Growing Pains

In recent weeks, a favorite play run by the Minnesota Timberwolves in their half-court offense calls for power forward Tom Gugliotta to loft a high "alley-oop" pass just above the basket, where it is caught in mid-air by streaking, leaping point guard Stephon Marbury and slammed through the net. On the plus side, the play showcases the athleticism and multifaceted talents of two of the Wolves' three best players: the 6-10 forward with the deft passing touch and the 6-2 guard with serious springs in his hamstrings. The giddy joy on both players' faces when the maneuver works is not all good, however--it indicates just how much Googs likes to handle the ball, and how much it pleases Marbury to score.

March was a shaky time for the Timberwolves, who dropped 10 of 16 games. On the surface, things appeared normal; maintaining a season-long pattern, the Wolves beat almost all the bad teams and lost to almost all the good ones. But even in late February and early March, you could feel the tenor changing. Horrible play by Philadelphia and Denver gift-wrapped two home victories that Minnesota clearly didn't earn, and where the Wolves had previously provided spirited competition in road games against quality foes, they were now getting muscled and hustled off the court by Indiana and Detroit. There were plenty of explanations handy. Doug West developed a bad back, depriving the Wolves of their defensive stopper on the perimeter. Scouts discovered that the best way to neutralize an unnaturally versatile and mobile forward tandem like Gugliotta and Kevin Garnett is to pound them physically. And coming out of the league's All-Star Weekend in February, everybody was suddenly talking about the Wolves--league doormats throughout their history--as the team of the future. It gave opponents added incentive at precisely the time all-stars Googs and KG and rookie-game participant Marbury were mentally processing all the accolades that had come their way.

The bottom line was that the teamwork began to dry up. Each member of the Wolves' Big Three individually strained to make it right, throwing the team further out of sync. In particular, there didn't seem to be enough touches of the basketball to satisfy both Marbury and Gugliotta. Googs has been the team's primary offensive weapon all season, while Marbury is obviously the best point guard in franchise history; both have compelling claims on how the ball should be handled and distributed, and both get bouts of hero syndrome when the team isn't playing well.

At this stage, it looks as if Gugliotta is the player who faces the most difficult adjustment. Marbury is the real deal, the kind of point guard who can shift gears from fast breaks to half-court sets and back while keeping the offense intact. Yeah, he's occasionally prone to nights where he hoists up more than 20 shots, as he did last week in a Wolves' loss at Houston. But he's just 20 years old, and already has a tendency to involve his teammates more than peers with similar ability, like Kenny Anderson and Nick Van Exel. You also want a seven-foot "small" forward like Garnett to be isolated on his inevitably shorter opponent for 15 shots per game. And as opposing guards cheat in to double-cover Garnett and Googs, it makes sense to involve Doug West in more perimeter shots, where he has slowly but surely extended his range, making 11 of his last 25 three-point attempts. All this means that Googs will get fewer touches, albeit still more than anyone on the team except Marbury.

Fortunately, the Wolves seemed to emerge from the doldrums over the past week. You wouldn't know it by the scoreboard, but Minnesota played perhaps its best game in six weeks while losing to an incredibly quick and talented Seattle team by 11 points; two nights later, the Wolves' offense flirted with perfection in an easy win over an admittedly lackluster Golden State defense. On the verge of their first-ever trip to the playoffs, the team's most glaring weakness isn't the way it distributes the ball or executes on offense, it's their inability to prevent being pushed around by big aggressive clubs like New York, Indiana, and Sacramento. Garnett seems especially vulnerable. Like most shot-blockers, he excels at using his quickness to swoop over or up on a prospective shooter and deny him any angles to the basket. Opponents have learned that it is easier to drive straight at him toward the basket before he can get his crane-like arms extended. As a result, while Garnett continues to be a very tough defender, particularly in a standard, post-up offense or out on the open floor, teams are doling out slam-dunk facials to him on a semi-regular basis. Originally, the Wolves had planned to counteract this by stationing massive 7-2 center Stoyko Vrankovic in the pivot, but Stoyko is a bust and at 6-11, starting center Dean Garrett is feisty but just not sufficiently intimidating.

For those who actually hope to see Minnesota win a playoff game or two, the best strategy is to paradoxically root for Minnesota to lose most of its remaining 11 games, until they fall all the the way to the eighth seed in the western conference and get to play the top-seeded Utah Jazz. The Wolves match up pretty well with Utah, particularly at point guard, where the nonpareil but steadily aging guard John Stockton won't be able to keep up with Marbury's quickness over the course of an extended series. With league MVP Karl Malone (that's right, he's played better than Jordan this season), the Jazz would still likely win three out of four, but that's more sporting than the other alternatives. Second-seeded Seattle (the Wolves' opponent if Phoenix overtakes them for the sixth seed in the west) has beaten Minnesota 25 straight times. Houston, who the Wolves would play if the season ended today, creates match-up problems with Hakeem Olajuwon on Garrett, Clyde Drexler (one of the few shooting guards whose offense thrives against West), and Charles Barkley, who's smaller but appreciably more bullish than Garnett.

Ultimately it's a moot point, of course. When it comes to the playoffs, the issue for this year's edition of the Wolves is not whether they win or lose, but getting to play the game. There was a time--namely every other year but this one--when 10 losses in 16 games would feel like a decent month's effort for this franchise. Instead of bickering, dissension, and another dose of bad luck in the lottery, the woes of '97 are merely growing pains. A win total between 35 and 40 is on the near horizon, and the playoffs beckon. This most pleasurable Timberwolves team has earned the right to feel, for a while anyway, like they have nothing to lose.

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