Center of Attention

The Wolves' playoff performance may hinge on Olowokandi's interior defense
David Kern

Over the next 22 games that comprise the final seven weeks of the 2003-2004 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves will discover whether their center, Michael Olowokandi, can be the final ingredient in the creation of a legitimate championship contender, or is in fact nothing more than a tantalizing tease, dooming himself and his ballclub with frustrating bouts of inconsistency. With the playoffs on the horizon, that is the central drama, the abiding X factor, that has the power to gild or besmirch this eminently enjoyable season.

Thus far this year, Olowokandi has been alternately marvelous and moribund, commanding and clueless, but mostly injured, having lost 40 games to two knee surgeries. His failure to fully blossom has been especially maddening because after five years with the dysfunctional Clippers franchise, his arrival in Minnesota presented an ideal situation to exploit his virtues and mitigate his vices. Taken with the number one overall pick in the 1998 NBA draft, Olowokandi was projected to be a future star. It's now apparent that he'll never be a reliable scorer, shrewd passer, or adept ball-handler. Despite spending nearly all of his time down near the basket, he has never converted more than 44 percent of his field goals or two-thirds of his free throws in a season, and has three times as many turnovers as assists in his career.

But on a team whose offense boasts a bevy of deadeye shooters (Cassell, Hudson, Szczerbiak, Hoiberg), a capable slasher (Sprewell), and the quickest, most versatile seven-footer in the league as its go-to guy (Garnett), Kandi can afford to confine most of his scoring options to put-backs off his own offensive rebounds, or occasions when double-teams on KG leave him unguarded or in excellent position to catch, spin, and shoot in the low post. Points aren't the point for Kandi on the Wolves. What the team needs him to be is a long, staunch, aggressive defender who can put a body on opposing behemoths in the paint, intimidate layup attempts by penetrating guards, grab some rebounds, and in general provide a bruising, physical dimension to the team so that Garnett is spared the rigors of that role. Kandi's set of skills and style of play seem tailor-made for the job. But after the five games in which he has finally been healthy and part of the regular rotation, it's still an open question whether he has the will or the wiles to dependably deliver the goods.

A week ago Sunday against San Antonio, he put the clamps on Tim Duncan, jostling the Spurs' star out of rhythm, blocking two of his shots and limiting him to four buckets in 16 attempts in the time the two were on the floor together. Three nights later against New Jersey, Kandi sparked a fourth-quarter comeback by dominating the paint against layups or any other semblance of an interior offense the Nets tried to mount. In that 12-minute period alone, he grabbed eight rebounds, jutting his elbows out at eye level as he came down in traffic, and blocked two shots. For all of the Wolves' success this season, this was a dimension to their game the team had sorely been missing.

But then the Kandi turned sour. Two nights later against Golden State, the Warriors' physical center Erick Dampier went off for three dunks and a tip-in during the game's first six minutes against Olowokandi. By halftime, Dampier had 18 points and 11 rebounds and the Wolves were down three. In the locker room after the game, Olowokandi defended himself more strenuously than he had Dampier, claiming that "all of his points in the first half came off of our guards getting beat." When he came over to stop that otherwise unfettered penetration, Kandi continued, it left Dampier unguarded for passes and put-backs. "That left me essentially playing two guys. There's nothing I can do about that. If I'm going to come out and help, then I need help from somebody else to guard my man."

Most of what Kandi described did in fact occur: He had routinely challenged the guards, who then dished to Dampier for the slams. And in the second half, as the Wolves began sliding Garnett over to seal off the pass to Dampier when Kandi stepped out, Dampier added only six more points, a key factor in Minnesota's come-from-behind victory. As a reporter, I appreciated Olowokandi's unvarnished honesty. But it was hard not to notice that, even though his remarks were meant to clarify and were delivered without a trace of rancor, no Wolves player had so openly called out his teammates for blame this season. Nor did it help Kandi's argument that just five minutes earlier, coach Flip Saunders had cited the team's absence of aggressiveness as the cause of its leaky defense in the first half, and, among other examples, specifically mentioned Olowokandi's lack of diligence guarding against the pick-and-roll.

Which brings us to Sunday's embarrassing Wolves loss to the injury-depleted, sub-mediocre Philadelphia 76ers. After allowing two opponents to breeze in for layups with four minutes left in the half, Olowokandi was replaced by the journeyman lug Oliver Miller. (Why Saunders has chosen to freeze Ervin Johnson out of the rotation since Kandi's return is a mystery best explored at another time.) Three minutes into the second half, Kandi missed two put-backs on his offensive rebounds and was sent to the bench, scoreless on five shots, for the rest of the game. Certainly he was not alone in his desultory play--save for Garnett, the entire Wolves roster was abominable--but after the two positive steps forward against San Antonio and New Jersey, it was a second straight step backward.

It seems increasingly likely that the Wolves will secure home-court advantage and register their first playoff series victory late next month. But after that, the caliber of opponent becomes much tougher. It is entirely plausible that Minnesota will have to overcome Duncan and the Spurs and/or Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers if they are to earn the right to play for an NBA championship. A healthy, productive Olowokandi would provide a huge, and perhaps decisive, boost in those series. Will he be ready? The Wolves need to answer that question over the next seven weeks.

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