Minnesota Timberwolves VP of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale looked smart five or six different ways during Monday night's 25-point thrashing of the Boston Celtics, but the play of new point guard Marcus Banks was the largest eye-opener. When McHale's suddenly omnipresent sidekick, scout Rex Chapman, referred to Banks as "the key" to the seven-player, three draft-pick swap between the Wolves and the Celts last week, it seemed like primping, if not pimping.
More than two years (180 games) into his career, Banks is shooting a doleful 40.4% from the field, and his assist to turnover ratio is a fairly wretched 2-to-1.26. Yeah, the rep was that his defense was strong, but that made him sound like a younger version of Wolves' backup Anthony Carter. Why was Banks the Celts 3rd string point guard anyway? For that matter, why were the Wolves adding a 4th point guard to their roster? When the post-trade rumor mill had Banks merely pivoting in Minnesota and heading to Seattle for another swap, involving Reggie Evans and/or Flip Murray, it made sense.
But in a scant 21:21 of playing time Monday, Banks capsized any pat assumptions people had for his future. Credit McHale and Chapman for admiring and then acquiring his jitterbug quickness, but not even the guy's biggest boosters could have anticipated him going off for 20 points on only eight shots from the field (he added 7-9 from the free throw line), and six assists. At once cool and jubilant, he tromped on the throttle with zipped downcourt shovel passes off the dribble that would have been called for two-line offsides in hockey. And once in the half-court, he had his defenders bobble-heading their entire bodies in response to his deft hesitation dribbles, downshifts presaging his peeled rubber toward the hoop or his sudden, and on this night deadly, rise up for a jumper. Hell, defense was the worst part of his game.
We'll know in the next three weeks (trading deadline is February 23) whether the Wolves really do regard Banks as a keeper or bait for bigger fish. When I asked coach Dwane Casey after the game about the glut in the backcourt (nine of the 15 players on the current roster are listed as guards), he acknowledged that it was "out of balance." As of last night if not before, Banks and his relatively puny ($1.7 million) salary, which expires this year, was the most tradeable among Minnesota's quartet at the point--and he matches up with Evans and Murray (a combined $2 million, also expiring this year).
On the basis of one game, the idea of trading Banks is idiotic...almost as idiotic as making the decision based on one game. Now that Michael Olowokandi has taken his tortured rationalizations for underachievement to another town, Troy Hudson is the presiding albatross on the roster, and if McHale can coax another squad into eating the $25 million or so that Huddy is still owed between now and 2010, the Big Gopher's Lazarus-like renaissance will trend toward the miraculous. Marko Jaric is more intriguing all the way around--even at $33 million through 2011, his unique skill set makes it so perhaps he could be moved. But Banks needs another handful of quality outings before such a notion should be seriously entertained.
Bottom line, Banks had fans and media alike buzzing on Monday. In the locker, after it was noted how Ricky Davis and Mark Blount complement his game and relieve some of the pressure on his multi-tasking, Kevin Garnett himself cited Banks as another positive, and commented on his "explosiveness" saying that the ability of his point guard to "drive and drop it off [imagine that] makes me a lot more fresh" at the end of games. Here's hoping that the squat (no way he's 6-2; try 6-1 or six feet even), muscular kid out of UNLV is indeed the steal of this deal.
I honestly don't begrudge McHale a single endorphin of the satisfaction he must feel from rebutting people like me, who called him a Lame Duck a couple weeks ago, or Sid Hartman, who railed against swapping his beloved Wally Szczerbiak for "four ordinary players" and dubbed the Boston deal the worst trade in history.
Because even if this deal turns sour in a hurry, and even if it was set up with a couple of nasty kickers on the back end--Blount's contract, which costs about $30 million between now and 2010, when Blount will be 34; and the apparently ritual sacrifice of another first-round draft pick--the players the Wolves acquired have already demonstrated why McHale liked them in the first place.
Calling Ricky Davis a good defensive player was one of the few false bills of goods McHale peddled when justifying this swap, but almost everything else about Davis thus far makes him a better fit, if not exactly or always a better player, than Szczerbiak for this ballclub. The ability to create his own shot even against a quality defender is the most obvious upgrade, but what has pleased me most is Davis's court instincts and vision. Given his fairly gaudy scoring average (a hair under 20 points per game) and his misguided lust for a triple-double a few years back (he tried to rig a rebound off his own shot at his own basket, a classless dabble in infamy), I figured the guy would be just a bit of a ball hog. But where Szczerbiak's assists were as deliberately rendered as a schoolboy learning penmanship, Davis seems intuitively aware of the flow and pitch of the game, and heeds that physical intelligence when dishing the ball. Against the Celts on Monday, he had three assists that were so smooth and subtle that Hudson should have been taking notes. He's a gamer--getting 26 points last Friday, about 24 hours after the trade, and playing through a nasty forearm from ex-teammate Kendrick Perkins on Monday are exhibits A and B of that. He wants to be here. And whatever baggage he carries (the triple-double embarrassment is probably the worst of it) is a tote bag compared to the overblown KG-versus-Wally soap opera generated by one scuffle and one ESPN the Magazine article that a lazy national media neglected to update.
Casey is already giving Justin Reed Ronnie Dupree's minutes, those hopefully brief moments when you need some jacked-up athleticism as a finger in the dike while your stars get a blow. An added bonus is that Reed is an enforcer, willing to punish penetrators in the paint with hard fouls, taking to the role better than anyone on the Wolves since Tom Hammonds decided to fold his 6-9 built-like-a-brick-outhouse frame behind the wheel of a racing car. And unlike Dupree, he can hit a jump shot once every three or four tries.
We've already gushed about Banks. That leaves Mark Blount, the seven-footer whose best trait is nailing 16-foot jumpers. When your teammate is Kevin Garnett, that's not such a bad thing. Not since way back at the beginning of last season when Eddie Griffin was sinking three-pointers, has a big man compelled opponents to think twice about double-teaming Garnett in the low block. "We'll see how the different defensive schemes change up," KG said in the locker room Monday night, in reference to how teams adjust to Blount and him in the high-low post sets. "Because if they don't [change], he's going to get 18 every night."
The old Szczerbiak Rule should apply to Blount--don't, under any circumstances, dribble the ball!--and his copious blocks against his old squad Monday didn't impress me nearly as much as Stromile Swift making him look slow and confused down in Houston. But then again, I'm prejudiced against Blount, because I fear he'll take precious developmental minutes away from Eddie Griffin, a player to whom Casey doles out less love per valuable services rendered than anyone on the team.
Perhaps Casey would call it tough love. How else to describe making Blount the first man off the bench Monday, despite the fact that Griffin, in the wake of a 1-for-14 brick-tossing in the previous two games, had gone 5-for-6 from the field, and was leading the Wolves in points, rebounds, and blocks at the time en route to the team's 23-19 advantage. For that he earned a whopping 7:47 seconds of play. Yes, Blount came in a racked up 10 points, four rebounds, and three blocks his own damn self in the first half, and perhaps there are enough minutes to go around. It bears repeating, however, that in less than two years Griffin will have the option of whether to leave or stay, much as Chauncey Billups did a few years back. As much as we can bemoan his lack of consistency, consider that he is younger than Marcus Banks, younger than Justin Reed, less than 18 months older than Rashad McCants, and more than six years younger than Mark Blount.
Before we stray too far from the point: All four of the players McHale acquired from Boston have demonstrated their value, and complementary value at that, to the composition of this team. Monday night's blow-out gave everyone permission to get giddy for a minute. But now for the perspective: Before the trade, the Wolves figured to have to scrap to earn a playoff berth. Even if the trade continues to pay such high dividends, that will still be the situation between now and the end of April. Davis, Blount, Banks, and Reed is not going to propel this squad into the first echelon of the Western Conference. But they do seem to enhance the chance to bag a seventh or eighth seed (thereby forfeiting our first round pick to the Clippers as a contingency of the Jaric trade), and almost inevitably suffer a first-round loss in the playoffs. Depending upon your perspective, it's a no-win or a no-lose situation.
Want more Hang Time? Britt Robson breaks down most individual Timberwolves games in his "Three-Pointers" on the City Pages's Balls! sports blog.