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The Best Offense is a Good Defense

Since he became a professional basketball player a mere 13 months ago, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett has played the game with an unselfish pride and subtle command that cannot be captured by box scores and highlight reels. On offense, this is exemplified by how often Garnett emerges with a hard-fought rebound in a crucial situation, and by how little time the ball stays in his hands before the outlet pass. But it's on defense where his contributions have been most profound. That's why, despite the marvelous season being put together by the Wolves' other forward, Tom Gugliotta, Garnett remains the team's most valuable player.

At first glance, the many people currently touting Gugliotta as MVP have the statistics on their side. Googs is averaging nearly eight points-per-game more than Garnett, grabbing just as many rebounds, and even doling out slightly more assists. (In fact, Gugliotta is among the league's top 10 players when points, rebounds, and assists are combined.) But these statistical differences are borne of style more than skills and effectiveness. Where Garnett, as the saying goes, "lets the game come to him," Googs is a more aggressive, playground-oriented offensive player. He scores more points because he shoots 50 percent more often than Garnett, whose shooting accuracy is actually slightly better than Gugliotta's. The downside of this aggression is that Googs turns the ball over about twice as often as Garnett.

Gugliotta has been the Wolves' most valuable offensive player thus far this season. Since the beginning of training camp back in early October, however, coach Flip Saunders has appropriately stressed that the team would rise and fall on the caliber and consistency of its defense. Gugliotta deserves to be recognized for curbing his playground tendencies at this end of the court, tightening the team defense by not straying as often from Saunders's switching and rotating patterns of coverage. But he's not the primary reason the Wolves have shaved nearly 10 points a game off their opponents' scoring average this year, resulting in the most successful opening 20 games in team history. Credit for that belongs to the relentless defensive pressure exerted by guard Doug West and the enormous improvement Garnett has made over what was already a capable package of defensive skills.

West and Garnett are a study in contrasts. West, the eight-year veteran who has been with the franchise since its inception, specializes in defense from the waist down, hounding his man around the court in a nonstop effort to deny him the ball. Garnett, the 20-year old "kid" with just 100 pro games under his belt, specializes in defense from the waist up, utilizing his incredible wingspan--what Saunders refers to as "those Inspector Gadget arms of his"--to block shots and bottle up opponents who already have the ball. There probably has never been a seven-foot player with Garnett's agility, and this unique blend of size and quickness can be especially devastating on defense.

Saunders believes that Garnett's defense actually might have suffered if he had gone to college rather than making the jump from high school to the pros, because in college he most likely would have played the center position and guarded much slower opponents who were his own size. As it was, Garnett had the most trouble last year covering relatively small, quick outside shooters like Charlotte's Glen Rice. Determined to improve during the summer off-season, he worked extensively in the swimming pool to enhance his quickness and guarded the jitterbug-fast players during scrimmages in Minnesota, Chicago, and South Carolina to hone his reactions. He also did some exercising between the ears, convincing himself that he matched up well with smaller opponents.

The other position generally regarded as a haven for explosive scorers is at shooting guard, which is West's responsibility. "I know the guys I play are expected to get a lot of shots," he says. "So the first thing I try to do is keep them below 40 percent [shooting accuracy], and also keep them off the foul line. I try not to let them get in a rhythm of catching and shooting the ball. You can't wait for the last minute to do your dirty work."

Last month in a game against Dallas, West seemed to be reveling in the defensive combat, hiking up his shorts and slapping his palms on the floor in anticipation as star guard Jimmy Jackson dribbled up the court. "The league makes certain guys out to be, quote unquote, 'superstars' or 'rising stars,'" West said later. "I'm pretty much past those days, so I don't look at it that way. But if these guys are as good as everybody says they are, they should have to go out and prove it. They'll bust my ass some nights and some nights they won't. Let's lay it out there and see what happens."

 

A case could be made that West and Garnett are both among the top 15 or 20 defensive players in the league, yet neither is likely to be seriously considered for the All-NBA Defensive Team awards. In part that's because they play for a perennially bad team in a small media market. But it's also because the kind of stifling defense that gets noticed stems from all five players on the court working hard and knowing their assignments. And while Saunders has the Wolves playing "D" better than any time since Musselman left in 1991, there are still a couple of weak links.

The less worrisome of these is rookie point guard Stephon Marbury. One reason the scoring average of Wolves's opponents rose sharply after Marbury returned to the lineup after an injury is because the rookie's offensive prowess generates a more free-wheeling, up-tempo style of play that produces more points for both teams. But another reason is that Marbury is enduring a sharp learning curve when it comes to being a perimeter defender in the NBA. Respecting the quickness of his opponents, he often allows them too much elbow room when shooting the three-pointer. He also hasn't learned how to avoid or fight through the bone-crunching picks opponents deploy. Endurance may be another factor, as Marbury expends tremendous energy running the offense, whether it's necessary or not. Sometimes, particularly against tough defenders like Seattle's Gary Payton, all his nifty feints and spins simply waste the clock and deplete his energy when a more economical pass or play would suffice.

Nobody expected Marbury to emerge as a stellar defender right away. To mitigate his mistakes and enable the rest of the guards to gamble more on the perimeter, the Wolves acquired 7-foot-2-inch Stoyko Vrankovic to be a intimidating presence under the basket, grabbing rebounds, blocking shots, and generally providing the team's last line of defense. To fulfill that limited but specific role, the franchise is paying him nearly $9 million over the next three years. Thus far, Vrankovic has proven to be the most significant failure of the Flip Saunders-Kevin McHale regime.

Although Vrankovic hadn't been in the NBA since 1992 and had a grand total of 276 minutes of actual playing time in the league before this season, both Saunders and McHale smugly assured skeptics that his years over in Europe had vastly enhanced his game and made him worth the time and money they had committed. They were banking on Vrankovic's obvious athleticism and shot-blocking skills--even now he ranks third in the league in number of shots blocked per minutes played. The rub is that the Wolves can't afford to play him very much; he's either in foul trouble, in a daze, way out of position, or all of the above.

Vrankovic has received a fair share of abuse from the fans, who perceive his befuddlement as lack of interest or effort. No matter how hard a player tries or studies, however, he needs a certain level of instinctual awareness to adjust to the pace of NBA basketball. This is especially hard to come by in seven-footers. Sometimes it can be incrementally developed over a period of years, as the Chicago Bulls have done with former Wolves space cadet Luc Longley. But Vrankovic is 32, which is too old to not already have your reactions encoded when choosing between fouling somebody hard or conceding the basket, or rotating on defense or staying with your assigned opponent. Vrankovic's instincts are a matter of too little too late. In that respect he is the anti-Garnett, which is why it seems like Garnett (and to a lesser extent Gugliotta) is always guarding two men, his own and Vrankovic's.

Fortunately, the Wolves have players like West and Garnett to compensate. More than ever, quality defense is what succeeds in the NBA, which as much as anything explains the tremendous drop in scoring over the past three or four years. Yet players willing to do the dirty work still go underappreciated. It is a basketball cliche that while offenses run hot and cold, defense is the constant that establishes a team's quality control. And that involves an endless series of adjustments and refinements by players with standards beyond fame and fortune.

A couple of weeks ago, Denver's Antonio McDyess torched Garnett for more than 30 points by shooting soft, fade-away jumpers from 10-12 feet away. Garnett has clearly replayed the game over and over in his mind; mention McDyess and he starts demonstrating the moves used to score on him. "A lot of guys are trying to put their body on me then [push off and] shoot the fade-away jump shot when I'm the defender," he says. "I don't want to say that I'm worried about it, but it is to the point where I'm concerned. I see what they're doing and I want to pick up on it. I knew what [McDyess] was doing but it didn't matter, because he was in a groove." He sighs. "Even the best guys have bad nights. Eventually I want to win one of the defensive awards they hand out. But all in due time. It takes work."


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