With point guard Stephon Marbury gone and sorely missed, the Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves amid the most crucial period in the history of the franchise. Before Marbury's refusal to sign a new contract forced his trade to New Jersey three weeks ago, the Wolves' fortunes had steadily improved from the time Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders assumed control of the team's personnel in May of 1995. But even after Friday's stirring win over Miami, a sub-.500 record since Marbury was dealt and injuries felled shooting guards Anthony Peeler and Malik Sealy indicates that the Wolves have some significant flaws that Saunders, and eventually McHale, will have to address in order to keep the club's long-term momentum intact.
Begin with horrible shooting. Through Sunday, Minnesota ranked 25th out of 29 teams in field goal percentage. The departures of Marbury and Tom Gugliotta have put the offensive focus squarely on Kevin Garnett. But Garnett's unique talents are maximized in a more complementary role, enhancing the play of his teammates--he is that rare superstar who functions best by sharing the ball. As the team's clear-cut go-to guy on offense, he has seen his shooting accuracy plummet from 49 percent to less than 45 percent. And yet that's still better than the bricks hoisted by Peeler and forward Sam Mitchell, theoretically the Wolves' two other most reliable midrange shooters, who both are converting well under 40 percent of their attempts after sinking more than 45 percent a year ago.
Granted, all three Wolves were hardly marksmen when Marbury was with the team. A lack of preseason practice and a tightly packed schedule (both products of the owners' lockout) plus Minnesota's greater emphasis on defensive intensity have especially taken their toll on Mitchell, who is in his mid-30s, and Peeler, who reported for work overweight and underconditioned. But an even greater factor in the Wolves' shooting woes is the absence of a burly, bruising scorer down near the basket. Last year the team had 300-pound Stanley Roberts, a grittier, more confident Tom Hammonds, and Gugliotta's kamikaze drives to the hoop to keep opposing defenses preoccupied in the paint. This season Hammonds has been a mysterious bust, and while both Garnett and forward Joe Smith can deploy their quickness to secure offensive rebounds, neither has the lower-body strength to consistently establish position down low in a half-court offense. Starting center Dean Garrett has always been more effective facing up to the basket for short jump shots rather than backing his way inside.
The loss of Marbury exacerbates this weakness. Having built himself into one of the strongest as well as one of the quickest point guards in the game, he was particularly adept at driving to the basket well enough to draw the attention of opposing big men, then passing off to the tall-but-thin frontline trio of Garnett, Smith, and Garrett for easy lay-ups. New Wolves' point guard Terrell Brandon is three inches shorter and ten pounds lighter than Marbury. Less of a penetrator on offense, his forte is the pick-and-roll play out on the perimeter, designed to produce the kind of wide-open, midrange jump shots that Mitchell, Peeler, and (to a lesser extent) Garnett have been missing. And while Brandon may be a better pure outside shooter than Marbury, he does not crave the drama, nor does he elevate his prowess with the game on the line the way his predecessor did, which puts more of burden on KG and company.
With no formidable big man underneath the basket, the Wolves have been bereft of reliable three-point shooters who would extend opposing defenses the other way, out on the perimeter. When your offense relies on midrange jump shots, crisp, accurate ball movement is vital, and that only happens when teammates are totally familiar not only with the system but also with each other's strengths and tendencies. (Exhibit A is Utah, where a group of veterans runs the quintessential midrange offense.) Yet there are not even two players among the Wolves' current starting five who have been together for two consecutive years.
"Mercenaries don't win championships. You win championships with homegrown talent that stays together and develops as a team." That's what Saunders said he told Gugliotta in an unsuccessful effort to keep him from jumping to Phoenix three months ago. Now that Marbury has followed him out the door, Saunders and McHale need to avoid quick fixes and determine what fundamental pieces are needed to supplement Garnett and truly rebuild a championship contender. Unfortunately, Garnett's huge paycheck eats up most of the room for the team to maneuver under the salary cap. That makes the draft pick acquired from New Jersey--which almost certainly will give Minnesota a crack at one of the top six or seven collegians--all the more important.
If at all possible, a capable big man should be the top priority. Garrett, who benefited the most from Marbury's presence, is aging and not stolid enough anyway. The Wolves brass keeps raving about the overseas play of Radoslav Nesterovic, this year's top pick, who will join the squad next year when his contract to play in Europe expires. But European basketball produces pivot men who are notoriously soft when it comes to NBA-caliber combat. The ample minutes being given to converted forward Bill Curley--whose dogged return from injuries is a heartwarming story, but who is undersized, unathletic, and simply not a solution--indicates the dire status of the situation at center.
Yeah, the Wolves need long-range scorers too, but shooters are a dime a dozen, as the recent pickup of Dennis Scott attests. Getting a legitimate center would upgrade the defense (recent losses to the Clippers and Golden State were due in large part to the Wolves' inability to prevent opponents from garnering offensive rebounds) and prevent undue wear and tear on the team's two brightest young players, Smith and KG. Whatever the Wolves decide, time is running out. Even assuming Minnesota can re-sign him, Brandon has been somewhat injury-prone and is perilously close to age 30. Under the best of circumstances, it will take a good three years to return to the glorious promise offered by the Garnett-Marbury tandem. Without the best of circumstances, the Wolves will live and mostly die by the accuracy of their jump shots.
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