Stepping Up

It's tempting to think the Timberwolves are living in a month-long moment of déjà vu. A year ago, the club lurched out of the gate with a 9-8 record that was beset by torpid ball movement and horrible perimeter defense, only to snap to attention for three solid months, going 34-9 after the calendar flipped to December. This season, same stumble, except that their kinship with mediocrity lasted just 11 games (6-5), culminating in a Thanksgiving turkey of a performance against Indiana that flushed their indifference enough for them to wax their next five opponents, the last four on a rugged West Coast road trip.

The best of many good things about the jaunt out west was the return of Hopalong Cassell, the loping gunslinger who saves most of his powder for fourth-quarter crunch time, then puts on a dazzling display of long-range shooting that steadily deflates the resolve of opponents until they die at the final buzzer. The marvelous thing about Hopalong is that his sharply honed shooting eye also enables him to espy more open teammates, and even puts some pep in his wobbly step on defense. Not only did Cassell's 25-point average on the four-game trip nearly double his previous scoring pace thus far this season, his assists-per-game were up almost 50 percent and he actually managed the rudiments of guarding the perimeter and not leaving his man's zip code on the pick-and-roll. I don't know whether to applaud or scorn him for so readily accepting that he'll play like shit in November and be in vintage form after that. But next year I'll believe him.

With Kevin Garnett continuing to figure out new ways to spell MVP and Latrell Sprewell remembering how to perform his volatile but vital third-wheel magic act (sometimes he's everywhere, sometimes nowhere), it's easy to see how Wolves fans might imagine that they're in for a regular-season rerun of last year. But, the ongoing virtues of the MV3 notwithstanding, the style and personality of this season's ballclub are very different.

Last year Minnesota made its mark on defense, limiting foes to a paltry 41.4 shooting percentage and just 89.1 points-per-game. This season's D is much more porous, as opponents are converting 43.4 percent of their shots and racking up 96.2 points-per-game. And while the team's defense has been stingy when it has mattered most during their current winning streak, opponents have actually upped their output, to over 98 points per game, over the past five contests. In part that's because Minnesota offense is both more prolific and faster-paced this season. The club's shooting percentage is nearly identical to last year, (46.3 versus 46.2 percent), but they're registering more than seven-and-a-half additional points per game, up to 100.2.

The catalyst for this is the emergence of Eddie Griffin. Last season, the five Wolves who played either center or power forward sank a grand total of 11 three-pointers all year. Griffin already has 20 (in merely 41 attempts), more than anyone on a roster that includes Fred Hoiberg, Cassell, Troy Hudson, and Wally Szczerbiak. Griffin's outside marksmanship has enabled the Wolves to convert an average of nearly two additional treys per game, which accounts for a large chunk of their bump in scoring.

But Griffin, God bless him, is not much for sage ball movement, chucking up more than 11 shots for every assist he makes, by far the highest ratio on the team, which is no mean feat with Troy Hudson on the squad. Eddie G's tendency to jack it up means the Wolves don't milk the shot clock as they did last year, creating more opportunities for their foes at the other end of the court.


Another reason for Minnesota's personality change is the switch from Trenton Hassell to Wally Szczerbiak in the starting lineup. You don't need statistics to see that this means more points for both teams on the floor.

Regular readers of this column know that I've been no fan of Szczerbiak, but it is time to give him credit for the improvements in his game this season. First he has taken pains to jettison his notorious reputation as a ball hog. Of the top six scorers on the team, he is averaging the fewest shots per-minutes-played. Even more noteworthy, of those six, only Griffin commits fewer turnovers per-minute. The days when Wolves' fans and basketball purists everywhere had to cringe whenever Wally set out on his great dribbling adventure through traffic are mostly a thing of the past. Instead, Wally frequently defers to the MV3 and Griffin in the half-court offensive sets, generating a lot of his points by cutting to the basket for feeds from the all-seeing Garnett, or racing out in transition--both of which have resulted in a plethora of free throws, which Szczerbiak is currently draining at a rate of 83 percent. When he does launch jumpers in the flow of the offense, it almost always a catch-and-shoot affair, which has a lot to do with his reduced turnovers. And because he is a renowned shooter, opponents can't slough off him to double-team the club's other offensive threats, as happens too frequently when Hassell is on the floor.

At the other end of the court, Wally will never be a shutdown defender like Hassell, nor even as capable as Hoiberg or Spree. But he is no longer one to run at an open man like a crazed stallion. He still lacks anticipation, or even the kind of abiding pride in shutting down his man that can really upgrade a team's defense. Yet he is now frequently attuned to his assignment on coverage and rotations, and simply cares more about following through on it than he once did.

Szczerbiak knew that he put himself on the spot with his selfish preseason demands to be a starter and to hear less from coaches about his miscues. I figured he'd get his way on the first count, but that coach Flip Saunders would give Hassell (and to a lesser extent Hoiberg) equal time, especially at crunch time. But right now Wally is a measly two minutes behind Spree as the second-most frequent player on the court after KG. The imbalance between Szczerbiak and Hassell has become even more pronounced during the winning streak, with Wally earning 167 minutes to Hassell's 90. Saunders isn't playing favorites, he's going with what works. Over the past five games, the Wolves have outscored their opponents by 57 points when Szczerbiak is on the floor; for Hassell, the figure is minus-23 points over the same span.

And yet plus/minus figures can be misleading--the more you play with KG, the better your numbers look, for example. Granting that Szczerbiak has walked his talk to perhaps the full extent of his potential, I'd stubbornly divvy up the playing time right down the middle when the choice is between him and Hassell. My justification is pretty fundamental--defense wins championships and the Wolves play far superior defense over the long haul with Hassell in the game. It also doesn't hurt that Hassell has a higher shooting percentage, and, per-minute played, more assists and blocks and fewer turnovers than Szczerbiak. Nor should Hoiberg--who offers the best balance between offense and defense of the three--be discounted. Add in Spree, a charter member of the MV3, and Saunders has four quality players for two positions. Thus far, riding with Wally and Spree has been the right move. But as Eddie Griffin demands more and more playing time, the faster-paced, lock-and-load Timberwolves will increasingly require a rugged stopper, especially in the playoffs, when defense becomes ascendant. And it's never too soon to establish a player rotation that builds momentum for that eventuality.

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