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In The Zone

David Kern

Six months ago, at the end of the NBA's 2000-2001 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise seemed to be toiling at a treadmill perched on quicksand. The reasons for the team's plight is no secret to most Wolves fans, who can no doubt recite the litany of big egos, bad luck, and front-office bumbling that has buffeted the franchise for nearly four years. Power forward Tom Gugliotta jumped to Phoenix because he couldn't get along with point guard Stephon Marbury. Marbury provoked a trade with New Jersey because he couldn't attain the salary and adulation accorded Wolves' superstar Kevin Garnett. Shooting guard Malik Sealy was killed in a collision with a drunk driver. Joe Smith was banished from the team and four future first-round draft picks were erased after NBA commissioner David Stern discovered that Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor had signed the power forward to an illegal contract. And two previous, theoretically promising first-round picks, center Rasho Nesterovic and point guard Will Avery, were proving to be, respectively, a major disappointment and an outright bust.

Thanks to the versatile majesty of KG and the resourceful retrofitting of six-year coach Flip Saunders, the team has managed to grab a low rung on the playoff ladder for five straight seasons, only to be summarily dispatched in the first round on each occasion by higher-seeded teams with the home court advantage. Knowing that the stasis was bedeviling the psyche of players and fans alike, Saunders boldly predicted that the Wolves would topple the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in last spring's playoff match-up. Instead, Minnesota averaged just 82 points a night and was thumped three games to one.

With a dearth of draft picks and Garnett's $126 million contract swallowing any chance to add an expensive free agent to the roster, it appeared the Wolves would be struggling just to make the 2002 playoffs, as young, hungry, and athletic Western Conference teams like the Clippers and Rockets continued to improve by leaps and bounds. Over the summer, prospective trades involving point guard Terrell Brandon and guard/forward Wally Szczerbiak didn't pan out. And so, with their customary share of the local entertainment dollar being challenged by a scrappy expansion hockey team playing in a brand-new arena just across the river, the need for improvement by the Wolves had taken on a bottom-line urgency.

Flash forward to the present. Since the end of training camp, most everyone connected to the franchise says there is a positive aura surrounding the team. Garnett claims it's the happiest, most unified Timberwolves ensemble of his six-year career. Saunders says the twelve-person roster has more depth than any in franchise history. And, sitting in front of his locker after a November 2 win over Memphis, Szczerbiak beams like the Cheshire Cat on crystal meth: "Man, I can't believe how good I feel physically right now." Ratifying the feel-good vibe, Minnesota has opened the season with six straight victories, the best start in its 13-year existence.

"We're going to have a stinker sometime in the next two or three weeks because of overconfidence," assistant coach Jerry Sichting predicts. "But it's almost scary how well these guys are playing and communicating with each other right now."

 

So what happened during the off-season?

Arguably, nothing. The Wolves' early-season giddiness might just be the flip side of desperation and, in the end, the grind of an 82-game campaign might once again see the team watching from the sidelines on or before the end of the first round of the NBA playoffs.

But let's sip the Kool-Aid for a minute. Maybe the ongoing maturation of Garnett, the greater reliance on Szczerbiak at his new shooting-guard position, and the sagacity of Brandon at the point adds up to a three-pronged dynamo that will regularly take the Wolves' always exciting passing offense into triple digits. Maybe the reacquisition of wayward son Joe Smith (Mr. Congeniality in the locker room, an indomitable grinder on the court), the acquisition of seven-foot-one center Loren Woods in the second round of the draft, and the bargain-basement signing of the muscular forward Gary Trent (a bruiser with a bum knee), will finally provide the team with the length, width, and pith it has so often lacked beneath the basket.

Maybe the most significant factor for the Wolves this season will involve not a player acquisition or a position change, but a new rule that allows teams to deploy zone defenses along with the league's previously mandated man-on-man coverage.

Zone defenses enable teams to double- and triple-cover other players even when the ball is not in their hands, leaving other opponents relatively unguarded in the process. It is meant to curb the dominance of behemoths like the Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal and prevent offenses from clearing out one corner of the court so that a particularly quick, athletic scorer like Allen Iverson or Vince Carter can gain the advantage over a single defender. Offensively, it is intended to promote ball movement, accurate outside jump shooting, and a more balanced scoring attack.  

In other words, the rule change is tailor-made for the Timberwolves. Minnesota's defense has always been tormented by the single-coverage match-up. And on offense, the Wolves' crisp passing attack and bevy of midrange jump shooters will discourage most opponents from even attempting to use the zone. What's more, zone defense maximizes two of the Wolves' biggest assets--KG's freakish physical skills and Saunders's ingenuity. Garnett is a seven-foot gazelle quick enough to adhere to jitterbugs on the perimeter and long enough to slide down and double-cover big men beneath the basket. At its best, a zone provides blanket coverage with quiltlike cohesiveness. Garnett's range authorizes the Wolves to spread its blanket wider than most any other team in the league.

Saunders is well suited to concoct the cohesion. Like an ace jazz musician, the coach revels in strategic challenge, blending thorough preparation with spontaneous improvisation. While most of his peers looked askance at the zone or gingerly embraced its potential, Saunders has been drilling his players every day since the beginning of training camp on the intricacies of a sophisticated scheme that fuses elements of zone and man-to-man coverage. Longtime Wolves fans will also be pleased to know that the genesis of Saunders's hybrid, a variation of what is often referred to as a "match-up zone," comes from the franchise's first head coach, the late Bill Musselman, who also coached the University of Minnesota basketball team when Saunders and Wolves vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale were teammates.

"We played this zone under Muss when I was in college. The last two years I was there, we led the country in [generating the lowest] field-goal percentage on defense," says Saunders, who has expanded Musselman's principles by writing a 45-page booklet on the subject, delineating the role of each player against myriad offensive sets.

Unlike a traditional zone defense, the Musselman-Saunders method dictates that each defender be responsible for guarding a player as well as an area; that way, opponents can't overwhelm the defense by crowding two or three players into the same space. "Everyone has responsibilities in reference to their areas, where their man is, and where the ball is," Saunders explains. "You could be guarding a guy at the right wing on one possession, and then on the next possession you have to guard the guy in the left corner. A lot depends on what the other team does."

To prevent the tallest defenders from simply camping out in front of the basket, the NBA's new zone defense has one caveat: A player cannot remain in the painted, rectangular area between the foul line and the hoop for longer than three seconds without guarding a specific opponent. As a result, when opposing teams bring the ball up court, Wolves point guard Terrell Brandon will usually be out front on the perimeter, KG and Szczerbiak (as the off-guard and small forward) will be positioned on the wings by the foul line, and Smith and Nesterovic (or Woods) will be stationed behind them down near the basket. In basketball argot, it looks like a 1-2-2 zone.

What's different about Saunders's scheme is that the players' match-ups are keyed by whom Brandon picks up as the opponents cross half-court. Consequently, Garnett, Szczerbiak and other wing players will generally have to cover the most ground and make the most complex decisions regarding whether to stay with their man or switch off and cede him to another teammate. The big men down low won't have to stray far very often, but they will have to rapidly switch and cover for each other when an opponent penetrates or passes the ball for a dunk or lay-up attempt.

Because the scheme combines elements of both old and new, it can be difficult for opponents to figure out when the Wolves are using the zone and when they are resorting to traditional man-to-man match-ups. Saunders says the goal is to create enough confusion to retard and disrupt the rhythm and intent of the other team's offensive movements. The downside is that the Wolves could get confused. Saunders's amalgam involves an often bewildering chain reaction, requiring a high level of coordination and communication as defenders engage in switches, shifts, and double coverages all over the court.

Indeed, there is a danger that all this complexity will generate more trouble than it's worth. Although the Wolves are expected to utilize zone-oriented defenses more than any team in the league, the free-flowing nature and depth of talent in pro hoops will force them into standard man-to-man coverage anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of the time. But Saunders argues that "the level of talking and teamwork that is required in our match-up zone will help us become a better man-to-man defensive team." He also believes the hybrid should be judged not by how frequently it is used, but by its efficacy as a strategic weapon that can change a game's flow and momentum.  

"It gives opponents something else to think about," says coach Sichting. "For example, I know from experience how much easier it is to prepare for teams that only run a handful of set [offensive] plays as compared to teams that run a lot of different sets with a lot of variations." Under Saunders, the Wolves already operate one of the league's most intricate offenses. Now opponents will also have to prepare for a complex, unorthodox defense.

Because the Wolves are ahead of the curve when it comes to installing a zone-oriented scheme, they will enjoy the element of surprise, especially early in the season, as opponents grapple with the unfamiliar sets. On this season's opening night, the defense discombobulated the Philadelphia 76ers, who were playing without league MVP Allen Iverson; during a ten-minute stretch in the second quarter, last year's Eastern Conference champs scored a pathetic five points. On the other hand, skeptics can argue that the hybrid will produce diminishing returns when it matters most, in an end-of-the-season playoff series when teams become intimately acquainted with each other's tendencies.

"People who say that evidently have never played against a match-up zone," Saunders sniffs. "There are only a certain amounts of sets and variations an offense uses. If you play that team three times in a week and you are communicating well, you can take away a lot of what they do. We'll have more options to do that. I'm telling you, the longer we play this defense, the better it will get."

 

Ultimately, whether the Wolves rise, fall, or simply stay on the treadmill will be determined less by Saunders's fancy schemes than by the talent and synergy of the players who must execute them. Saunders agrees, saying the biggest reason to be optimistic this season isn't the zone, but the "continuity" of his roster. That's a positive spin on the fact that the Wolves haven't made many personnel changes. Then again, after the turbulent defections of Gugliotta and Marbury, the death of Sealy, and the banishment of Smith, a little status quo might be refreshing. What's more, the team has made some relatively minor but potentially significant upgrades in talent.

Having been deprived of a first-round pick this summer--a penalty for Smith's illegal contract--the Wolves didn't figure to get significant help from the college ranks. But because of concerns over Loren Woods's two-year-old back surgery, he was still available late into the second round, and the Wolves wisely pounced. In his first summer league game, the lanky center from Arizona proceeded to torch former Gopher wunderkind Joel Przybilla, a first-round lottery pick by Milwaukee back in 1999, outscoring him 24-4.

But it's Woods's defensive abilities that have already made him more valuable to the Wolves than erstwhile first-round picks Nesterovic and Avery. As a shot blocker, he mixes timing, judgment, and aggressiveness in a way that can't be taught. After playing nothing but zone defenses in high school and college, he was overwhelmed by the sophistication of Saunders's match-up schemes early in training camp; now his entry into the game (usually as a substitute for the starter Nesterovic) is the most reliable harbinger that the Wolves are about to shift into their zone hybrid. No matter what the defensive scheme, he discourages drives to the basket and synchronizes the team's defensive rhythms more effectively than fellow centers Nesterovic and Dean Garrett, who are restrained by, respectively, a timorous mindset and creaky physical coordination. Woods's inexperience and storied back problems have led Saunders to bring him along slowly, but at the very least he's a handy man off the bench.

Three days after Woods inked his first Timberwolves contract, the team used all of its $4.5 million salary-cap-exemption money to bring back Joe Smith. Asked if there was an upside to his year of exile toiling for the Detroit Pistons, Smith blankly stares ahead for a minute, then slowly shakes his head no. Ironically, money doesn't seem to matter to this thoroughly regular Joe. The first player chosen in the 1995 draft (by Golden State, four picks ahead of Garnett), Smith seems happy to give up the spotlight, preferring the role of KG's trusty on-court sidekick.

There is a kind of consonance between Smith's unassuming demeanor and his ability to draw offensive fouls, masochistically allowing opponents to bowl him over on their way to the hoop. His other forte is "help defense," which involves anticipating and quickly covering up gaps in coverage. This enables Garnett to freelance more often on defense, where his supreme athleticism can wreak havoc on opponents. It can also land Smith in foul trouble. But once Gary Trent's damaged knees are fully healed and the rust from two years of inactivity is scrubbed from his game, the free agent from Dallas can spell Smith--thus giving the Wolves the sort of stout, bull-in-the-china-shop enforcement that Reggie Slater (a fan favorite who was cut by the team) brought to the party last year.  

Smith's return also moves Garnett back to the "small" forward position, which better exploits his quickness and avoids the grueling physical contact that playing power forward exacted on his precious body last season. With a front line of Woods, Smith, and KG, the Wolves still lack the sort of rugged presence that can effectively joust with behemoths such as O'Neal and Derek Mutumbo mano a mano beneath the basket. But it does provide a trio of tall, lithe, and very active defenders who can weave an assortment of double- and triple-team coverages on opposing big men and swoop in out of nowhere to alter or swat away shots--one of the hallmarks of Saunders's match-up zone.

Garnett's return to small forward bumps Wally Szczerbiak into the backcourt at the off-guard (or shooting-guard) spot, where at six-foot-seven he will enjoy a distinct height advantage on most nights. Despite Saunders's protestations that Szczerbiak is quicker afoot than most people realize, there is legitimate concern about his ability to stay with speedy guards out on the perimeter or in the open court.

That said, it is important to remember that the off-guard position was arguably the weakest link in the Wolves' defensive arsenal last year, when the team tried to make do with the undersize tandem of six-four Anthony Peeler and six-three Chauncey Billups, and then marginally improved matters by picking up the six-five Felipe Lopez late in the season. The tragic loss of Malik Sealy--who was six-foot-eight, quick as a cat, and a defensive stalwart--still haunts this franchise. The more fluid maneuverability of the zone hybrid should help to cover for Szczerbiak, and with Woods and Smith on the roster, the team has better defenders to challenge the guards that blow past Wally and head for the basket. In any event, unless the opponents boast some quality behemoths, Saunders still likes to deploy a smaller lineup late in the game, with Smith at center and KG and Szczerbiak back at their old positions for crunch time.

When that happens, either Peeler or Lopez takes over at off guard. The simplistic stereotypes that have been attached to the two men--Peeler is a better shooter, Lopez a more reliable defender--aren't accurate. Yes, Peeler is capable of scoring in bunches, but his marksmanship notoriously runs hot and cold; Lopez actually had a higher shooting percentage last season. Meanwhile, of all the Wolves, Lopez has probably been the most disoriented by the complexity of the zone scheme. Peeler, on the other hand, came into training camp in the best physical condition of his nine-year career and has exhibited a fresh intensity at both ends of the court. (His height, alas, remains the same.) Right now, he's getting the crunch-time minutes.

 

While there are potentially a number of quality options to choose from at off guard, at point guard the choice is between Terrell Brandon and an express ticket out of playoff contention. It would be nice if the Wolves were relying on someone more reliable.

The enigmatic Brandon is the basketball embodiment of Minnesota Nice. Like the good Scandinavians who settled our state and gave it a social identity, Brandon is for the most part kind, generous, smart, stoic, and diligent--a class act. Yet he is also prone to baffling periods of lethargy and abnegation, which, if you ask him about it, he will deny with a passive-aggressive fervor. Last year he virtually sleepwalked through the first six weeks of the season, especially on defense. Then, suddenly, he became a magical dervish at both ends of the court, averaging 20 points, 9 assists, and 3 steals per contest while leading the club to an 11-game winning streak in January. What had prompted the sudden improvement in his play? "Nothing's changed; nothing's different," Brandon maintained in the midst of his magic act. "I'm playing the same way I always have."

Brandon prides himself on being the quiet, reliable, stabilizing force on the Wolves. Yet after a practice before the season began last month, he inexplicably called all those virtues into question by telling a group of reporters that the game could be more enjoyable when watched from the sidelines and that he hoped to become a part-time player in the next year or two, presumably while collecting his annual $10 million salary for the next four. After dubiously claiming that his remarks were taken out of context (a host of media members were present and reported the story the same way), he has quelled the controversy by playing a bit more aggressively while maintaining an absurd, 49-5 assist-to-turnover ratio through the season's first five victories. In a tough road triumph against the Houston Rockets on November 3, he pulled off two steals and the game-winning jump shot in the final minutes. And through Monday, Brandon ranked third in the NBA in steals and hadn't missed a free throw.  

Whatever his other strengths and weaknesses, Brandon's court awareness and strategic acumen is beyond reproach. Consequently, he is ideally suited for his role in the team's new zone hybrid. "The point guard is the one everybody keys off of, so in that sense he is the most important," Saunders says. "His knowledge of what teams are doing has a direct reflection on how good the zone is going to be."

That statement would be more reassuring if Brandon's backups knew what they were doing. Last season Chauncey Billups proved to be too small on defense, too inaccurate a shooter to flourish at off guard, and too careless and selfish with the ball to thrive at the point. Limited to point guard this year, he has shown some improvement (then again, November was his best month last season). But he doesn't come close to matching Brandon's savvy on offense or defense. Former first-round pick Will Avery isn't even among the twelve players in uniform at game time (he sits in street clothes behind the bench), and he remains a long shot to stay with the team after his contract expires at the end of this year.

Saunders (clearly enamored of his new defensive toy) also says the zone scheme jump-starts the Wolves' offense by getting more players out on the fast break in transition. This benefits Billups, whose lone edge over Brandon is his ability to penetrate to the hoop (though he has difficulty dishing off the dribble). But even in half-court sets, Minnesota's offense should become more potent this year if Szczerbiak's marksmanship and height advantage at off guard are exploited.

Aside from a handful of centers and power forwards who rely on a preponderance of lay-ups and dunks, Wally Szczerbiak has been the most accurate shooter in the league among starters over the past two years. This year he will get more looks. Unfortunately, he was too often ignored last season--even the rim-clanking Billups averaged more attempts per minute. Possessing one of basketball's fastest releases on his jump shot, Szczerbiak doesn't need much room to get comfortable. Now that the surgically repaired knee that hampered his mobility last season has completely healed, he can drive toward the basket when opponents do try to jam him out on the perimeter. He can also consistently back smaller defenders down into the low post for a short turnaround jumper, as he did to Michael Dickerson in the fourth quarter of the Wolves' win over Memphis on November 2.

Szczerbiak is acutely aware that KG is the top dog in virtually all aspects of the team (a fact Garnett reemphasized last year in a celebrated locker-room scuffle). And he has been deferential to a fault in the half-court offense; which is why it was heartening to see him finally commanding the ball (and KG willingly giving it to him) when he locked into a rhythm against the Knicks last week and poured in 20 points in the game's first 15 minutes. This was just one game after KG himself had gone off for 37 points in a win over Houston.

Brandon also is capable of scoring in bunches. And, coming off the bench, Peeler can rain down a flurry of long-range three-pointers that can rally or, when he's cold, doom the Wolves' offense. So it's hard not to wince when Smith starts launching his open jumpers. At least he's accurate enough to keep defenses honest, and--unlike Peeler or Billups--smart enough to give up the ball when the shots aren't falling. Even Woods has a surprisingly sure hand on jump shots straight on from the foul line--his pet spot. And because Saunders has emphasized efficiency and unselfishness in a pass-oriented framework, Minnesota will once again generate lots of assists and very few turnovers. The only thing missing from the Wolves' attack is a money-in-the-bank scorer down in the low post. Even so, the team could have one of the top three or four offenses in the league this year.  

The abiding question is whether the new defensive wrinkles and shrewd player acquisitions can complement this nifty offense enough for the Wolves to finally get the monkey off their backs and progress past the first round of the playoffs. Right now, even an optimist would have to answer that with a big maybe.

It's quite possible that Minnesota could leapfrog over Phoenix, Portland, and Utah and stay ahead of Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers in the rugged Western Conference. But to gain home-court advantage in the playoffs, they will have to finish no worse than fourth in the conference standings, which means overtaking at least one very potent team from among the champion Lakers, San Antonio Spurs (which had the NBA's best regular season record last year), and the much-improved ball clubs in Dallas and Sacramento. In recent years the team has managed to avoid debilitating injuries to key players, but given the checkered history of Brandon's ankles and Szczerbiak's knees (not to mention Woods's vertebrae and Trent's knees), there's no assurance that luck will continue. And if KG gets hurt, all bets are off.

But why not look on the bright side? Unlike the frothing followers of the Vikings, Wolves fans haven't been spoiled into the sort of championship-or-bust mentality that almost ensures eternal anguish. Nor do they have to worry about a bunch of venal billionaires shutting down their franchise (at least not in the near future). Given the dolor cast by Sealy's death, the handwringing over the banishment of Smith, and the lost draft picks just a year ago, who would've thought the Wolves would be sitting this pretty right now? At the very least, it seems the treadmill is back on terra firma.


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