Wielding an adroit blend of rationalizations and silver linings rivaling the creativity of his half-court offensive sets, Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders has remained relentlessly upbeat throughout the first two months of the 2000-01 NBA season. But to pay attention is to know that the Wolves are a deeply flawed ball club with about a 50-50 chance of falling out of the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Yes, Minnesota's 17-13 mark matches the best 30-game start in franchise history. But despite Saunders's focus on the team's grueling travel schedule, it's hard to ignore that the opposition's caliber thus far has been decidedly weak. With four gimme wins against the woeful Bulls and Hawks already in the books, the Wolves have completed just two of twenty scheduled games against the top five teams in the powerful Pacific Division.
Yet whom the Wolves still have to play is not as discouraging as how they have been playing. More than any squad in Saunders's five-year tenure, the current team lacks heart and consistency--blowing double-digit leads in six of their first thirty games, compared with seven comparable collapses in all of last season. On the flip side, Thursday night's home win against the dreadful Hawks marked the first time this year the Wolves managed to overcome a deficit going into the fourth quarter, something they accomplished ten times last season.
While the offense remains one of the ten best in the league, the Wolves have lapsed into a funk owing to poor shot selection and a lack of rhythm, resulting in fewer assists and more turnovers than last season. Sometimes the team relies too much on its superstar, Kevin Garnett. On other occasions he's inexplicably ignored in the half-court offense. But where Minnesota has been chronically inept is on defense. Wolves opponents have converted more than 46 percent of their field-goal attempts, a figure that ranks dead last in the NBA. It's a shocking stat that reveals the club's absence of height and quickness on the perimeter, not to mention its dearth of team character and tenacity.
The Wolves can't blame its shortcomings on the loss of power forward Joe Smith, as LaPhonso Ellis has slipped into Smith's role without a hitch. At a bargain salary (especially compared to Smith's illegal deal), Ellis has been providing tough interior defense, snaring more than his share of rebounds against taller opponents, hitting enough midrange jump shots to keep defenses honest, and sparking the team with a brute intensity that is different but no less effective than Smith's enthusiasm.
As expected, the Wolves have yet to bounce back from the off-season death of Malik Sealy. Chauncey Billups was brought in to replace the guard, but after a quick start he has lapsed into the pattern of poor shot selection that has plagued him throughout his three-year career. On defense Billups is too small to handle the opposing shooting guards Sealy regularly throttled. Anthony Peeler has actually improved his aggressiveness this season, but he remains a hot-and-cold marksman who is too short to defend the shooting-guard position. Consequently, forwards Wally Szczerbiak and (more often and more effectively) Garnett are compelled to scramble back and forth from perimeter to baseline in an attempt to guard both their own man and opposing shooting guards.
Before the season began, the Wolves hoped for more firepower from Szczerbiak to mitigate Sealy's absence on offense. But the forward's knee injury has severely reduced his explosiveness toward the hoop, resulting in a significant drop in his field-goal percentage. With Szczerbiak hobbled, Sealy gone, and Sam Mitchell aging, Garnett has precious few reliable outlets when double- and triple-teamed by opposing defenses. Forced to resort to more difficult shots, his field-goal accuracy and assist totals are both down. (Those who complain about KG not going to the hoop should note, however, that he is getting to the free-throw line far more often this season.)
Ultimately, the Wolves' chances of returning to the playoffs depend upon the improvement of the season's two most glaring underachievers, center Rasho Nesterovic and point guard Terrell Brandon. Rasho's brief NBA career proves the axiom that you can't teach toughness: While he's frequently manhandled by other centers, his efforts to be aggressive merely result in more fouls called against him. His fragile ego compounds the problem, allowing a lack of confidence to creep in that has taken the polish off his passes and normally soft shooter's touch. Fortunately, Dean Garrett has emerged from his long somnambulance to provide a defensive backbone and the rebounding presence Rasho has forfeited. But Garrett's stone hands and advancing years make him no more than a stopgap solution at the crucial center position. Saunders's decision to play the undersize Ellis in the pivot during crunch time won't work against taller, tougher teams from the Western Conference.
Brandon is a frustrating enigma. When I defended him against a legion of critics who blamed him for last season's 7-13 start, he made me look smart by spearheading the team's 50-win campaign, ending the year with the highest field-goal percentage and assist total of his nine-year career. But this season his customarily sage decision-making in the half-court offense has been inconsistent. What really damns him, though, is his defensive indifference, especially his continued unwillingness to fight through picks or otherwise stay with his man off the dribble.
There's no doubt Brandon in particular misses the perimeter-help defense and accurate jump shot of Sealy, his former backcourt mate. He is also hampered by a chronic ankle injury that was aggravated earlier this year. And he has been stung by the often-misguided criticism of his laid-back demeanor. His innate grace with the media has become increasingly churlish and defensive over the past year. But $10 million a year brings heightened expectations: enough resourcefulness to surmount a fair amount of adversity; enough endurance to effectively play through nagging pain; and enough gumption to put a goddamn body on John Stockton when everybody in the building knows Utah is going to run the pick-and-roll.
When the Wolves run the gauntlet that is the Western Conference, they would do well to shift Garnett to small forward and put a beefed-up front line on the floor that would include Garrett and Ellis. But if KG is going to be chasing small forwards around on defense, someone has to lighten the scoring burden at the other end of the court. The reappearance of Brandon's sweet jump shot and shrewd court sense would certainly come in handy.