Nearly one-quarter of the way through the 2002-03 season, it is my sad duty to report that this is the least exciting Minnesota Timberwolves team since coach Flip Saunders took over more than seven years ago. The Wolves' middling record is only part of the desultory story. Even when the team roused itself for four wins in five games, capped by a home victory over an elite (albeit tired and injury-deprived) Sacramento squad last Wednesday, a certain panache and frisson was missing from their performance.
The doldrums are most apparent in the club's lack of crisp ball movement on offense. Throughout Saunders's tenure, the Wolves have whipped the rock around with purposeful skill and efficiency, creating a bounty of open, mid-range jumpers that routinely placed the team near the top of the league in shooting percentage and assists, with a minimum of turnovers. This year, the accuracy and assists are down, there are more turnovers, and the joyful spectacle of synergistic teamwork on offense is no longer guaranteed.
At least some of this change in style has been by design. Accurately guessing that point guard Terrell Brandon would not recover from last year's leg injury for much or all of this season, Saunders decided to implement a "motion" scheme on offense that emphasizes player movement more than ball movement. Under this system, players move interchangeably around the court (big men can be out by the perimeter) and are encouraged to move toward the basket without the ball rather than waiting for the mid-range jump shot. Saunders predicted that these drives to the hoop would generate fewer assists but more free throws as opponents committed fouls to contest layups.
Preseason injuries to Wally Szczerbiak, Felipe Lopez, and Joe Smith tarnished the blueprint, however. Initially, Saunders substituted Anthony Peeler for Szczerbiak and Loren Woods for Smith in the starting lineup. But Peeler, a streaky shooter under the best of circumstances, has been consistently horrible this season, draining his confidence instead of his jumper, to the point where his shot selection has become tentative and dubious. Meanwhile, Woods' stint as a starter was sabotaged by his abject timidity on offense. Even when open, he rarely shot, and his ultra-conservative passes merely kept the team in a holding pattern.
It didn't take opposing scouts long to determine that the way to defense the Wolves was to double-team Garnett, shut off drives to the basket by Minnesota's guards, and invite either Woods or center Rasho Nesterovic to shoot a mid-range jumper when they rotated out to the high post. "What you are always worried about with motion is that the wrong guy is going to take the shot," Saunders says. "And to be honest, there have been a lot of times where teams are making runs and we have Rasho with the ball 14 feet from the basket taking three or four straight shots when we need to be running things through KG."
Replacing Woods with Gary Trent (and an increasingly healthy Smith) provided another scoring option that temporarily confounded the scouting reports enough to be a catalyst in the Wolves' little winning streak. Saunders has also been calling more set plays designed to get Garnett the ball, and then evolving into motion if KG is double-teamed. But this stopgap, hybrid style doesn't help the team create a consistent personality or rhythm. For weeks, Saunders has acknowledged that the Wolves "don't have an identity" and more recently has added, "we won't have an identity until Wally gets back."
Szczerbiak is without question a potent scorer whose return will dramatically improve the team's offensive capabilities. But Saunders's motion scheme will be reliably effective only if all five players on the court are familiar and smart enough to recognize and react to what opposing defenses are doing. In that sense, the team's two new point guards don't have as much responsibility as their predecessors, but still must do a better job of initiating the proper flow and mode of attack. In an effort to foster a more pass-oriented mindset in Troy Hudson, Saunders has been calling more set plays with him in the game. By contrast, the coach feels Rod Strickland can best utilize his penetration and low-post skills in the motion scheme. But Hudson is too consciously trying to balance his scorer's mentality with the need to better involve his teammates. Strickland has been beset by a strange inability to shoot as accurately at the Target Center as he does on the road. "I'm getting mentally tight [during home games] because I can't hit a fucking shot," he said, shaking his head in frustration, after the Sacramento game.
Put simply, the Wolves have changed the style and personnel of their offense so often thus far that even calling it a work in progress seems optimistic--a "work in chaos" is more like it. The lone saving grace has been KG, whose marked improvement in drawing fouls and finishing his shots with aggressive moves to the basket should silence the chronic criticism of his low-post play. He has achieved this upgrade without diminishing his prowess as a passer, rebounder, or defender. Alas, the gap in talent between him and his teammates has never been wider.
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