Jumping to a Conclusion

The good news: Kevin Garnett is still the best--and he's getting even better
David Kern

Less than three weeks into the season, the Minnesota Timberwolves are already proving what anyone who took a close look at the roster has long suspected: This is a team that will live and die by the jump shot. That the team's offense is almost totally predicated on rapid ball movement to get a man open for the outside shot rather than on aggressive penetration toward the hoop is borne out by the numbers: The club ranks first in the league in assists and dead last in free-throw attempts.

Unfortunately, even wide-open jump shots are not as reliable as lay-ups and free throws, which explains how in the space of six days the team could roar back from a dozen-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the gritty Knicks, then squander a similar-size lead down the stretch in a loss to the dreadful Clippers. Thanks in large part to magnificent starts by the team's two best players, the Wolves have captured five of their first seven games. Barring an unlikely change of character, however, fans can expect Jekyll-and-Hyde results from the team's offense to recur throughout the season.

Let's begin with the good news, which almost always comes courtesy of Kevin Garnett. The fifth-year superstar has refined and improved different elements of his game from season to season, but that doesn't account for the size of this year's quantum leap forward. While maintaining his status as the league's most versatile defender, KG has expanded his shooting range into three-point territory, whetted the wisdom of his shot selection, and upgraded his rebounding and passing prowess. In the two games in Japan against Sacramento, he torched Chris Webber--one of the NBA's most talented blends of size and quickness--for 65 points and 29 rebounds, then came home and made mincemeat out of the Knicks' Larry Johnson, racking up 14 more boards to go with a career-high (thus far) 35 points. When Phoenix (not surprisingly) opted to double- and triple-team him, Garnett whisked passes to open teammates; by halftime nondescript centers Radoslav Nesterovic and Dean Garrett had 17 points between them.

And that's only half the package. Where most offensive juggernauts take a breather at the other end of the court, Garnett kept Webber in check on defense, keyed a pesky half-court trapping alignment that catalyzed Minnesota's fourth-quarter comeback against New York, stymied Karl Malone in a home win over Utah, and has owned most of his team's important rebounds.

As expected, point guard Terrell Brandon is Garnett's most valuable sidekick. Brandon moves the ball with such effortless efficiency that it's hard not to take him for granted. A maestro of tempo and properly apportioned passes to deserving teammates, he almost never gets bottled up or gives up the rock in a manner that merely bides time for the offense. He leads the NBA in assists, with a better assists-to-turnovers ratio than his league-best figure of a year ago.

Ah, but Minnesota's stunning loss to the lowly Clippers demonstrated how little margin for error there is on this year's edition of the Wolves. Reprising a foible that occasionally cropped up last season, Garnett began the game trying to override the Clips' pressure defense by hoisting up ill-advised shots: After just 17 minutes, he'd converted only 5 of his 15 attempts. It threw the Wolves' offense severely out of rhythm for the first time this year and would have put Minnesota in a deep hole had they not been playing one of the league's most inept franchises that was further weakened by injuries to three of its top performers.

Eventually Garnett settled down and the Wolves clawed their way to what should have been a safe fourth-quarter lead--except that the defensive indifference Brandon had exhibited on the perimeter throughout the contest began to take its toll. Time and again journeyman point guard Eric Murdock dribbled his way clean, scoring lay-ups, drawing fouls, and racking up assists against a Minnesota defense that featured two first-year players (Nesterovic and Wally Szczerbiak) unaccustomed to adjusting on the fly. Back on offense, Garnett was dutifully dishing the ball to his fellow Wolves when the Clips collapsed their coverage on him, but nobody could sink the shot. The Clippers didn't win the game, the Wolves lost it.

In the locker room later that night, Garnett's eyes bored a hole into the carpet while Brandon chatted amiably with reporters as if the club had won. As the season passes through the claustrophobic days of late winter and into the home stretch of spring, it will be interesting to see whether the contrasting temperaments of the Wolves' two best players are complementary. It's hard not to imagine that the team would foster a more rugged mentality if KG could adopt some of Brandon's marathon-pace perspective and not be so hard on himself, and if Brandon would exhibit more of the competitive passion he obviously has inside him.

Of more immediate concern is the minutes both players are logging. As of last week, Garnett was leading the NBA in minutes per game, and coach Flip Saunders has already abandoned his goal of limiting the injury-prone Brandon to 30 minutes each contest. Given their primacy in the team's offensive and defensive schemes, the temptation to overuse both men is understandable but ultimately unwise.

Among the Wolves' supporting cast, the inexperienced starters Szczerbiak and Nesterovic are, at a minimum, producing what was expected of them. Szczerbiak has already established himself as the team's most capable penetrator, and, as he is fond of reminding everyone, his defensive ability is better than advertised. Nesterovic is a more long-range project and will probably perform inconsistently next year as well as this one. But the work ethic and most of the tools are there for him to be a serviceable NBA center somewhere down the road--and he's already better than Dean Garrett. Unfortunately, the team's most dire need--an offensive presence strong enough to command double-team coverage under the basket--is one of the most undeveloped aspects of Rasho's game.

The Wolves are better off using Szczerbiak and Nesterovic as investments for the future. For Minnesota to become anything more than a lower-rung playoff team this year, they need Sam Mitchell to get healthy and Anthony Peeler and Joe Smith to cease their enigmatic underachieving and, if nothing else, merely duplicate the skills they flashed two and three seasons ago.

On the court and in the locker room, Mitchell has always been a linchpin. Attitudewise, he is a natural leader who splits the difference between KG's intensity and Brandon's maturity. During a game he excels at the little things--drawing fouls, making spontaneous adjustments on defense, freeing himself for high-percentage shots, and above all avoiding breakdowns and stupid mistakes. Consequently, Saunders loves to play him during crunch time in close games. (It's a safe bet that the Wolves don't lose to the Clippers with Mitchell at full strength.) Because he's smart enough to know you've got to walk it like you talk it, the two off-season knee surgeries that have hobbled Mitchell all season have also somewhat diminished his contributions off the court. Assuming Mitchell can recoup his former effectiveness (and at age 36 that's not a sure thing), Saunders can groom Rasho and Szczerbiak in a manner that better fits their (and the team's) comfort zone.

Peeler and Smith pose different dilemmas. As a smooth jump-shot artist who functions best in controlled fast-break situations, Peeler should be thriving in the backcourt alongside Brandon. But while he's not the malcontent who sabotaged the offense last year, neither is he the deadly long-range gunner and well-rounded performer who graced the Wolves two seasons ago. His willingness to move the ball has been generous to a fault; he's often making the extra pass that results in a marginally better shot for a teammate but forgoes the chance to bear more of the scoring burden and extend opposing defenses in his direction. And while he is clearly in better shape than he was last year, his foot speed on defense has been disturbingly sluggish. If Peeler doesn't shore up these flaws relatively soon, Saunders could replace him with Malik Sealy, a defensive stalwart who doesn't hesitate to shoot when left unguarded. (And lately they've been going in the hoop.)

Getting Smith back into prime form is even more crucial. The former number one draft pick says he feels fine after an off-season injury forced him to have a pin placed in his foot and miss all of training camp. Saunders disagrees, saying the forward is at only about 65 percent. Hope that the coach is right. While his defense has been stolid off the bench, the offensive skills Smith displayed his rookie season and at times last year have been mostly absent, depriving the Wolves of the low-post threat they so desperately need. After turning down more lucrative offers in order to resuscitate his career alongside Garnett in Minnesota, Smith is due for a fat raise next season. He's young enough and talented enough to be worth what increasingly looks like a gamble, but the cold fact is he lacks the beef to bang in the low post, hasn't been able to consistently go to the hoop with authority, and too often settles for a midrange shot. In short, KG's versatility makes Smith's more conventional abilities as a power forward redundant. The last thing the Wolves need right now is another long, lean jump shooter.

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