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THE BUDDY SYSTEM

          Let's begin with the obvious: A successful basketball team starts with a shrewd judge of talent in the front office, who then selects quality impact players and coordinates them with a coach capable of implementing his organizational philosophy. A very simple concept, really, but until this year there was no evidence that the Minnesota Timberwolves knew a thing about it.

          The Wolves' history is rife with ineptitude and instability (see sidebar). From Billy McKinney to Bob Stein to Jimmy Rodgers to Jack McCloskey to Kevin McHale, no front office person has been allowed to assemble personnel for any more than two and half years. That's why the team ultimately traded all six of its top draft picks from 1989-95, helping to generate a steady exodus of would-be impact players that include Pooh Richardson, Chuck Person, Christian Laettner, and J.R. Rider. Given this constant churning, it's not surprising that the team is on its fifth head coach of the 1990s (remember Sidney Lowe?), and that nearly all of them have spent much of their time feuding with the front office and/or their players.

          But the 1996-97 edition of the Wolves is different. For the first time in memory, there are no obvious scapegoats on the brink of being fired or traded if the team doesn't do well. Both on the court and in the front office, everyone's role is clearly defined. McHale, the vice-president of basketball operations, is a bold arbiter of talent who is unquestionably calling the shots. On the job just 18 months, he has totally overhauled the team's personnel, and is now personally responsible for having acquired or chosen to re-sign every player on the Wolves' roster (except perennially injured point guard Micheal Williams, whose fat, lengthy, guaranteed contract is beyond McHale's control). Following the traditional blueprint, McHale has corralled two impressive impact players and inserted a coach--his friend and former college teammate, Flip Saunders--who shares his philosophy and can shape the talent into a well-functioning unit. It stands to reason, then, that this year's Wolves will have no trouble eclipsing the team record of 29 wins in a season. Right?

          Well, not necessarily.

          The cornerstones of the team are 20-year-old Kevin Garnett and 19-year-old Stephon Marbury. Although Garnett is going to be a bona fide superstar and Marbury seems destined to become one of the league's top five point guards, their combined post-high school experience consists of a year in college and a year in the pros. The teenaged Marbury will be playing the game's most intellectually demanding position at a level of speed, physicality, and nonstop pressure he has never encountered before, while Garnett will be facing double- and triple-coverage far more frequently than in his first year in the league. Amid their brilliance, they will make plenty of mistakes.

          A more profound area of concern is at the center position, where McHale was forced to trade starter Andrew Lang (who himself was acquired by the Wolves late last year in exchange for Laettner) to Milwaukee in order to land Marbury. To replace Lang, Minnesota shelled out an exorbitant contract--nearly $9 million over three years--to seven-foot, two-inch Stoyko Vrankovic, a 32-year-old Croatian who hasn't played in the NBA since 1992, when he was a seldom-used backup for the Celtics. Like many European players, Vrankovic is a generous passer who sees the court well. A decent rebounder and shot-blocker, he lacks the athleticism to stay out of foul trouble when playing aggressively. Backing him up is Dean Garrett, 30 years old and possessing no previous NBA experience; and Cherokee Parks, a second-year player who is too soft physically to provide extended minutes at center. Against most teams, the Wolves are likely to move power forward Tom Gugliotta over to center during crunch time, and deploy feisty but undersized Sam Mitchell off the bench at power forward. None of these scenarios adequately compensate for Lang's absence.

          Then there is the matter of replacing the offensive electricity of J.R. Rider. During his three tumultuous years in Minnesota, Rider's constant tardiness and disregard for the rules were a distraction in the locker room, and his tendency to hold the ball on offense disrupted team play on the court. In light of his recent brushes with the law, his behavior problems seem to be getting even more pronounced. But having said all that, the fact remains that Rider was the best outside shooter and most potent offensive force on a team that had the worst long-range shooting percentage in the league and finished 19th in total points scored last year. His departure via a trade with Portland exacerbated an area of weakness for the Wolves, and to address it even falteringly, the club was forced to sacrifice some promising young talent.

          Specifically, McHale opted not to re-sign Mark Davis, a relentless defender and superior athlete currently starting for Philadelphia, in order to obtain free agent Chris Carr, an explosive scorer who played for Phoenix last year. Going into training camp this fall, the consensus was that Carr would at least split the playing time with Doug West at Rider's old shooting guard position. But thus far Carr has been selfish on offense and alternately listless and confused on defense, to the point where he is now competing with James Robinson (who came from Portland in the Rider trade) to be West's backup.  

          Australian Shane Heal is another player who is on the team primarily because he can shoot the ball. Already a cuddly crowd favorite, the sad fact is that Heal is too slow to be a point guard and, at just six feet and 180 pounds, way too puny to be a shooting guard. Once again, the Wolves probably would have been better off keeping Davis or another one of last year's rookies, Jerome Allen. At any rate, as Rider continues to rack up the petty crimes and go AWOL from practices and exhibition games, most people applaud the trade as a means of removing a bad influence from the team. It remains an open question, however, whether the lack of distractions and improved team chemistry on the Riderless Wolves will be substantial enough to offset the loss of instant offense and kinetic momentum that he frequently contributed to the ballclub.

          At the beginning of training camp, McHale loudly proclaimed that nothing less than a trip to the playoffs would be acceptable for this year's team. Hopefully, this was said more as a rallying cry than a hard expectation--a means of focusing the troops and getting them working toward a common goal. Because the truth is, at this stage in their development, whether the Wolves win or lose is not as important as how they play the game. For instance, has it really mattered to anyone that the club has improved its win total for the past four years in a row? No, because the petty bickering, careless play, and constant turnover in administrative and player personnel has persisted throughout that span. As mentioned earlier, this edition of the Wolves finally seems to have created clearly defined roles for its players. But it is also a club where fully half of the players, including their two most talented, have a year or less of NBA experience. Consequently, it is a team that needs to be given the time and space to settle in to those roles, to be nurtured into a cohesive unit that is eventually capable of exploiting its enormous and very exciting collective potential.

          This is where Saunders comes in. As the Wolves coach and general manager--and, not incidentally, McHale's buddy and tactical soulmate--Saunders has the kind of clout and job security that commands respect from the players. While it is unlikely that he would be employed in the NBA without his connection to McHale, his less glamorous roots are what really help him to be the best coach in the history of the franchise (which, considering his predecessors, really isn't as grand as it sounds).

          While McHale's life has been filled with more than its share of adulation and instant gratification, Saunders honed his trade in the hardscrabble minor-league cities of the Continental Basketball Association, coaching NBA rejects for teams in Rapid City, La Crosse, and Sioux Falls. He rode the buses and puddle-jumpers back and forth across the prairie for six winters. Like another CBA veteran, Bill Musselman, he is a keen tactician who favors a blue-collar defensive style of play, has a feel for the flow of the game and is adept at exploiting advantageous player match-ups.

          But what separates Saunders from Musselman, and practically every other former Wolves coach, is his refined blend of authority and empathy. He is a teacher with a blunt yet nurturing style, almost never losing his cool in public or going behind his players' backs to the media. He is not easily annoyed or unnerved by situations that require prolonged patience. Right now, he's the right coach for a young ballclub that boasts at least two potentially marvelous players.

          It doesn't take a genius to realize that the fate of the franchise is tied to Garnett and Marbury, preferably for the next decade or so. McHale deserves much respect for having the wisdom and the cojones to select Garnett straight out of high school in the '95 draft. It is difficult now to remember back just one thin year ago, when the conventional wisdom was that Garnett would need two or three seasons to get accustomed to pro ball, and efforts were made to establish a series of quasi-foster families in the Twin Cities so that Garnett would not have to experience the rigors of pro basketball while living by himself.  

          Hah. Almost immediately, "Da Kid" quelled the paternalism and validated McHale's gamble with an unprecedented blend of agile grace and emotional maturity. With the media and the public, he has been as personable as Kirby Puckett, and a little less banal besides.

          Behind the boyish grin, he is remarkably self-motivated and self-aware. After everybody warned him that Rider was a bad actor, Garnett averred that Rider had been invaluable in helping him adjust to life in the NBA. When a jealous Christian Laettner ripped into him for not being more deferential, Garnett quietly kept his cool and waited for the Wolves' braintrust to pack Laettner off to Atlanta. Modest and arrogant in all the right places, Garnett has a package of skills that enhance the play of his teammates.

          Last year, his biggest weakness was his relative inability to guard smaller, quicker opponents. After smothering smaller, quicker, All-Star forward Sean Elliott with superb defensive play in the Wolves' season opener last week, Garnett admitted that it was an aspect of his game that received particularly assiduous attention over the summer. "Shee-it," says Sam Mitchell, "I play against him every day in practice. When he puts those hands up, it's like trying to shoot over someone nine feet tall who's quicker than you are." At the end of this season, the Wolves have the exclusive right to try and renegotiate Garnett's contract. They will offer him a long-term deal in the vicinity of $100 million or more. Hope he says yes.

          While not quite in Garnett's class, Marbury is already an invaluable running mate for him in the Wolves' long-term plans. As Garnett mulls over whether or not he wants to stay in Minnesota or declare free agency after the 1997-98 season, the Wolves' ace in the hole (aside from a nine-figure contract offer) will be a point guard who is actually younger and nearly as talented as he is. What's more, like McHale and Saunders a generation removed, Garnett and Marbury are buddies, having established their friendship at clinics and tournaments where college recruiters drool over the nation's best high school prospects.

          But Marbury has more than an affiliation with Garnett to recommend him. Although currently sidelined with a sprained ankle, he showed enough flash and poise in the preseason to ensure that he will rank among the top three Timberwolves (alongside Garnett and Gugliotta) in minutes played by the end of the year. Combining lightning-quick penetration to the basket with accurate long-range jumpers (he, not Carr, will lead the Wolves in three-point shots converted this year) and great court vision and passing instincts, the teenager is already a force to be reckoned with on offense.

          His defense is another story. Out on the perimeter, Marbury gives his man plenty of room to shoot, continuing the Wolves' long tradition of lackluster defense against long-range three-pointers. Another concern is endurance. The greatest talent disparity between the starter and the backups is at point guard, where Marbury is spelled by the woefully slow-footed Terry Porter and converted shooting guard James Robinson, ensuring that Stephon will get plenty of minutes. Saunders likes his point guard to start defending the opponent three-quarters of the way downcourt, ensuring that Stephon will cover more defensive territory than any other Timberwolf. Don't forget, however, that Marbury is accustomed to the 20- and 30-game seasons of high school and college schedules. And he's already been injured this year.

          Marbury aside, the Wolves have upgraded their team defense this year, a tribute to Saunders, who has made the gruntwork of switching and rotating an integral part of the club's identity despite a paucity of defense-oriented players. The steady emergence of Garnett and the substitution of West for Rider at shooting guard are the key factors here. Like almost every other team in the league, the Wolves say they'll emphasize the fast break off of opponent's missed shots and deploy a deft passing attack once they are set up in their half-court offense.

          It's hardly rocket science, as McHale indicates. "It's all about matchups," he says. "The Bulls don't do anything special; they just space their players [far apart] and then let Scotty Pippen or Michael Jordan beat their man off the dribble and pass it off to the open man if they get double-teamed. We'll do the same thing; we've got to, it's age-old. We'll create some spacing for our best players to operate and have other players in certain spots so we know exactly where they're going to be if our guys get in trouble and need to dish the ball."

          While Garnett and Marbury generally figure to be the catalysts in this matchup-oriented offense, the primary "spot" shooters are the third pair of buddies vital to the Wolves' prospects this year--forward Tom Gugliotta and guard Doug West. Good friends ever since Gugliotta was traded to the Wolves near two years ago, Googs and West have a lot in common. Both are class acts in terms of their strong work habits, desire to please their coaches, and accessibility to the media. Of all the members of the Wolves, they were probably the most peeved by the double standards set up to accommodate Rider's transgressions of the rules. Two veterans on a predominantly young ballclub, both signed lucrative long-term contracts at the beginning of last season and then had relatively disappointing years on the court.  

          By the numbers, Googs enjoyed a very good season, finishing tenth in the league in steals, 23rd in both rebounding and blocked shots, and 40th in scoring. But he ranked even higher in frustration and it affected the caliber of his play. Googs was very tight with former coach Bill Blair, and was upset when Blair was fired in January, in part because of the coach's famously antagonistic relationship with Rider. Particularly comfortable in a freewheeling game with lots of ball movement, Googs particularly resented Rider's ball-hogging tendencies on offense. Often he responded by trying to do too much, roaming from his assigned on defense and creating turnovers--he was 14th in the league in that category--on offense. It wasn't that he was bad; it was just that he wasn't the magical player who spearheaded the team at the end of the 94-95 season, the player who earned a contract paying him about $5 million a year.

          This year, Saunders reports that Gugliotta was the team's most impressive player in training camp. "Tommy is going to have a big year for us," Mitchell says. "He may not be as big as some guys, but no power forward can run and do the kind of things he can do, and we've got to exploit that. I think he has all-star talent."

          West is a more intriguing case. The "Original Timberwolf," he arrived seven years ago as a lowly second-round draft pick and fell into disfavor with Musselman, who had to be talked out of cutting him from the team by the Wolves' veteran players in 1990. Always a well-conditioned athlete, West created a niche for himself as a defensive specialist; then, after Musselman was canned, West's jump shot bloomed with increased playing time. During the 1992-93 season, on a team that featured a trio of ball hogs--Laettner, Chuck Person, and Micheal Williams--West led the team in scoring by converting a sizzling 52 percent of his shots (just a hair below his own club record), racking up the third-highest point total in team history. His reward was more disrespect: The Wolves drafted Rider in '93, forcing West to bulk up a bit and shift from shooting guard to small forward. His point total and shooting accuracy have dropped precipitously every year since.

          Always hindered by the fact that his range doesn't extend out to three-point territory, West's two-point shooting percentage dipped well below the league average last year, to the point where he became an offensive liability. West blamed it on a lack of shots, which was really a tacit plea for more minutes and a steadier role. It could also be the case that his weight gain to play small forward or seven years of wear and tear have slowed him down, although that's belied by his typically tenacious defensive play. More likely, West is pressing. After being undervalued by the franchise for many years, he finally was awarded a fat, $3 million per year contract last season, upping the pressure on him to produce at precisely the time the presence of both Garnett and Rider reduced his minutes.

          This year, West has fought off Carr to claim the starting shooting guard position. His shot still isn't flowing the way it did four or five years ago, but to his credit, his intensity level remains the same. Saunders claims West knows the half-court offense better than any of the coaches. If, as McHale says, Marbury or Garnett get doubled-teamed, West will be in the right space for an open jumper. The abiding question is whether he can hit it.

          Put simply, if Googs and West both enjoy career years, then McHale's playoff prediction may not be so far-fetched. But the team record of 29 wins seems to be a more realistic goal.


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