The Defense Rests

Timberwolves Coach Flip Saunders couldn't postpone the reckoning any longer. For nearly two months now, his club has been playing soft, routinely relying on talent over teamwork. Simultaneously salving egos and searching for sparks and glue, Saunders's player rotations and substitution patterns have been a game of musical chairs producing little rhythm, focus, or consistency.

After getting summarily spanked in two road losses the week before Christmas, the Wolves had run out of convenient excuses. The games took place in December, not November, so point guard Sam Cassell couldn't say they didn't matter, or that the team was just getting warmed up. Nor was an arduous schedule the culprit. The club had ample time to practice and prepare for Cleveland, and against San Antonio it was the Spurs playing the tail end of a back-to-back. But if the Spurs were tired, they retained enough grit to increase their defensive intensity as the game progressed. During a timeout with eight minutes to go in the second quarter and the Wolves up by 12, San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich blasted his squad for the sort of defensive lapses that have plagued Minnesota all season. The Spurs suffocated the Wolves, 68-42, the rest of the way.

That sums up why San Antonio is favored to win the NBA championship this year. By now even casual hoops fans know that quality team defense is what separates the pretenders from the contenders in this league. The abiding reason that the Wolves progressed in the playoffs last season was that they finally developed a reliably rugged defensive identity, holding their opponents to the fourth-lowest shooting percentage in the league. After 25 games this year, they rank a mediocre 13th in that category while yielding 95.9 points per game, a smidgen worse than the league average of 95.8 and more than 6 points per game more than they allowed last season.

After last week's defeats, Saunders finally had had enough, vowing to shake up the rotation and apportion minutes to those who "played the right way." But in Sunday's 35-point blowout win at home versus Washington, the two players so integral to last year's defensive prowess, Trenton Hassell and Ervin Johnson, saw a mere eight minutes of action between them. Saunders's most dramatic move was benching backup point guard Troy Hudson in favor of defensive stalwart Anthony Carter. Even before T-Hud jacked up five shots in seven minutes (converting just one) in the second quarter, he was an obvious sacrificial lamb. Since the first day of preseason, when Hudson announced that the coaches wanted him to be "more aggressive" this year, you knew he was in for a rude awakening if his shot wasn't falling. Because in Hudson's parlance, "aggressive" has generally meant hoisting jumpers with no sense of judgment to guide him, which is decidedly not what the coaches want. Milking the clock with sage ball movement in the half-court sets creates higher percentage shots and gives the defense time to gather itself at the other end.

After the game, Hudson remained clueless and selfish about what is being asked of him this year. Explaining why he shot so much, he said that in previous games this season he had been yanked off the court because his teammates weren't converting the shots he set up for them. Simple facts demolish this little fantasy. Thus far this season, anybody on the squad is a more reliable shooting option than T-Hud, who has been the Wolves' most notorious bricklayer, sinking a team-worst 37 percent of his shots while firing more jumpers per minute played than anyone except Kevin Garnett and Eddie Griffin. Meanwhile, Carter played taut defense and racked up four steals, three assists, and four baskets (in eight attempts) in his 20 minutes on Sunday. He deserves to split time with Hudson (as the situation warrants) backing up Cassell.

But providing 6-8 minutes per game for Carter is but a baby step toward addressing the Wolves' defensive woes. Tougher, more substantial decisions are still confronting Saunders. The most obvious change would be replacing Michael Olowokandi with Ervin Johnson as the starting center.

Yeah, Kandi's been playing well enough to be adequate recently, which only means he's due for a tumble. But even if he somehow maintains mediocrity, EJ is the more consistent, complementary option, especially as the starter. Specifically, as he proved last year, Johnson sets a defensive-oriented tone for the team right at the beginning, a focus sorely missing this year. And EJ is a tonic for Cassell at both ends of the court. Having played with Sammy for years in Milwaukee, Johnson anticipates and often moots Cassell's lapses on dribble-penetration and the pick-and-roll play better than anyone on the team. And Cassell in turn is adept at converting open jumpers off the crunching picks Johnson sets for him on offense--confidence-boosters that sometimes bolster Sammy's defense. After center Zadrunas Ilgauskas blitzed the Wolves' other centers for 18 points and Cassell scored just 3 in the first half against Cleveland, Saunders started EJ in the second half. When Johnson sat down 11 minutes later, Ilgauskas had only 4 points in the quarter, Sammy had padded his total by 11, and the Wolves had cut 5 points out of Cleveland's lead.

At 37, EJ is optimal for about 12-18 minutes a game. He should get them at the beginning of both halves, with the bulk of crunch time given to Eddie Griffin and Kandi and Mark Madsen filling in the rest.

The forward spots belong to KG and to Wally Szczerbiak. Garnett's a no-brainer, of course, and Wally is playing the best basketball of his career. Is he a better defensive option than Hassell or Fred Hoiberg? No. Would significantly cutting back his time send the wrong message to someone busting his butt, against his natural instincts, to be a better all-around player? Yes. Even so, I'd cut back on both of their minutes, in particular ending Saunders's ridiculous tendency to play Garnett when the team has a comfortable lead late in the game.

That leaves three quality performers scrounging for playing time, all with compelling arguments for being in the lineup. Fred Hoiberg has done almost nothing wrong this year, is the league's best three-point shooter, a vastly underrated rebounder and defender, and accommodates any role the game and player rotations thrust upon him. Trenton Hassell is a lock-down defender who doesn't need the ball but can score if necessary. And Latrell Sprewell is a team leader on and off the court. The dirty secret is that Spree has slipped as a defender thus far this season, perhaps due to his ankle woes. But he still expands opposing defenses, and has a habit of coming up big when the team needs him most (on the road, in the playoffs).

Strictly on the basis of this season's performance, Hoiberg deserves to start, with Hassell likewise owed a decent chunk of minutes. But life isn't that simple. As a proud man, diligent worker, and enormously respected teammate who, as you may have heard, is in the last year of his contract, Spree will get the lion's share of court time. It would be a gutsy, potentially wise, probably disastrous move to do otherwise. But how do you claim to want to emphasize defense and then consign Hassell, the club's best perimeter defender, to the bench? Saunders's answer has been to fudge reality. He has told both the local and national media that Szczerbiak earned the starter's job because he outplayed Hassell in the preseason, which anyone who saw the games knows isn't true. Sunday he said he sat Hassell for all but five minutes because Hassell's Achilles was hurt. Hassell says his Achilles is fine, although his ankle has been tender for a couple of weeks. He's still running better than Spree, who logged 23 minutes on his dinged ankle Sunday.

"We're going to play how we're supposed to play," Saunders vows. "If I have to play seven guys in order to do that, I'll play seven guys." Stay tuned.

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