Heavy Lifting

The Timberwolves must find--or build--a banger to complement superstar Kevin Garnett
David Kern

Now that the Minnesota Timberwolves have bobbed their way through a choppy 1998-99 campaign and have positioned themselves for an almost certain first-round playoff loss, it's apparent that the most important member of the organization during the off-season might be strength coach Sol Brandys, who must devise conditioning programs to bulk up the Wolves' tall and talented but woefully undermuscled front line. Through much of the team's break-even 50-game season, coach Flip Saunders wailed that officials were allowing opponents to beat up on forwards Kevin Garnett and Joe Smith, especially when they had the ball. When citing deficiencies in his own team that contributed to the problem, Saunders bemoaned the Wolves' lack of reliable outside shooting, which enabled opposing defenses to ignore the perimeter and collapse on Smith and KG. When guards Terrell Brandon, Anthony Peeler, and Malik Sealy were felled by injuries, the coach even brought in James "Hollywood" Robinson and Dennis Scott, two long-range marksmen with otherwise dreadful tendencies in terms of defense, shot selection, and overall court recognition.

The statistics would seem to support Saunders's contentions. Among the NBA's 29 teams, only Boston drew fewer fouls than the Wolves; meanwhile Minnesota ranked 26th in three-point field goal accuracy and well below the league average in the number of such attempts. But anyone who watched the Timberwolves this season knows that Smith and Garnett must shoulder at least some of the blame for their fate. In the rough-and-tumble NBA, officials are more apt to whistle defenders for a foul when the shooter is strong and aggressive going toward the basket, and the cold fact is that Garnett and Smith possess neither the masochistic appetite nor the sinew to provoke fouls on a regular basis. Given their height (Garnett is seven-foot-one, Smith six-ten), both forwards generated an inordinately high percentage of their points via 12- to 15-foot jump shots. Of the two, Smith was more likely to try to bull his way inside for baskets--and, being shorter, slower, and much less of a leaguewide superstar than KG, more likely to have his shot blocked or be ignored by the officials when fouled.

It's understandable that Saunders would be loath to criticize either forward for the nature of his offensive contribution. By current NBA salary standards, Smith played for peanuts (albeit $1.75 million worth of peanuts), considering his ability and production this year, and he'll be an even bigger bargain if he agrees to the $2 million maximum the Wolves can pay him next season rather than getting double that as a free agent on the open market.

Garnett is even more unassailable. At age 22 he is merely the selfless heart and soul of the franchise, the league's best and most versatile all-around defender, and an inspirational presence on the court and in the locker room, who exerted himself into a hospital bed owing to exhaustion and dehydration toward the end of the season. Yeah, he chooses not to get pounded even further by exploiting his size and quickness in the low post; let's rip him for it, or better yet, trade his ass.

When he's not crying wolf about the officials, Saunders shrewdly deploys a more positive approach to Garnett's interior play. After KG executed one of his rare aggressive inside moves to the basket instead of yet another fade-away jump shot against Golden State during the team's final regular-season home stand, the coach was quick to point out how much the threat of another Garnett slam-dunk opened up other offensive options for his teammates.

Of course, it would have been nice if the teammates could have returned the favor and created enough offensive firepower to dilute the attention of opposing defenders on Smith and Garnett. Call it a chicken-or-egg scenario, or a vicious circle: The lack of inside aggression and efficiency by Smith and Garnett and the paucity of other offensive weapons were weaknesses that fed on each other.

There are lots of places to point fingers here, so let's begin with Saunders's plaint, the pitiful outside shooting. Losing Terry Porter as a free agent to Miami hurt the team, but the real culprit on the perimeter was Anthony Peeler. A year ago, after Peeler wowed Wolves fans with his deadly jump shot, crisp passing, energetic defense, and smooth ball-handling, everyone wondered why Minnesota was able to steal him from Vancouver (where he had been languishing on the bench) in a trade for the over-the-hill Doug West. This season we found out why. He reported to camp out of shape, consequently suffered a series of nagging injuries, and even when healthy played with indifference and inconsistency. Pure and simple, he let the ballclub down and contributed to his checkered reputation.

But even when Peeler was limping and misfiring earlier this season, the Wolves still managed to reel off 12 wins in their first 18 games. Then Stephon Marbury made it clear he wouldn't re-sign, forcing his trade to New Jersey. While Minnesota managed to secure a fine replacement in Terrell Brandon, Brandon is neither as talented as Marbury nor as compatible with the Wolves' offensive and defensive philosophy. The key to success on offense is to pressure defenses into constant reactions, and then exploit the inevitable openings that arise from the scrambling. One way to do that is to spread out the defense with scoring threats both on the perimeter and near the basket, but another is to have a gifted, spontaneous point guard who can nail the jump shot or penetrate to the hoop. Marbury was a decent shooter and a penetrator par excellence. When he blew by his defender out on the perimeter, players guarding Smith, Garnett, or center Dean Garrett had no choice but to leave their man and help out.

Brandon is a better shooter but not nearly as effective a penetrator. He is one of the NBA's best point guards at executing the pick-and-roll, a more surgical disruption of defenses than the fire-drill chaos Marbury wrought, and a play that more often produces uncontested jump shots than rapid-fire ball movement and darting lay-ups. It is a style less well-suited to inordinately tall and quick forwards such as Garnett and Smith, both decent but not deadly jump shooters who, not coincidentally, suffered career lows in field goal accuracy.

Along with the stylistic disparity between Brandon and the Marbury-oriented Wolves, there are ongoing questions about Brandon's durability that weren't helped when he missed nine games with a thigh bruise. To complete the quandary, Brandon is a free agent who is very curious to see what his value will reach among franchises around the league. Not many teams have room enough under the salary cap to accommodate him, but then again the Wolves have precious few alternatives if they lose him, making it hard to predict how the negotiations will play out: $25 million to $50 million for a deal ranging from five to seven years seems like an acceptable investment--but not an optimum one. Recently there have been rumors--almost certainly floated by the Wolves' brain trust--about Minnesota signing Brandon and then trading him along with a first-round draft pick and another player to either Seattle for Gary Payton or to Portland for Damon Stoudamire. Both are penetrating point guards more in the Marbury mold.

Any discussion of Minnesota's mediocrity this year isn't complete without mentioning center Dean Garrett, who rivaled Peeler in dubious achievement through his innumerable mental errors, flaccid defense, stone hands, cobwebbed feet, and voyeur's approach to rebounds. Garrett's play has had Saunders pining for--and avidly promoting--this year's first-round pick Radoslav Nesterovic, the seven-footer who finally signed with Minnesota last week after finishing his contractual commitment to play in Italy. Two regular-season games with no practice or orientation are hardly conclusive, but on that basis Nesterovic seems distressingly similar to many European big men: a guy with a nice feel for passing, shooting, and team play, but with little physical or mental preparation for the mayhem that happens beneath the basket in the NBA.

In other words, another project for Sol Brandys.

For those who prefer their glasses half full, the Timberwolves have assembled a front line of enormous potential: a superstar (KG), a budding all-star (Smith), and a beguiling prospect (Nesterovic), all taller than six-ten and under 25 years of age, and all eminently solid citizens who will enrich team chemistry. If your glass is half empty, then you know there isn't a legitimate NBA banger among the three of them. For that the Wolves must for now rely on former small forward and current journeyman Tom Hammonds and this year's second-round draft pick Andrae Patterson. Beyond Duke's Eldon Brand (who himself is just six-foot-nine), there appear to be few quality big men who'll be available via the college draft. If the Wolves are going to retain Brandon and play half-court, pick-and-roll ball in 2000, perhaps Kevin McHale should start working out.

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