Stuck in the Middle

Give Wally the ball! The Wolves might benefit from passing some of the scoring burden from Kevin Garnett to Szczerbiak.

Give Wally the ball! The Wolves might benefit from passing some of the scoring burden from Kevin Garnett to Szczerbiak.

It's quite possible that two years from now, Minnesota Timberwolves fans will be muttering about the team's unprecedented seventh straight first-round elimination from the NBA playoffs. Largely through the grace and grit of Kevin Garnett and the guile of coach Flip Saunders, the Wolves may well continue to wheedle their way onto the lower rungs of the postseason ladder--only to be summarily dispatched.

If you've followed the Wolves since 1995, you know the drill by heart. Newcomers to the team's rickety bandwagon will have time to get used to it. With Garnett's huge contract swallowing any salary-cap maneuverability and the fallout from the Joe Smith fiasco depriving the franchise of its draft picks, the Wolves have fewer options for importing improvement than any other team. On the current roster, most of the established players are either at or past their peak, and the young kids theoretically being groomed for greater glory have a woefully puny upside.

Rasho Nesterovic and William Avery, first-round draft picks expected to someday inherit the two most important positions on the court (center and point guard), aren't going to pan out. During the training camp before Rasho's first full season with the team, the Wolves' bruising center-forward Tom Hammonds presciently revealed (after some prodding) that he thought Rasho might not have the requisite appetite for physical contact. Toughness not being something that comes with experience, the Slovenian seven-footer is flawed under the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, Rasho is as fragile mentally as he is soft physically, suffering crises of confidence that exacerbate his slumps and make him a liability at the free-throw line. Once it became clear that Reggie Slater--a balletic block of granite more than a half-foot shorter than Rasho and Dean Garrett--embodied Minnesota's best match-up against San Antonio's David Robinson or Tim Duncan, the Wolves' slim chance of springing a playoff upset went kaput.

On to Avery, who does not possess a single facet of point-guard play--dribbling, anticipatory passing, shooting accuracy, shot selection, court vision, perimeter defense, quickness to the basket--that would make him worthy of being an NBA starter. Right now Avery's only ally is time: He still has a year or two left before the Wolves are compelled to admit they made a mistake in drafting him. Chauncey Billups, the other back-up point guard behind Terrell Brandon, can occasionally penetrate and sink the three-pointer--which works out fine when creative passing isn't on the agenda. On defense Billups is horrible: slow to recognize defensive rotations, too short to cover shooting guards, and not athletic enough to contain point guards.

With all of this youthful deadwood, Saunders and front-office cohort Kevin McHale will have their work cut out for them just to ward off up-and-comers like the Clippers and Rockets for the bottom playoff spots. The team needs to buy a draft pick from another ballclub or the league office (the precedent was established with Dallas last year) and use it and/or their $4.5 million salary-cap-exemption money to secure a serviceable big man. And if it's Joe Smith, he'd better have added 15 pounds of gristle.

Hope that LaPhonso Ellis can be persuaded to accept a mere 20 percent raise (to $1.4 million). Otherwise the Wolves will have to let him go rather than dip into that precious exemption fund. The devout Phonse was a godsend in more ways than one this year-- although, owing to either fatigue or adjustments by opponents, he became less ferocious under the basket (and a little too enamored of his jump shot) during the final six weeks of the season. Felipe Lopez, meanwhile, must be willing to accept a pay cut in exchange for a more compatible situation in Minnesota. If not, the Wolves will be in the market for a bargain-priced shooting guard, because they can't keep playing streak-shooter Anthony Peeler at the two-guard position when his jumpers are clanking off the hoop.

Given the alternatives, Minnesota probably can't afford to trade Terrell Brandon, a proven commodity who's more valuable than his many detractors want to admit, but at age 31, with chronic ankle woes, he's not likely to do better than duplicate his performance of the past two years. Here's another scary thought: It can no longer be assumed that Kevin Garnett will dramatically improve with each new season. In fact, his sixth year marked the first time KG didn't bump up his points, rebounding, and assists totals (he regressed slightly in the first two categories and held steady in the third). Aside from his oft-lamented reluctance to drive to the basket more and use his size, Garnett's room for growth resides primarily between his ears: He needs to channel his emotions more effectively, especially in crucial games.

It also wouldn't hurt if he cut Wally Szczerbiak more slack. Perhaps the Wolves' best chance to catch lightning in a bottle with their current lineup is to shift more of the scoring burden from KG to Szczerbiak. Whereas Garnett is versatile enough to be a great enabler of his teammates--the Wolves had a much better record when he led the club in assists, as opposed to points--Szczerbiak is primarily a scorer. Those who complain that he takes too many stupid shots should have to explain why so many of them happen to go in. The guy's a deadly spot-up shooter, as well as the most aggressive penetrator on the team. With a lighter offensive load, KG's tenacious defense is less likely to wear him out (as happened in the playoffs). And spreading the offense around toward midrange jump-shooters like Szczerbiak could be Minnesota's nifty antidote to the zone defenses being permitted under the new rules next season.

After being eliminated from the playoffs two seasons ago, Saunders announced that the Wolves would try to find an exciting player to galvanize the team. On elimination day this year, there was no such proclamation. (Not that anything came of the first promise.) This time the coach merely said, "We've got guys with big summers ahead of them."

Beginning, presumably, with Rasho, Avery, and Billups. But it will take more than that for the Wolves to climb out of their first-round rut. Perhaps Saunders, whose long experience in the chaotic, minor-league CBA has made him almost gleefully adept at revisions on the fly, has a big summer ahead of him, too.