Da Kidz Are All Right

Less than 18 months ago, Bill Blair was a doomed disciplinarian coaching a Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team that was mostly indifferent to his frazzled exhortations. "A coach can only do so much," he said back then, flashing what had become his customary wince. "The tone of your team is set by the players, especially your top two or three guys. If at least two of those top three aren't on the same page as you, you've got trouble."

As recently as February 1995, just before Kevin McHale unofficially supplanted Jack McCloskey as the Wolves' personnel director and the team traded for Tom Gugliotta, Minnesota's two best players were Christian Laettner and J.R. Rider, and the tone they set extended the Wolves' reputation as the gulag of the National Basketball Association. But now, moving into the dog days of summer 1996, Blair is gone, Laettner is gone, and the Wolves are crossing their fingers that Rider is on his way out. The cornerstones of this franchise are 20-year-old Kevin Garnett and 19-year-old Stephon Marbury, and the only trouble coach Flip Saunders has is keeping the grin off his face.

The acquisition of Marbury via a draft-day trade with Milwaukee (the Wolves and the Bucks essentially swapped their first-round picks, with Minnesota sweetening the deal by adding center Andrew Lang) neatly addressed the Wolves' top two priorities: getting a quality point guard and ensuring that Garnett--who shares a friendship and an on-the-court prescience with Marbury--stays in Minnesota after his contract expires in 1999. With the league's two most talented toddlers on the team, the onetime prison camp has suddenly become a fairly attractive place to play. Now what remains is for Saunders and McHale to snare crucial free agents to round out this year's roster.

Marbury's inaugural press conference at Target Center last week hinted at what makes him special. Most of these affairs have the canned collegiality of a question-answer session at the Miss America pageant. But as members of his family beamed from stage left, Marbury spoke with genuine conviction about being able to buy his mother a house after growing up poor; then, in a deft segue, referred to the ever-fractious Wolves as being like a big happy family, with "Mr. McHale" in the role of dad.

Such wide-eyed innocence is counterbalanced by Marbury's self-certainty on the basketball court. Asked why so few point guards adjust easily to the pros, he replied without hesitation, "Point guards are delivered from God." And he's right: Point guard is the one position in basketball where poise--you could even call it a kind of calming arrogance--is as important as strong hamstrings and quick reflexes. Marbury knows the elite point guards have learned to funnel the power of their individual egos into creative teamwork. It's promising that he admires Garnett as an equal--no better, no worse. Told that Garnett had nicknamed himself Da Kid, he was asked what his new moniker might be. "We'll be Da Kidz," he answered.

Credit McHale and Saunders for knowing (as did Blair) how important it is to anchor your team with potential superstars, impact players who give a ballclub shape and personality. Unfortunately, to land Marbury they had to part with Lang, whose stolid defensive presence and strength under the basket were an excellent complement to roaming forwards like Garnett and Gugliotta on the front line. Among the free agent centers the Wolves might be wooing, Brian Williams from the Clippers is the best fit, but Williams is more foul-prone, needs the ball more often, and is less consistent at both ends of the court than Lang. Washington's Jim McIlvaine is an emerging talent, but has enough clubs interested in him to command $2 or $3 million a year, which is too much. Miami's Chris Gatling is a tireless rebounder and gritty defender, but he just doesn't have the bulk the Wolves need in the middle. Michael Cage is too old, Ervin Johnson too soft. McHale and Saunders showed some ingenuity in obtaining Cherokee Parks from Dallas as an adjunct to the Sean Rooks trade, but Parks is a quality backup who can hit the short jumper and hustle up a few boards, not the banger Minnesota needs in the starting lineup. Without a menacing wide-body, look for opponents to physically punish Garnett both offensively and defensively this year.

Then there is the J.R. Rider situation. Before his latest scrape with the Oakland PD, Rider was on the verge of being traded to Portland for backup shooting guard James Robinson, forward Billy Curley, and Portland's top draft pick in one of the next two years. Portland will almost certainly use Rider's recent arrest--the police apparently found marijuana and illegally doctored cell phones in his car--to toughen the terms of the deal, probably by dropping the draft pick to a second-round choice.

I'm one of the few people in town who think the Wolves should keep Rider. His "cancerous" influence on team morale has been grossly overstated; contrary to hysterical predictions that he would corrupt the teenage Garnett with his evil ways, Rider actually was a positive mentor for the rookie at the beginning of last year. His frequent tardiness for practice grates on his teammates, as does his inclination to hold the ball on offense. But Rider is still the most reliable long-range marksman on the league's worst three-point shooting ballclub, and he remains an occasionally devastating force posting up a smaller man down near the basket. By contrast, Rider's heir apparent, Doug West, sank exactly one three last year, and James Robinson is an anemic 40 percent shooter. Without a credible outside shooting threat, what's to prevent opposing defenses from collapsing on Garnett?

The moralistic sportswriters currently calling for the Wolves to dump Rider are the same ones who warned Chicago about taking Dennis Rodman last year. They are the same ones who would have approved a Rider-for-Rod Strickland trade, despite the fact that Strickland was once considered such a bad actor that San Antonio dropped him for no compensation. A couple of years ago, Scottie Pippen was considered a jerk and a malcontent for refusing to play the final seconds of a key playoff game; this year Pippen was regarded as one of the three or four most valuable players in the league. Rider may indeed be a punk, but as the third- or fourth-best player on the team, he doesn't have the influence he wielded a year or two ago, before Garnett and Googs arrived and veterans Sam Mitchell and Terry Porter were brought in to add stability in the locker room. Saunders knows his strengths and weaknesses well enough to get the most out of him on the court--and his best is considerably more than the Wolves will get from James Robinson and Billy Curley. Finally, don't think that Rider is the only Timberwolf who has ever toked a joint or played fast and loose with the phone company--or missed practice, for that matter.

As Pippen, Rodman, and even Strickland can tell you, winning changes everything. If McHale and Saunders can plug the hole at center and either cut Rider yet more slack or find a suitable replacement, the '96-'97 season could easily be the most enjoyable and successful in the history of the franchise. In Garnett, Marbury, and Gugliotta, Minnesota has three pieces of the playoff puzzle, players who can pass as well as score, who can play uptempo or settle into the half-court game. (Their defense is another story.) Da Kidz are the tone-setters for this long-suffering franchise, and they have no place to go but up.

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