The Glue Guy
Over the past couple of weeks, a number of readers have taken issue with the last sentence in my previous Hang Time column, which opines that Fred Hoiberg should remain ahead of Wally Szczerbiak in the Timberwolves' player rotation if and when Szczerbiak returns from his chronic plantar fasciitis injury. The few who have simply called me an idiot or a moron are good merely for personal comic relief, having offered no analytical rebuttal of their own. But those who have provided more thoughtful responses deserve a more detailed explanation, especially since I believe the Wolves' improbably successful 4-1 road trip last week has only strengthened my argument.
A salient point among the Szczerbiak boosters is that Wally has been a reliable scoring machine since he entered the league, converting more than half of his career shots while pumping in more than 17 points per game over the past two seasons. Some have also noted that the Wolves posted a gaudy 33-15 record after Szczerbiak returned to the starting lineup last January. By contrast, Hoiberg has been a career journeyman on losing teams during his eight years in the league, barely averaging five points per game while sinking a woeful 41 percent of his shots.
But this simplistic comparison ignores a boatload of circumstances. Almost from the beginning of his career, Szczerbiak has been the second offensive option on a team that has emphasized crisp ball movement to generate open jump shots, led by a superstar, Kevin Garnett, who frees up space for his teammates by always commanding double coverage. It's been an optimal situation for a pure shooter like Wally. Hoiberg has rarely been a regular second option in his team's offense, and before this year had never played with a teammate of KG's caliber.
Granted, Szczerbiak has always been one of the best in the league at putting the ball in the hoop. His scoring efficiency, measured by points per shot taken, was a very solid 1.252 last year, and 1.26 for his career. But Hoiberg's low shooting percentage is deceptive because he has been something of a three-point specialist for much of his career; he makes enough long-range bombs to have entered this season with a better scoring efficiency, 1.267 points per shot, than Wally. Deploying excellent shot selection while playing alongside the star triumvirate of KG, Sam Cassell, and Latrell Sprewell through the first 20 games of this season, Hoiberg's scoring efficiency has been a magnificent 1.5 points per shot--he's nailing 47.2 percent of his treys, 51.3 percent of his field goal attempts overall, and 87.8 percent of his foul shots. Put simply, Hoiberg is a more efficient scorer than Szczerbiak, whose lone strength is the ability to generate points.
This does not mean that Hoiberg is a better shooter than Wally. Because a team's primary scorers bear the burden of taking the tough shots when the offensive sets are disrupted, there can often be an inverse relationship between scoring proficiency and scoring efficiency, especially among mid-range jump shooters like Kobe, Allen Iverson, and Szczerbiak. But the revamped roster that Szczerbiak will hopefully join one day doesn't need any more primary scorers. KG, Cassell, and Spree all need to frequently handle the ball and create opportunities for themselves and others in order to get into a comfortable rhythm that maximizes their talent. A significant reason why the Wolves' offense was misfiring earlier this season was because Cassell and Spree in particular were circumscribing their creativity compared to their customary roles on previous teams.
Injuries to the Wolves' top two centers--Michael Olowokandi and Mark Madsen--on the last two games of the recent road trip freed up more offensive possessions for the team's star trio, resulting in some of the season's most exciting and effusive individual displays on offense, and, not incidentally, a pair of victories. Throw in the win over Phoenix (where Madsen was out and Kandi was limited to just 20 minutes and five field goal attempts), and KG, Spree, and Cassell averaged 21.3, 21, and 19 shots per game respectively, in the team's last three contests. Overall, the trio jacked up 74 percent of the Wolves' total attempts in those games. Obviously, the Wolves are better defensively with Kandi or Madsen on the floor, but wasn't the scoring display of the last three games the Wolves offense you hoped to see when the season began?
Obviously, Minnesota's offense doesn't have room for another shooter on the floor who needs the ball to be effective, especially when Olowokandi comes back. What they need are the sort of glue guys that enable potentially great teams to become champions--players like the Brian Shaws, John Paxtons, and Rick Foxes that Phil Jackson used to supplement his superstars in Chicago and Los Angeles, and guys like Malik Rose and Bruce Bowen who fit clearly defined roles alongside Tim Duncan in San Antonio last season.
Szczerbiak is anti-glue. Even during his all-star season two years ago, wizened, respected teammates like Terrell Brandon and Sam Mitchell went public with complaints that he hogged the ball. Wally's relationship with KG has been notoriously rocky. Aside from scoring, there is not one aspect of his game that is above mediocre. After the Lakers "kicked his butt" (Kevin McHale's words) in last year's playoff series, Szczerbiak sought to downplay the whupping rather than simply come clean and vow to improve. How many times have Wolves fans seen him turn the ball over by dribbling with his head down into traffic, or lose his place in the defensive rotations? How well will that be tolerated from a player who will now be the club's fourth offensive option?
On the other hand, from the moment he suffered a deep gash in his chin diving on the floor in the first minutes of the season, Hoiberg has been superglue for the Wolves. When a teammate is being trapped on the perimeter, Hoiberg rushes over to bail him out, and then promptly gives the ball back. His passes are usually shrewd and accurate and he rarely dribbles into difficulty, resulting in an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.92-to-1 that is nearly twice as productive as Szczerbiak's 1.56-to-1 ratio last season. Despite being two inches shorter than Wally, Hoiberg is averaging almost exactly as many rebounds per minutes played as Szczerbiak did a year ago. Hoiberg defends the pick-and-roll more adeptly than Wally, already knows his defensive assignments more thoroughly, and fouls opponents with more savvy--on breakaways or when a basket is otherwise likely--than any Timberwolf since Mitchell.
The bottom line is that Hoiberg doesn't need the ball to be effective, but can rack up the points when called upon. That's why KG--whose idolization of Michael Jordan extends to his emulation of Air's chalk-dusting of sideline commentators--has affectionately nicknamed him "Freddie P.," in honor of Jordan's Chicago sidekick John Paxton. That's why he's fourth on the team in minutes played, has been cited by coach Flip Saunders as the team's second-most consistent player this season (behind KG), and is routinely called upon to do the crucial little things like inbound the ball in the final seconds of a tie game with the Clippers last Sunday.
Nobody should mistake Fred Hoiberg for a star, because he certainly isn't. His incredible shooting percentages are sure to drop some. If Szczerbiak's foot is ever healthy, Wally is a better player to finish the fast break (although Hoiberg is better in the middle of the break), and, despite his lackluster defense, Szczerbiak's size will occasionally make him a better matchup against the league's larger forwards. But for the most part, while the absence of Troy Hudson is glaring because of how much the 34-year-old Cassell has been taxed at point guard, Hoiberg--along with other glue guys like Trenton Hassell, Gary Trent (earlier), and Ervin Johnson (recently)--has more than compensated for Szczerbiak being out. And unless or until Szczerbiak can prove otherwise, Freddie P. deserves 20 to 25 minutes a night.
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