Clear The Air

Has an NBA team with at least 49 regular season wins (with two games to go) ever been less likely to win a first-round playoff series than this year's Timberwolves? Couple the misfortune of playing in the brutally competitive Western Conference with Minnesota's ugly, sub-.500 second-half swoon, and you've got the makings of a quick, sixth-straight exit from the post-season, with major changes in the roster likely to follow.

The cold fact is that the Wolves have been a mediocre ball club for ten weeks now. They were average-at-best after Terrell Brandon went down for the season with a knee injury in early February; and they were no better than that during their final road trip, struggling to beat the woeful Warriors and immature Clippers, then getting summarily dispatched by the Kings and Lakers.

I was going to use this column to preview the match-ups and strategic keys to the team's upcoming playoff series, which will begin sometime this weekend. But the conference race to determine the second, third, and fourth seeds is so tight that the fifth-seeded Wolves still could play any one of three clubs--the Mavericks, Lakers, or Spurs. So I'll post a playoff preview after the opponent has been identified, and use today's space to address a subject that just won't go away--Wally Szczerbiak's supposed ball-hogging tendencies.

While Brandon's injury has been the most obvious factor in the Wolves' collapse, the pollution of the team's vaunted, nice-guy chemistry has proven to be more harmful than anyone in that passive-aggressive locker room will admit right now. When ESPN The Magazine printed an article that quoted a number of Minnesota players by name on the subject of Szczerbiak's need to get the ball, it was at best a distraction and possibly a revealing look at some ill-will and negativity that permeates the ball club. Whether true or not, the perception around the league is that Szczerbiak is not well-regarded by his teammates. That's why sportscaster Danny Ainge jumped to the conclusion that Kevin Garnett was referring to Szczerbiak when KG uttered the word "selfish" coming out of a team huddle during their recent west coast trip.

Garnett says he was referring to the entire team as playing selfishly. Fair enough. But the team's comments in the ESPN article, and their lack of forcefulness in trying to reverse its assumptions, have further undermined the instinctive offensive cohesion that had been their most notable virtue these past few years--a cohesion already suffering from the loss of Brandon.

Ask anybody on the team about this and you'll get clichès about sticking together and denials about any rifts or tension. But the Wolves' rhythm at both ends of the court unraveled shortly after the ESPN article was printed, and it is clearly on the minds of the fans, the media, and--most likely--players and coaches. The air hasn't been cleared.

I am no great fan of Szczerbiak's, mostly because he is too often a liability on defense, but also because, when I ask him a question, he can be arrogant and dismissive if I don't automatically accept the answer. But he's not the first athlete to have an ego, and he's far from the worst offender in that regard. What really matters, of course, is what he does on the court. And in that respect, it is well past time for the media, if not Szczerbiak's teammates and coaches, to proclaim that this "ball-hog" label is a bad rap.

For each of the three seasons that he's been in the league, including this one, Szczerbiak has sunk more than half of his shot attempts. Once again, he's ranked among the NBA's ten most-accurate shooters. This year, while his number of shots taken has risen dramatically, he still is only 27th in the league in overall shot attempts. By contrast, Garnett is 11th in the NBA in shots attempted, and 33rd in shooting accuracy.

The disparity between Szczerbiak's accuracy and his proclivity to shoot is even greater beyond the three-point line. He currently ranks fifth in the NBA in three-point shooting accuracy, nailing a remarkable 45.7 percent of his long-range bombs. Yet he isn't even among the league's top 50 players in the number of threes attempted. In all, Szczerbiak has hoisted a total of 184 threes so far this year. The average number for the rest of the NBA's ten most-accurate long-range gunners is 261. On the Wolves, Anthony Peeler has attempted 269 threes; Chauncey Billups, 312.

Coach Flip Saunders often complains that his team falls in love with the three-point shot too often, yet during crunch time in most games he insists on playing the streaky Peeler--who jacks up more threes-per-minute than anyone on the team. Saunders also chafes at quick shots that short-circuit the team's trademark, crisp passing offense. Well, I hate to break the news to him, but with Billups at point guard and opponents playing pressure defense, that crisp offense doesn't exist anymore. Against the Lakers last week, the Wolves didn't generate a single assist for the first eight minutes and finished with a paltry eight for the game--you can't blame that on Wally. For the season, Szczerbiak is averaging 18.4 field goal attempts per 48 minutes played (the 48-minute yardstick is used because that is the length of an entire game). Billups, whose primary job as point guard is to set up shots and coordinate the offensive flow for his teammates, is averaging 16.9 field goal attempts per 48 minutes. Szczerbiak's career shooting percentage is 51 percent; for Billups, it is 40.1 percent. Now who is it again who is short-circuiting the offense and hogging the ball?

Whichever one of the three opponents the Wolves draw for the playoffs, they will come into the series as decided underdogs, needing a combination of inspired effort and a successful strategic wrinkle in order to triumph. They boast a superstar whose strengths are incredibly quick and versatile defense, tenacious rebounding, and great court vision and passing skills; his weakness has been an inability to elevate his offensive prowess at crunch time in close games. They also have a player who not only knocks down more than half his shots, but possesses better accuracy shooting long-range three-pointers than the rest of the league has shooting from anywhere.

Rather than continuing to mess with Szczerbiak's confidence, if I were Saunders and personnel VP Kevin McHale, I'd tell Wally that he should shoot whenever he feels like it (and I'd make sure his teammates heard me). I'd also run plays that give him the three-point opportunities Peeler seizes. He won't be as open as Peeler usually is-opponents don't mind letting AP shoot until they see if this is one of those relatively rare occasions when he's hot. But Szczerbiak's quick release and deadly aim makes him as likely to convert a contested J as Peeler is to sink an open one. And if he misses, a lineup of Rasho Nesterovic, Joe Smith, KG, and Billups--all relatively tall for the positions they play--has a pretty good chance to grab offensive rebounds that bounce long off the hoop.

Featuring Wally on offense would make the Michael Finleys and Kobe Bryants work harder guarding him, limiting their energy at the other end. It would also make Szczerbiak's own lackluster defense easier to swallow; if he's going to cost you points at one end, he should be generating points at the other. And, as happened in the Wolves' last win against Dallas, it would eliminate the double-coverage of KG in the low post, enhancing his offensive confidence down the stretch. Just because he'd be given the green light to shoot, don't assume that Wally would ignore KG and his teammates when they were open--he's not that selfish.

The strategy would be risky, in that it would mess with the pecking order and be a marked change from the offensive philosophy the club has deployed all year. But it would also play to the strengths of the team's two best players and serve as the sort of aggressive gambit the Wolves are going to need in order to steal a game or two. Have Wally shoot early and often and hope he gets hot. It beats the hell out of the status quo.


Britt Robson posts his Timberwolves column online at every Monday during the NBA season--and maybe more frequently, if the mood strikes him.

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