Follow the Leaders

David Kern

After the national anthem has been sung and the players have been introduced, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett seeks out his teammate Reggie Jordan for a silly little ritual. In what looks to be a disco hybrid of the frug, the hustle, and the bump, KG and Jordan stand side by side, bob their shoulders, hop and swivel their hips, and finish off with a little contact and a mutual pat on the thigh. Jordan says Garnett initiated the rite when he watched the way Jordan warmed up before a game and decided to join in.

Without making too much of it, their pregame rite is emblematic of why the Wolves are such an entertaining and satisfying success story thus far this season. In terms of both mental attitude and style of play, this is a productively carefree ballclub, goosed by the goofy confidence of youth. It is a team led by a couple of budding superstars (Garnett and Stephon Marbury) and a bona fide "regular" star (Tom Gugliotta) who are all playing remarkably unselfish basketball. Abetted by some astute juggling from coach Flip Saunders, these three have cued and compelled nearly every other player on the 12-man roster to complement their talents by any means necessary. The result is a harmonious team with surprising depth that is a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

Of course it's hard not to have fun when you're winning, and with a record of 23-17, including triumphs in 14 of their last 18 games over the past six weeks, the Wolves have won more often than at any other point in their seven-year history. But wins alone don't explain why Minnesota is one of the two or three most exciting teams in basketball. Some teams with better records, like Atlanta and Indiana, play a more bruising, methodical, defensive-oriented style that is technically laudable but not as aesthetically pleasing as Minnesota's athletic, high-octane offensive game. And others, such as Chicago and Utah, are simply going through the motions of their previously ingrained excellence, subconsciously prepping themselves for the playoffs. By contrast, the Wolves are in the process of discovering how good they are now, and fuel themselves with gleeful anticipation over how good they might be.

And if the fans find the giddiness contagious, who can blame them? As recently as two years ago, Minnesota had not shaken its reputation as the NBA's gulag, besieged by bickering players and boneheaded managerial decisions. Now the Target Center faithful are being treated to the best passing offense in the league. That's right; only two teams are averaging more points per game than the Wolves, and that's because both of them have each converted at least 150 more three-point shots than Minnesota over the first 40 games. Lacking reliable long-range shooters, the Wolves compensate with incredibly efficient ball-handling, ranking second in the league in total assists and among the top five in the fewest number of turnovers.

The lion's share of credit obviously belongs to the point guard Marbury. Back in November, when the Wolves were in the doldrums, Marbury too often tried to play the hero on offense, denying the talent of his teammates by short-circuiting the club's ball movement. During Minnesota's recent winning streak, Stephon has found a way to distribute the ball better without losing the dramatic impact upon the game that he craves: More often now, he waits until the fourth quarter of close games before forcing the action on his own. This not only enables his teammates to establish a collective offensive rhythm, but gives defenders less time and information with which to respond when he does turn it on.

The unsung hero in all of this is Tom Gugliotta. As Saunders has pointed out, the key to good team chemistry is the establishment of a pecking order where everyone knows his role. Two years ago there was dissension because Googs, Christian Laettner, and J.R. Rider all felt they should be the "go to" guy, the one the offense counted on when the game was on the line. Last year, with Laettner and Rider traded away, Googs was clearly the man in clutch situations, although there was a slight amount of tension over when and how much Marbury gave him the ball. This year, Marbury has slowly but inexorably co-opted the "go-to" role, creating a subtle but seismic shift in the pecking order that Googs, who is in the option year of his contract, could have yelled about or pouted over. Instead, he has accommodated the change and made it pay off for himself and the team. While he's taking fewer shots this year, his shot selection is better and smarter, increasing his accuracy to the point where his scoring average hasn't slipped. Another benefit is that he's committing significantly fewer turnovers, while improving his defense and maintaining his status as one of the league's best rebounders and passers among power forwards. It's been a classy, selfless display that too easily goes unnoticed.

The third member of the Wolves' golden triumvirate, Kevin Garnett, is one of those rare stars whose primary talent is making his teammates look better through myriad ways that can't be quantified on paper or even very clearly in words: Suffice it to say that, at age 21, he is Minnesota's best all-around defender, their most accurate shooter, their emotional leader, and their most consistent performer. In one 96-second span in a game against Boston last week,Garnett twice passed to teammates for easy layups, stole a ball, blocked a shot, buried a 14-foot jump shot, and did it all so smoothly that even discerning fans barely noticed.

Just as Marbury had a tendency to overextend himself on offense earlier this year, Garnett's persistent roaming to shore up the team's defensive weaknesses sometimes did more harm than good. This is where the enhanced play of the Wolves' substitutes has been most notable, particularly that of Tom Hammonds on the front line and Reggie Jordan on the perimeter. Until Hammonds arrived, it was common knowledge around the league that the best way to knock off the Wolves was to beat up their finesse forwards, Garnett and Gugliotta. Hammonds, who came into the league as a shooting forward, bulked up to prolong his career, and has provided Saunders with another option besides Sam Mitchell when the team requires sinew, elbows, and a thirst for combat under the basket.

Jordan is a tireless defender who leads the team in steals per minute and can play either point guard or shooting guard, allowing Saunders to change the nature and tempo of the game when he rests Marbury. When Doug West is healthy (an increasingly off-and-on proposition), the coach has four options at shooting guard--and with West, Jordan, Chris Carr, and Terry Porter all plagued with weaknesses, age, and/or inconsistency, he needs every one.

The situation is the same at center, where Stanley Roberts, Hammonds, and the too-soft Cherokee Parks share the load. Sure, the Wolves would prefer that someone step forward and claim the center or shooting-guard position as his own. But good teams hide the holes in their lineups with a plethora of role players--look at Chicago and Utah. When you have three players as talented and unselfish as KG, Googs, and Marbury, the rest of the roster just has to be smart enough to follow their lead. For proof, just watch Reggie Jordan during the pregame shake and bake.

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