There is a quickening taking place within the Minnesota Timberwolves as they prepare for the 1997-98 basketball season, a tone of confidence and a hint of a strut that at long last draws its sustenance from proven performance rather than wishful thinking. As even part-time Wolves-watchers are aware, the team earned its first-ever playoff berth last season and won 40 games, 11 more than the previous best total in the franchise's eight-year history.
The good news hasn't stopped there. On the first of this month, Wolves owner Glen Taylor fortified the club's determination to be a long-term force in the league by signing 21-year-old All-Star Kevin Garnett, the 7-foot "small" forward whom many regard as the heir to Air Jordan, to a six-year $125 million contract. Two days later, Stephon Marbury, the precocious 20-year-old point guard and team catalyst, arrived at training camp with a commanding attitude and 11 extra pounds of pure sinew to better ward off the injuries that plagued him last year. All-Star Tom Gugliotta, who merely led the team in scoring, rebounding, and steals last season, also arrived at camp in fine fettle, and at age 27 figures to be entering the prime of his career.
Three players are gone from last year's roster, but the Wolves are automatically better off without two of them. Center Stoyko Vrankovic moved with the unfortunate rhythm of a robot with a frayed wire in his remote control, and shooting guard James Robinson was an all-or-nothing long-range bomber on offense and an always-AWOL matador on defense who surrendered four points for every three he scored. Only the absence of center Dean Garrett will hurt, and he was an overachieving 30-year-old rookie who meshed perfectly as a complementary component in the Wolves' system and will probably never be as productive again.
Little wonder, then, that this sense of purpose and pleasant expectation has some members of the Wolves organization setting some pretty lofty standards for this season. Marbury, whose laxity on defense was the primary flaw in an otherwise impressive rookie season, claims, "My goal this year is to make the All-NBA First Defensive Team," presumably over Seattle's Gary Payton. Asked if that might not be a tad unrealistic, Marbury dribbled twice, set his jaw, buried a three-point shot, and replied, "No I don't. I think anything is possible."
Apparently so does Kevin McHale, the vice president of basketball operations and architect of the team's climb to respectability. "Last year when I said we'd win a minimum of 40 games, people laughed at me," McHale pointedly reminded reporters on the night the Wolves re-signed Garnett. "We set a realistic goal, which was to get out of the lottery and make the playoffs. If you want to win a championship, the next step is to get home-court advantage in the playoffs. That's what we're looking for this year."
Home-court advantage in the playoffs is earned by finishing the regular season with one of the four best records in the conference. Last year, that meant winning at least 56 games. In other words, to realize the goal McHale has set for them, the Wolves will probably have to improve their win total even more this year than they did last year. With all due respect--I was among those who snickered at McHale's 40-wins prediction in '96--that's not going to happen, no matter how much this team believes in itself.
For one thing, the Wolves will almost certainly exhibit greater improvement on the court than they do in the standings this season, because the caliber of competition in the Western Conference is tougher. For example, it is unreasonable to expect Minnesota to win all four games against San Antonio now that the Spurs have All-Star center David Robinson back from an injury and have added collegiate star Tim Duncan. Nor is it likely that the Wolves will again win three out of four against a rejuvenated Phoenix Suns team that has added Antonio McDyess and will have Jason Kidd on board for the entire season. Sure, there will be some patsies in the West, with teams from Denver, Vancouver, Dallas, and Golden State being the most probable candidates. But the Wolves took 14 out of 16 games against those four clubs last season, so there is precious little chance of upgrading the win total there. And with an impressive record of 16-8 in games decided by five points or less last year, the team also can't point to many occasions where just a little more pluck or luck would have swung the game in their favor.
In other words, for the Wolves to manage 50 to 55 wins this season, they need to continue routinely beating the weak teams and pulling out a significant majority of the close games, and begin holding their own against some of the powerful clubs like Seattle and the Los Angeles Lakers, who have almost always beaten them handily. Moreover, they have to do all this with a jerry-rigged situation at the center position that is a potential disaster area; an unsatisfactory, choose-your-poison platoon at the shooting-guard position that either hinders the team's offense or its defense; and a precarious lack of depth on the bench.
The most glaring problem is at center. Minnesota will sorely miss Dean Garrett, who was gritty, smart, and mobile enough to assume optimal rebounding position when opposing big men who ignored him to concentrate on Gugliotta or Garnett. He also shared a sixth sense with Marbury on whether the point guard would shoot or pass it over to him in the split-second decision-making that culminated Stephon's slashing drives to the basket. Garrett parlayed those second-banana skills into a lucrative long-term contract with Denver, where there are no All-Star forwards or superlative point guards to enhance his effectiveness.
In his stead, the Wolves are hoping against logic that they can coax some significant playing time out of the bulbous, battered body of Stanley Roberts, the 7-footer who was acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in a straight swap for Vrankovic. If Roberts does nothing else this year--which unfortunately is a possibility--he'll have been valuable simply for enabling the Wolves to dispose of Stoyko and his fat, lengthy contract, McHale's biggest personnel blunder to date. Roberts's own big-money deal is due to expire after this season, which is a strong incentive for him to right his shipwrecked career.
When healthy and in shape, Roberts plays like a poor man's Shaquille O'Neal (right down to his abysmal 52 percent career free-throw shooting percentage): He can be a bulldozing force who demands double-coverage on offense and a burly shot-blocker who intimidates drives to the basket and wears down opposing big men on defense--exactly what the Wolves need.
More than one franchise has learned the folly of counting on Roberts, however: Over the last four years he has played a grand total of 1,523 minutes, which is less than half of what Kevin Garnett logged in the last year alone. He has had both Achilles tendons surgically repaired and, more recently, a back operation, injuries that chronically retard a player's skills and durability, especially one who usually weighs more than 300 pounds. Two weeks ago, Wolves conditioning coach Sol Brandys was raving over Roberts's work ethic, saying he lost 20 pounds just in the month of September. But a supposedly mild ankle sprain Roberts suffered during that time has turned out to be serious enough for him to miss almost all of training camp, a crucial setback considering that he is new to the Wolves' system. "Realistically, we're hoping to get about 20 minutes a game out of Stanley," says coach Flip Saunders. Good luck.
In a strategy typical of teams trying to patch over a weakness, the Wolves will deploy a committee of players at center. McHale and Saunders are hoping that 6-11 Clifford Rozier is this year's Garrett: an active rebounder with marginal natural ability but a mature sense of the game, signing a contract for the NBA minimum salary in the hope of gaining exposure around the league with a team needy enough to play him. It's a decent gamble that may pay off for both sides, but Rozier, who once waged his own battle of the bulge, is now alarmingly slender and may get overmatched against mammoth Western Conference centers such as Shaq, Vancouver's Bryant Reeves, and Utah's Greg Ostertag. Seven-footer Paul Grant, the team's top draft pick, is a more intriguing prospect with a sturdier, albeit slower, 245-pound physique. A hard-working kid who likes to mix it up underneath the basket and can also step out for a 10-foot jump shot, Grant has the makings of a quality back-up in this league. But right now he's green, and destined to learn too many lessons the hard way.
By default, the Wolves' best option at center may become 6-11 Cherokee Parks, whose virtues are more akin to those of a small forward--he's got quick hands and a reliable, feathery jump shot up to 15 feet away from the hoop, and is most comfortable in a running game. It's worth remembering that when Parks created room for Gugliotta and Garnett to operate near the basket by drawing out opposing big men with his shooting accuracy and constant movement, the Wolves played their best basketball ever late last December, beating perennial powerhouses such as the Lakers, Knicks, and Jazz. Despite his effectiveness, Parks soon saw his playing time diminish because he was simply too soft on defense and battling for rebounds, forcing Googs and KG to do the dirty work and absorb the punishment. Continuing to use Parks throughout the marathon NBA season would have been a penny-wise strategy resulting in the team's two multitalented star forwards getting pounded foolish. Unfortunately, he hasn't looked any tougher or more aggressive in training camp this year.
One way you can expect the Wolves to address their deficiencies at center is by not using one, particularly during the fourth quarter of close games against smaller opponents, as they did last season. With 6-7 forward Sam Mitchell inserted alongside Gugliotta and Garnett, Minnesota's front line compensates for its lack of size with crisp ball movement on offense and speedy, tenacious teamwork at the other end of the court. That's because Mitchell is temperamentally the opposite of Parks--a warrior who at 215 is actually lighter than both of the Wolves' shooting guards, but whose dedication to grunt work enables him to play two to three inches taller and 30 pounds stronger than he really is. While deferential to the team's stars, Mitchell regularly works himself free for open jump shots on offense, and his intensity on defense helps focus Gugliotta, who has a habit of wandering toward the ball and away from the man he is guarding.
Again, the problem with this smaller lineup is the physical toll it exacts on Googs and Garnett, but on many occasions Saunders may have no choice but to deploy it. The primary reason to be pessimistic about the Wolves' chances for improvement this year is that centers will probably compose an entire third of the team's roster, yet just two weeks before the start of the season the club can't rely on any of them to produce.
The only other place where the Wolves lack a budding star among the starting five is at shooting guard, where Doug West and Chris Carr will again bring vastly different strengths and weaknesses to the competition for playing time. The simplistic perception is that the veteran West is a defensive specialist whose offensive skills have eroded with age, while the 24-year-old Carr is a potential scoring machine who hasn't yet learned how to guard anybody.
While essentially accurate, the either/or nature of the comparison does a disservice to West, who is the more complete player. No doubt West's jump shot is not as automatic as it was five years ago, when he led the Wolves in scoring by averaging nearly 20 points per game. But with Marbury, Gugliotta, and Garnett all needing the ball, his role in the offense has diminished more than the accuracy of his jumper. West has been an honorary Minnesotan long enough to develop a weird, passive/aggressive attitude toward the situation: Sometimes he chafes at the lack of plays that are designed for him to shoot, but just as often he'll pass up an open shot he obviously should take--both because he's wide open and to penalize opposing defenses for double-teaming one of the Wolves' primary scorers.
For his part, Saunders says he'll probably call more plays for West this season, but also appreciates his restraint on offense. At any rate, even at age 30, West remains a tireless, harassing defender, a valuable commodity for a team that doesn't have anyone else on the roster who can effectively guard opponents out on the perimeter.
This could be a make-or-break year for Carr's career. When he arrived last season as a free agent after a year in Phoenix, many people close to the Wolves expected him to supplant West in the starting lineup. But Carr's defensive play was a case study in panicked ignorance, and became such a liability that he even fell behind James Robinson (another putrid defender, now with the Clippers) in the substitution rotation. Initially the damage to his confidence affected his shooting; but even after Carr righted himself with some sparkling games that hinted at his offensive potential, his near-total absence of rhythm or recognition on defense kept him on the bench. Slowly but surely he began to mope, then sat out the final 18 games of the season with bursitis in his ankle.
In the wake of this disaster, the Wolves' brain trust treated Carr's arrival this year with abundant enthusiasm. Both McHale and Saunders claim they never once considered drafting or trading for another shooting guard to groom as West's replacement. Says McHale, "I have complete confidence in Chris Carr." Saunders lauded Carr's work ethic over the summer and proclaimed that his defense "has improved 100 percent." West says that he will teach Carr "everything I know about defense," and allows that it might be enough to push Carr ahead of him into the starting line-up.
Yet in the limited time I have watched Carr participate in the Wolves' intrasquad scrimmages during the preseason, his defense doesn't justify the hype: It seems less frenzied and slightly more purposeful, but still far from adequate. Maybe McHale and Saunders, with their superior knowledge of the game, detect something I can't see. Or maybe the organization is making a concerted effort to bolster Carr's confidence to the point where they can get an accurate idea of his true long-term potential. With contract negotiations for Marbury and Gugliotta on the horizon, the Wolves won't have enough money under the salary cap to do anything but grow their own replacement for West, and the process needs to start now. With the departure of James Robinson, and new NBA rules against hand and forearm checking sure to place West more frequently in foul trouble, Carr's minutes will rise significantly even if he isn't the starter. By all indications, he is being given every chance to prove himself--or enough rope to hang himself.
All right, enough nit-picking. Let's turn our attention to the reasons why, in a poll taken among players and coaches during last year's All-Star game, the Wolves and the Los Angeles Lakers were chosen as the franchises most likely to become NBA champions five years from now. And let's begin, naturally, with Kevin Garnett.
There are those who would argue that it is foolhardy to give so much money to a 21-year-old kid who has yet to win a single playoff game. It is persuasive logic until you watch Garnett play. Put simply, it is hard to imagine a more inevitable superstar.
First of all, he has unprecedented physical tools. "This is a person more than 7 feet tall who is quicker than you are," says Sam Mitchell. "I play against him every day in practice, and unless all my tricks are working, I can't even get my shot off. You have to beat him by three steps because if you beat him by one or two he will come up behind you and block your shot." Barring injury, Garnett is only going to get bigger and stronger between now and the time his contract with the Wolves expires in seven years.
Second, he has an optimal attitude for team harmony. In pro basketball, as in most every other sport, offense wows the fans while defense wins the games. Garnett is already one of the NBA's top defenders--not only because of his size and speed, but because he has taken the time to learn the Wolves' various defensive schemes and rotations as well as anybody on the team, and puts forth the maximum effort to execute them. It is exceedingly rare to find a star player who is just as valuable to his team without the ball as he is with it; it is rarer still to find a star who doesn't need the ball in his hands to satisfy his ego. Garnett is both. That's a potent ingredient for amiable team chemistry.
Third, he has a natural affinity for community relations. You can't teach or practice a smile like the one Garnett flashes, any more than you can preplan the mixture of playfulness, arrogance, reflection, and naïveté he exhibits when caught in the media spotlight. Two years ago, when Garnett was trying to become the first basketball player in 20 years to make the jump from high school to the pros, and people were asking him if he had found a nice local family to take care of him, along with a myriad of other condescending questions, Garnett patiently replied again and again that he was different than other 19-year-old kids.
Now that those differences have become manifest to everyone, there is once again a huge ruckus, with the questioners wanting to know how he will handle the pressure, justify his riches, and answer the critics who believe him to be greed personified. But thus far, neither Garnett's answers nor his attitude have changed from what they were two years ago. He just tries to come up with dozens of new ways to say essentially the same thing: I am special, different than you or anybody else, but it's no big deal.
How long he is able to hold on to that feeling (which is at once pure innocence and the height of arrogance) will help determine how quickly the Wolves become a championship contender. It goes without saying that the huge contract brings commensurate expectations, and in that respect, this year's Wolves are bound to disappoint: Even under a best-case scenario, the franchise is at least a year or two away from being considered one of the NBA's elite teams, a timetable not easily grasped by casual fans who know only that $125 million is headed into Garnett's bank account, and who will likely engage in more cut-and-dried, short-term scrutiny.
Ironically, this is where Garnett's unselfish play will cost him: Because he excels at unquantifiable things like team defense, the stat sheet never does him justice. What's more, in the high-profile categories like scoring and shooting accuracy, he has been a notoriously slow starter during his first two years in the league--shooting 44 percent in November and December, and 52 percent from January through April. In other words, it's quite possible that Garnett will look his worst at precisely the time his new contract is fresh in the consciousness of the casual fan and the unrealistic expectations are at their peak.
Even if this collision of expectation and reality begins to eat away at Garnett's indomitable mind-set, however (which isn't likely), it's not nearly as important to the club's prospects for this season as, say, whether or not the Wolves have a decent center to put on the court. Even in the nebulous realm of team chemistry, in fact, there are things that are potentially far more disruptive than leather-lunged drunks or talk-radio stooges heckling Garnett from the peanut gallery. For instance, there is the increasingly pertinent matter of how to keep the Wolves' other two stars--Marbury and Gugliotta--happy and productive at the same time.
Marbury is often described as a "classic" or "natural" point guard, adjectives meant to convey how thoroughly he has absorbed the often contradictory elements of take-charge leader and subtle enabler that are required of the point position. Raised in a large, supportive, and talented basketball family (most of his older brothers were college stars), Marbury was vociferously groomed from birth on how to play the game, patiently mastering each lesson and adding it to his daunting repertoire of skills. After he had spent just one year at Georgia Tech, McHale and Saunders considered him the best collegiate player in the 1996 NBA draft and traded their starting center (Andrew Lang) and top draft pick (guard Ray Allen) to Milwaukee in order to obtain his services.
Yet Marbury never let the attention go to his head, allowing the Wolves' coaches to practice their own familial brand of tough love throughout his rookie year. "You can be harder on Steph and tell him exactly what you want from him much more than most other guys," says Wolves assistant coach Randy Wittman. "That's a tribute to him. That's why he'll be a hell of a player."
Specifically, Marbury was told to flex the authority that accrues to the point guard, to be more in-your-face; and he was told to be a pass-first, shoot-second tactician who fed the right players at the right time and still kept everyone involved. He was occasionally benched in clutch situations, and harped on for indifferent defense for not recognizing advantageous match-ups and for not, in general, always being able to balance the enormous quantity of physical, mental, and psychological demands that come with the position.
Marbury's response was to slowly and steadily flourish. While his peers were busy being college sophomores, the rookie was simultaneously raising the Wolves' assists total while dramatically reducing how often the team turned over the ball. Not coincidentally, the Wolves registered 14 more wins and made the playoffs, where Marbury capped his marvelous year during the first-round series against Houston in which he was clearly the most valuable Timberwolf on the court.
Almost immediately he embarked on a stringent training program in preparation for this season, showing up at training camp as lightning-quick as ever but with 11 more pounds on a 6-2 physique that conditioning coach Sol Brandys now describes as "hard as a rock." His determination and confidence level seem equally impervious. "There's a different aura around Steph this year," Saunders says. He is more outgoing in both a clowning, playful way, and in helping to set a take-no-prisoners tone among the players. When Cliff Rozier vomited on the court after a particularly harsh practice, it was Marbury who led the unmerciful teasing about him being out of shape.
"I didn't mind that the coaches were tough on me because I didn't know," he says of his rookie season. "Now I know." Certainly the coaches will still remind him of flaws in his game, beginning with his fundamental defense. "He needs to keep people in front of him on defense," says Wittman. "It isn't a matter of 'Can he?'; it is a matter of 'Does he want to?'" Then there is his 41 percent shooting accuracy, which is way too low for someone who is a legitimate threat from way out in three-point range and yet also penetrates to the basket as well as Marbury does.
Part of it was an adjustment to the quickness of the NBA's big men: In high school or college, whenever Marbury beat his man off the dribble, he simply had to wait for the big man near the basket to come out and try to block his shot, in which case Marbury would pass to his now-open teammate; or, if the big man continued guarding his teammate, Marbury would keep driving to the hoop for a layup. But in the pros, the quicker, better centers can afford to wait longer before committing to the block, often bearing down on Marbury as he was about to try the layup and had precious little room and angle left to pass off the ball. (Dean Garrett and Marbury worked so well together because Garrett moved to create better passing angles down low and had hands good enough to catch Marbury's bullet-quick passes.) To counter that strategy, the coaches are working with Marbury on pulling up from his drive for a short-range jump shot, something Utah's John Stockton does effectively. This would force centers to commit earlier, which would boost both Marbury's shooting percentage and assist total while further cutting down his turnovers.
Given the way Marbury responds to coaching and his palpable tenacity and desire to demonstrate his leadership this season, fans can expect to see more defense and short jumpers from his game. Already regarded as one of the NBA's top 10 point guards, it wouldn't be surprising to see Marbury ranked among the top five at the beginning of next season. As Marbury himself puts it, "I can just feel it; this is going to be my year."
The challenge for Saunders and the Wolves is figuring out how to make Tom Gugliotta feel the same way. As any longtime fan knows, this franchise bottomed out and began to turn it around not when Garnett or Marbury was drafted, but when they traded Donyell Marshall to Golden State to get Googs. Last year he came into his own with a breakthrough season, being named to the All-Star team ahead of Garnett (who was later added after another player was injured), and leading the team in floor burns from diving after loose balls as well as in points, rebounds, and minutes played. Particularly in games when Garnett and/or Marbury were out with injuries, he staged some truly fantastic individual performances, revealing the array of fancy passes, gritty rebounds, anticipatory steals, and long- and short-range jumpers that have provoked people to compare him (unfairly) to Larry Bird.
Yet Googs also is the kind of player who mentally and physically needs to have the ball--a lot--to perform at peak efficiency. Two years ago, there was none too subtle bickering between him, Christian Laettner, and J.R. Rider over the number of "touches" each of the three got on offense, and over who should be the "go to" guy in make-or-break game situations.
After Rider and Laettner were dealt away, a similar friction occasionally developed last season between Googs and Marbury. In fairness to Gugliotta, there is usually some justification for his pique: He was less selfish and more deserving of the ball than either Laettner or Rider two years ago, and there were--and will be again--times when Marbury feels hot with his shot and locks into a zone where passing is the last thing on his mind. Googs also is self-aware enough to acknowledge that his own slumps are often the result of trying to do too much, which is why he's generally among the league leaders in turning over the ball.
In these situations, the Wolves are fortunate to have Saunders, who is as adept at handling the egos and outbursts of his troops as he is at recognizing and exploiting advantageous player match-ups out on the court. Saunders believes good team chemistry is a product of a clearly defined pecking order. In that context he affirms that Googs will once again be the "go-to" guy in tight situations and the primary focus of the Wolves' offense. At the same time, he understands that "you can't take the creative side out of Steph's game. That's who he is, and who we want him to be." He suggests that "when Tommy goes out for a rest, maybe that is the time for Steph to look for his own shot more."
Sure it is, but Saunders knows that's not an answer--there are no easy answers--to a dilemma that is only going to become more acute. As good as Garnett and Marbury are now, it's plain to see how awesome they might be, and how hard it will be to deny them the chance to fully explore the limits of their ability, even if it compels some extremely talented teammates to circumscribe their games. How much or how quickly that happens is yet to be determined: Fortunately, neither KG nor Marbury are prima donnas, and Googs constantly takes pains to earn his eminent status out on the court. But there are factors that could exacerbate the situation during this season. If the Wolves crap out at center, then even more of the dirty work will be dumped on Googs, the team's best banger/rebounder.
Even more significant is how much Taylor and the Wolves are willing to invest to keep both Gugliotta and Marbury in Minnesota. At the end of this season, the Wolves will be in the same situation with Marbury as they were last month with Garnett: sign him to a huge deal before October 1 or risk competing with every other team for his services on the open market. Meanwhile, Googs has an option in his contract that allows him to renegotiate, continue his current deal, or become a free agent at the end of this season. Having spent a fortune on Garnett, it is hard to see how Taylor would play it halfway on his bold plan to become a "glamour franchise" (see Taylor's Game) and let Marbury go.
The question then becomes, after $100 million or so is tossed to Marbury, whether Taylor can realistically consider bidding for Googs, who is six and seven years older than Garnett and Marbury and in his prime now. Consider also that in another year or two or three, Garnett will inevitably put on another 25 pounds, at which time he will become the tallest and the quickest power forward in the NBA. Power forward is Gugliotta's natural position. It didn't work when he played small forward alongside Laettner, and it wouldn't work to watch him get pounded as an undersized center.
In other words, unless Glen Taylor has got Rumpelstiltskin in the basement, Gugliotta has to decide whether he wants to take less money and circumscribe parts of his game in order to become a key cog in what will be a gloriously successful championship contender, perhaps even a dynasty; or whether he wants to be paid a lot more money and probably retain his place at the top of the pecking order while playing for another franchise. Considering how much both Gugliotta and Taylor have given to the cause of the Timberwolves, either outcome would be understandable and honorable.
And who in the name of Jack McCloskey (who is probably still racking up tennis trophies in the age-80-and-over leagues) would have ever thought we'd be fretting over the Wolves' embarrassment of riches in the preseason of 1997? If this year is indeed Gugliotta's swan song in Minnesota, it is likely to be bittersweet. Unless an adequate center emerges, or Chris Carr makes a deal with the devil for some nasty defensive prowess, or the Big Three synergize into a trio of complementary superstars right away, the Wolves will be better as a ballclub and about the same in the standings. Given the competition, I'll say 42-40, a seventh seed in the playoffs, and another first-round loss.
More assuredly, and more importantly, it will be another year of development for KG and Marbury (and maybe even for Googs) in what looks to be a slow but very sure march toward the top of the NBA. As we cross our fingers in the hopes that the future superstars remain as unselfish and dedicated as they are now, it wouldn't hurt to consider our own priorities. For this season, whether it's 35, 40, 45, or 50 wins, it doesn't matter that much. There is a quickening taking place within the Minnesota Timberwolves, and we shouldn't let our expectations get in the way of how much fun that will be to watch.
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