. Rider to Portland for Rod Strickland, who is one of the top four or five point guards in the league but, like Ryder, has a problematic reputation stemming from incidents both on and off the court. In fact, the organization's fit of pique over the latest incident involving Rider may have as much to do with how it hurts his trade value as with how it besmirches the character of the franchise. A less frequently heard rumor has the Wolves trading Rider and starting forward Tom Gugliotta to Toronto in exchange for the chance to take Marbury with the second pick in the draft. While this would set back the Wolves' short-term progress, having two of the this year's top five collegians might be a powerful incentive for Garnett to stick around.

           Other potential ways Minnesota might fill their point guard vacancy include signing free agent Kenny Smith of Houston, or trading with Indiana for Haywoode Workman, who has fallen out of favor with coach Larry Brown. Both Smith and Workman are dependable veterans who have started for top-notch teams and would not command an exorbitant salary. Smith would provide desperately needed long-range shooting. (The Wolves again had the worst accuracy on three-point shots of any team in league last year.) Workman plays better defense and has more poise. His prospects of landing in Minnesota are enhanced by the popularity of Wolves forward Sam Mitchell with his old Indiana teammates (power forward Dale Davis, a potential free agent this year, is another Indiana player rumored to be considering Minnesota) and because Indiana recently traded up to get the 10th pick in the draft, making a switch of draft picks a more equitable factor in any trade talks. Obviously, the situation remains fluid. Asked if Nash is the most likely pick, McHale replies, "I like him, no question. But we're not totally ready to say what we are going to do; we have a week or two and we're going to explore everything."

           If the Wolves solve their point guard quandary without using the number-five pick, my hunch is that they'll use it on Kentucky forward Antoine Walker. Both McHale and Saunders prefer multidimensional players with the potential to create mismatches for opponents at more than one position; Walker is a great athlete, a quick defender with the shooting range of a small forward, and a tenacious rebounder who, at age 19, may still grow another inch or two to 6-10 and become a legitimate NBA power forward. Another scenario has the Wolves taking one of the prospects generally conceded to be among the top four--Iverson, Marbury, forward Marcus Canby, and shooting guard Ray Allen--should one of them somehow slip a notch to fifth. Finally, keep an eye on forwards John Wallace of Syracuse and Samaki Walker of Louisville, as Saunders says the team's second biggest priority after point guard is depth in the front line.

           As flexible as the Wolves are trying to be in their personnel maneuvers before the draft, Saunders says that very few players--maybe no more than 14, he estimates--will be invited to training camp. Instead of sifting through a lot of extraneous talent, as Minnesota did during camp last year, the focus is clearly on learning Saunders's system, which he says will feature more Bulls-like ball movement and motion offense to take advantage of Garnett and Gugliotta. On defense, he'll take advantage of the athleticism of his second-string players to deploy more half-court and three-quarter court traps. Saunders got more defensive intensity out of Rider last year than any previous coach, but says he expects more consistency in that area from his leading scorer this season. On offense, the coach wants to funnel Rider into more quick shots off of screens and in the low post, allowing fewer opportunities for Rider's turnover-prone dribbling and indecision. Saunders sounded most enthusiastic about the work ethic of second-string guards Doug West and Terry Porter, who have been working out together during the off-season. He believes Porter was rusty from the previous year's injuries and from missing training camp last season, and anticipates quality minutes for him at both shooting guard and point guard.

           First and last, there is Garnett. Neither Saunders nor McHale disguise their belief that they have a budding superstar on their hands, and how absolutely vital it is that he blossom here in Minnesota. Regardless of who eventually plays the point for the Wolves, you can count on the lion's share of the plays being run through Garnett, who has consolidated his status as team leader at the ripe old age of 20. That's younger than Steve Nash. Will he or any other Wolves pick resent Garnett bypassing college and going directly to the pros? McHale's response is halfway between a snort and a chuckle. "Listen, I played for 13 years in this league. And the way it works, you follow your best player."

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