Chemistry Majors

The Minnesota Timberwolves were about to blow the game. On Valentine's Day night at the Target Center, the Wolves were leading Orlando by 10 points with little more than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter; two minutes later, the game was tied. Coach Flip Saunders called a time out, swallowed hard, and made two risky, crucial substitutions, inserting Terry Porter and Tom Gugliotta into the lineup. Out of the game came Stephon Marbury, the great rookie point guard whose two turnovers had helped fuel Orlando's rally, and Sam Mitchell, the proud veteran who had gone in just a minute before. In the huddle, Saunders called a play designed for Gugliotta, who converted it on a brilliant left-handed lay-up, and then blocked a shot by Orlando star Penny Hardaway at the other end of the court. Porter picked up the loose ball and hurled it to a streaking Kevin Garnett, who was fouled as he delivered the slam dunk. Over on the sidelines, Mitchell and Marbury were on their feet, pumping their fists and leading the cheers.

No other Timberwolves team in the eight-year history of the franchise would have beaten Orlando that night. The difference this season is in how well members of the team complement and interact with each other--in other words, the team's "chemistry." The word has become meaningless from repeated abuse by lazy analysts, for whom it's a conveniently nebulous way to explain why a team is doing better or worse than expected. But a team's chemistry is vital precisely because it is a tangible, dynamic thing.

"Chemistry is mostly about developing an established pecking order," says Saunders. "Last year, we had different guys fighting to be top dog; some of them felt they were at the head of the pecking order no matter what you did to show them it wasn't that way. Then things don't work and you get into petty jealousies."

Assistant coach Randy Wittman is more specific. "Last year we had Tommy [Gugliotta], Christian [Laettner], and J.R. [Rider], and all three thought, I'm the guy. Or, Coach should make me the guy. And that is a problem. Because when you get down to the end of a tie game and you've gotta have a play that works and the coach says, 'I'm going with Tommy,' and two other guys are saying 'That isn't right!', then you've got almost no chance of making that play successful." Ironically, the player with the most legitimate claim on the top-dog spot (then and now) was Kevin Garnett. But as Wittman points out, "Kevin doesn't need to touch the ball and be the main guy every time down the court to be effective. That's one thing that makes him so valuable."

It didn't help that Googs, Rider, and Laettner were all high draft choices before the league instituted its rookie salary cap, meaning they all had huge, long-term deals to help justify their eminence. Another complication was that Googs and Laettner are both power forwards, and playing Laettner at the center position didn't significantly change that redundancy. Furthermore, while the Wolves had three scorers clamoring for the ball, the team lacked a quality point guard who could distribute it efficiently. When Saunders and Wolves' vice president Kevin McHale were finished wheeling and dealing to assemble this year's ball club, they had dumped Rider in exchange for James Robinson, and essentially traded Laettner and promising rookie shooting guard Ray Allen to get Marbury. In both cases they gave up more talent and experience than they received. But losing Rider, Laettner, and Allen clears out a trio who need to get the ball frequently to be effective, and Marbury is the quality distributor they needed at point guard. The pecking order--and the role each player is expected to play within it--became more firmly established.

Flash back to the Orlando game. With the Wolves enjoying a big lead late in the game, Saunders decides to rest Googs, who has been nursing a groin injury. But Marbury (who is rusty after sitting out nearly a month with a thigh bruise) tries to do too much on his own, the mistakes multiply, and the game is suddenly tied. Two nights earlier, the Lakers had soundly beaten the Wolves, and Saunders knows it would erode the team's confidence to lose two in a row at home. So he gambles that Marbury can accept being yanked out of a do-or-die situation after a couple of glaring mistakes.

McHale and Saunders have always maintained that they prefer Marbury over another talent-laden rookie point guard, Allen Iverson (the first player selected in the draft, two picks ahead of Marbury) because Marbury puts a greater emphasis on teamwork. Sure enough, while Iverson has quickly garnered a reputation as an arrogant, selfish player, Marbury has absorbed a fair amount of constructive criticism from his coaches and teammates, and come back from two significant injuries already this year, without getting defensive or losing confidence in himself. (For the record, in addition to believing that Iverson would make a better pro prospect than Marbury, I was one of the few writers in town who thought getting rid of Rider was a mistake. Wrong on both counts.)  

With a core trio of Garnett, Googs, and Marbury, there's no longer any rancor at the top of the pecking order. But the Wolves' superb chemistry doesn't end there. In the second tier are the team's two remaining starters, Dean Garrett and Doug West, and the two sage veterans, Mitchell and Porter. What Garrett and West bring to the table most of all is a physically dogged style that wears out opponents. Each has a clear-cut role defined by the abiding strength in his game. For Garrett it is rebounding; for West it is defending.

There aren't many teams in the league whose reserves can best Mitchell at both power forward and small forward; ditto with Porter at both shooting guard and point guard. As former members of successful clubs, they help regulate the attitude of the team in the locker room, especially Mitchell. On the other hand, they know the pecking-order principle of team chemistry well enough to circumscribe their style of play in deference to the stars. In the locker room after the Orlando win, Mitchell is asked if he minded being pulled with the game on the line. "Hell, no," he says. "We needed a basket and Tom is our leading scorer. Makes sense to me.

"Chemistry is tremendously important. I don't care if you're the 12th man on the team and almost never play; you're contributing just by not bitching about it. Everybody has two or three friends on this team, and if guys show they are unhappy, other guys get concerned and start worrying about them. Everybody plays a part."

A case in point is the relatively upbeat attitudes and mutually supportive relationship between James Robinson and Chris Carr. At the beginning of the season, both of them legitimately believed they could be the starter at shooting guard. Since then, the two have been in the unenviable position of almost equally splitting the leftover minutes behind Doug West--half of a half a loaf. It's a recipe for dissension and there has been some pouting (mostly by Carr), but both men have taken care not to pollute the atmosphere in the locker room, and, most admirably, consistently treat each other with respect and goodwill.

As the person who sets the pecking order by his play calling, substitution patterns, and the way he runs his practices, Saunders deserves a lot of the credit for the Wolves' positive chemistry. The coach's many years in the minor league CBA--where players are more concerned with getting noticed by big league scouts than conforming to a role on a team from which they hope to graduate--refined his communication skills and sensitivity with stars and scrubs alike. He said he would reward hard work in practice and then proved it by promoting perennial bench-warmer Garrett, who must be regarded as the most pleasant surprise in the league this year.

At the other end of the pecking order, after the Orlando victory, Saunders personally assured Marbury of his importance to the team, and admired the rookie's cheerleading in his post-game press conference. He also explained that Carr (25 minutes) matched up with Orlando's taller guards better than Robinson (zero minutes), and hinted that things would be different two days later against the smaller, quicker guards of Phoenix. (Although Robinson played only 7 minutes, he was the Wolves' first substitution.) The point is that Saunders usually has a good reason for what he does and what he is going to do, and he passes it along to his players. Relative to previous Wolves' coaches, this is a quantum leap forward in terms of knowledge and courtesy.

Put it all together and you've got a remarkably happy and, not coincidentally, overachieving team. The only player on the squad clearly in the doldrums right now is Stoyko Vrankovic, and given that the Wolves will have to pay his sorry ass millions of dollars over the next two years unless he quits and goes back to Europe, you might say that's by design. This harmony has allowed the team not only to play up to its considerable potential on occasion, but to settle into a rhythm of success, where the team is almost subconsciously aware of how much energy is necessary to triumph over inferior opponents. This ability to pace one's self through the marathon NBA schedule is a hallmark of good chemistry on a talented team.  

Call it coasting if you like: If the Wolves can beat the Vancouvers and San Antonios and Dallases of the league by relying a little more heavily on Garrett's muscle or Carr's outside shooting or West's defense and keeping the physical and mental health of the core trio relatively intact, well, the post-season is right around the corner. "When I was in Milwaukee one year, we had a team that played so hard all season that we didn't have enough left for that extra level of intensity you need in the playoffs," says assistant coach Mike Shuler. The tidy wins the Wolves have been racking up in February (most of them not nearly as impressive as those in the glory days of late December) are conserving fuel for late April and May, when the chemistry and character of this already beguiling team heads into previously uncharted territory.

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