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The Anti-Brandon Bandwagon

The Terrell Brandon bashers were out in force this past week, first clamoring that the Timberwolves point guard be dealt to Denver for Nick Van Exel before the February 21 trading deadline and then belittling Brandon's willingness to play hurt after he announced that the injury he suffered February 1 against Boston would sideline him for the rest of the season. In both cases it was apparent that their bias against Brandon's quiet, quixotic personality and style of play has overcome their common sense.

Take the injury first. After playing 44 minutes and nearly posting a triple double (21 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists) in an overtime win in Boston, Brandon complained that his left leg didn't feel right. It wasn't long before some members of the Wolves' press corps (along with callers to sports talk-radio programs) were privately renewing the familiar criticism that Brandon was malingering over a minor ailment, in part to sabotage any trade talks with Denver. In the middle of last Wednesday's game against Phoenix, Brandon told reporters that doctors had discovered a fracture in the cartilage in his left femur and that he was done for the season. His detractors were quick to emphasize that the point guard had jumped the gun on team officials, who were going to wait until after the Phoenix game to announce the injury and had not automatically ruled out his return this year.

How serious is Brandon's injury? Well, doctors won't know for sure until they operate on the leg sometime today, but after the Phoenix game, Wolves coach Flip Saunders said that Brandon's fracture "was basically the same thing that happened to Sam"--meaning veteran forward Sam Mitchell--two seasons ago. In the locker room moments later, Mitchell said that he "couldn't move for six and a half weeks" after his surgery, during which time his leg atrophied three inches from lack of exercise. Mitchell, who is renowned for his tireless work ethic, also said that he wasn't really ready to make a significant contribution to the team until many months later.

The Timberwolves have eight weeks left in the regular season. For Brandon to think he's out for the rest of the year is eminently reasonable.

Now let's consider the much-ballyhooed trade proposal of Brandon for Van Exel. The Star Tribune's Dan Barreiro wrote a column supporting the deal. KFAN's Paul Allen is another proponent. Sid Hartman (Star Tribune) and Charley Walters (Pioneer Press) both wrote columns saying the trade was a near certainty until Brandon got hurt--news that was heatedly denied by Wolves' personnel director Kevin McHale.

I've always felt that Barreiro and Allen are two of the more knowledgeable hoop junkies among the media, but the more I look at the deal, the more absurd it becomes. It so happens that Brandon (with 21,545 career minutes played) and Van Exel (with 22,326) have logged almost the same amount of court time over the years, making a statistical comparison between the two a constructive exercise.

The numbers show that Brandon is the more complete player. Van Exel's career shooting accuracy is an abysmal 40.6 percent. Not once in his 12 years in the league has Brandon ever shot that badly--his overall mark is 44.8 percent. And you know how the Brandon bashers like to knock his lack of penetration, claiming that he never gets to the free-throw line? Well, Terrell has attempted 137 more free throws than Van Exel, and put 257 more of them through the basket.

Despite tossing up more bricks than Brandon and getting to the line less often, Van Exel still has amassed nearly as many points. The reason? Nicky V has jacked up almost three times as many three-pointers. Yet Van Exel's long-range marksmanship (35.7 percent) is nearly identical to Brandon's (35.5 percent). I guess one way for Brandon to appease his detractors would be to start bombing away from behind the three-point line.

The one area where Van Exel holds the edge over Brandon is in assists--he's got 4,796 to Brandon's 4,407, with only 41 more turnovers. But since Brandon was leading the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio this year before he got hurt, it's hard to argue that the Wolves need an upgrade there. Besides, a missed shot turns the ball over to the other team two-thirds of the time, and Van Exel has 490 more misfires than Brandon.

It's on defense--where basketball games are won or lost, especially in the playoffs--that Brandon's statistical superiority over Van Exel is most apparent. In a nutshell, Terrell has almost twice as many steals as Van Exel, nearly three times as many blocks, and more rebounds.

What the Brandon bashers really don't like about him is his personality. Almost from the day he arrived in Minnesota, Brandon has been ripped for not playing through injuries and for being too laid-back to inspire his team. In his column arguing for the trade, Barreiro refers to Van Exel as being "hungrier," "cold-blooded," a "go-for-the-throat guy" who is "a better energy match for Kevin Garnett." This is utter bullshit. In both Los Angeles and Denver, Van Exel has added to his team's dysfunctions through sniping and complaints, by feuding with his teammates and with the fans. In his most recent game before he got hurt, he used hand signals to further encourage the fans in Denver to boo him, and has made his trade demands a consuming focus for the franchise.

 

Barreiro says Van Exel "will gladly take the big shot." Nicky V will gladly take any shot; he has always been either the first or second offensive option on his team, and if it isn't turning out that way, he grouses about it. How would that fit on a Timberwolves team where sharing the ball is paramount, where KG often dictates the offensive flow, and where an emerging Wally Szczerbiak, who is more effective the more he shoots, occasionally chafes at not getting the ball enough? And as for Van Exel being a "better energy match" for Garnett, does anyone seriously think KG needs to get more excited on the court?

Brandon has been maddeningly inconsistent during his years in Minnesota, and I've praised and criticized him accordingly. He's an enigmatic dude who must have been told at an early age never to court compliments or demonstrate ego. But in his own weird way he's an excessively proud person who is dying to be recognized for mastering the subtleties of "pure" and "unselfish" point guard play. Instead, he's ripped for timidity and lack of heart and it eats at him--there was real bitterness in his voice the other day when he spoke of critics "attacking my manhood" when they questioned the severity of his injury. Suffice to say that if Van Exel had been treated with similar disregard for three years, everyone within earshot would feel his pain, and the Barreiros and Allens of the world would be calling him a cancer on the team.

If the Wolves really were close to pulling the trigger on the trade, it's better for the team in the long run that Brandon got hurt and foreclosed that disastrous option.

 

Strangely enough, Van Exel's statistical profile--low-percentage shooter but better than average from long range; good assist-to-turnover ratio; mediocre at best on defense--sounds a lot like Chauncey Billups. Fortunately, Billups's personality is more in line with Brandon's modest grace than Van Exel's intemperance. Wolves coaches think Billups's natural talent has been stunted somewhat owing to the less-than-stellar basketball program at the University of Colorado and the instability wrought by three trades (the Wolves are his fourth pro team in four years) and his constantly being shifted back and forth between point guard and shooting guard. While I remain skeptical about his long-range potential and strongly disagreed with those who believed he should start at the point even when Brandon was healthy last month, his dogged work ethic and open and honest relationship with his teammates and the media make it easy to root for him.

While Billups's improvement has been a feel-good story, it is not at all certain that the Wolves' season is headed for a happy ending. Those who championed Chauncey as a starter were given a wake-up call Friday night, when Denver's backup point guard Avery Johnson torched him for 18 points and 16 assists, generating more than half of Denver's points in a 99-98 Nuggets victory. The bottom line is that Minnesota will rise or fall on the strength of team defense, an area where Billups and his backcourt mate Szczerbiak can be exploited.

A large factor in the Wolves' slump before the All-Star game was the ability of opposing guards to penetrate past Billups and Szczerbiak (and, to be fair, Brandon when he was healthy) on the perimeter. Regardless of whether the Wolves were playing man-to-man defense or the "50" match-up zone scheme, the penetration created easy midrange jump shots or, when the Wolves' big men came out to challenge the shot, passes to opponents left open in the corner or under the basket.

During the All-Star break, Saunders devised a new scheme, known as the "32" because it is a 3-2 zone, that puts Garnett front and center on the perimeter, where his height and quickness deny both penetration and effective passes inside. The new wrinkle has helped catalyze staunch team defense in wins over Phoenix and Miami (it failed against Denver because the Nuggets' big man, Raef LaFrentz, can confuse zone schemes by shooting effectively from outside) but has the disadvantage of further taxing KG's energy.

 

In the 32 scheme, Garnett must discourage passes or penetration on the perimeter, then scramble to help patrol either the wing or the area beneath the basket as the opponents' play develops. On many plays, he has defensive responsibilities from the three-point arc down to the baseline beneath the hoop. At the same time, in Brandon's absence, he has also borne a greater burden for offensive ball movement by becoming more of a "point forward." It is a tremendous double duty that only KG, the game's most versatile athlete, could accomplish, and even he can't keep it up indefinitely. Most likely Saunders will begin to pick his spots on when to feature the 32, as a complement to his man-to-man and match-up zone.

In any case, to prevent the superstar from burning out, Billups and Szczerbiak are going to have to step up their defensive play. (To his credit, Szczerbiak has already begun lightening the load for KG and Billups on offense with sharp passes to open teammates as opponents attempt to deny him shots with double coverage.) At least until Gary Trent gets healthy, Joe Smith is going to have to become less enamored of trying to draw charging fouls (nearly half of which result in Smith himself being whistled for a blocking foul), and Rasho Nesterovic needs to regain the consistency at both ends of the court that he demonstrated earlier in the year. Felipe Lopez has to improve his ball handling and lessen his liability as a backup to Billups at point guard. For that matter, it might not hurt for Saunders to experiment with Anthony Peeler at the point for limited minutes.

Brandon is gone for the season. Van Exel isn't coming. It's quite possible that the Wolves could generate the fifth-best record in the NBA and still lose in a first-round playoff series for the sixth year in a row. With 30 games to go, the pressure is on. That the Wolves deserve better than the predicament they face cannot be any consolation.


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