The Man in the Middle

The 2004-05 season won't get any worse for the Minnesota Timberwolves than the pathetic events of Thanksgiving. First, the sorry saga of Michael Olowokandi took a ridiculous turn to the police blotter when the Kandi Man offered up the sort of hapless performance usually consigned to the patsy in a pulp novel.

The scene was Tiki Bob's Cantina in downtown Indianapolis at three in the morning. Olowokandi refused to leave the premises, at one point adamantly demanding to go back and retrieve his sweatshirt, a headstrong strategy slightly undercut by the fact that he was already wearing it. The Indy cops tasered him two times and booked him for disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing. The Wolves brass suspended him for two games.

Putting Olowokandi on the sidelines has proven to be a tonic for the Wolves in the past, but this time the dividends weren't immediate. Instead, Kandi's teammates played Thanksgiving night as if they too had recently tasted the stun gun, allowing an Indiana team ravaged by injuries and brawl-induced suspensions to toy with them for nearly the entire game. Once again the defense was tragicomically inept, particularly against point guard Jamaal Tinsley, who racked up seven assists before the first quarter was over. And once again combustible veterans Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell spent significant, and well-deserved, time on the bench during the fourth quarter. It wasn't hard to imagine the season turning very ugly if the team didn't right itself in a hurry.

Two solid wins over the weekend have quelled those fears. It may be too early to declare that the Wolves have turned a corner--especially if that phrase connotes that they are primed to reprise the stalwart defense that first emerged in December of last year. But it's apparent that the players were as unnerved as the fans by how indifferently the club played in a pair of games against Indiana and at home against Seattle.

Friday night's thrashing of Memphis signaled the squad's new dedication to teamwork, bolstered by the strategies of coach Flip Saunders, who instituted a series of changes to shore up the club's putrid defense. Assignments for defending the pick-and-roll were simplified. And Mark Madsen, who has guarded the pick-and-roll more capably than any of the Wolves' other centers this year, found his way into the starting lineup. Saunders also challenged Memphis point guard Jason Williams with a zone trap in the backcourt, a strategy that had worked well years ago when Williams played for Sacramento. Consequently, after converting 58 percent of their field-goal attempts in the first quarter (11 of 19), Memphis made less than one out of three (22 for 69) the rest of the game.

Not coincidentally, Cassell defended with more desire than in any of the team's previous games. "In this league," Saunders noted later, "if you get a reputation that you can't guard somebody, it is like being alone in the ocean with the sharks smelling blood."

But the arrogance that enables Cassell to be such a reliable shooter in the clutch prevents him from countenancing the fact that he's a defensive liability. And so Cassell had his own interpretation of the Memphis win, declaring that his clutch court time with buddy Spree amounted to "the first time this season the stars were allowed to be stars."

The argument that Sprewell is not being "allowed" to shine has some validity. After 13 games he has played just nine more minutes than Wally Szczerbiak, who has fewer assists and more turnovers, and can't guard people as effectively as Spree (though he is trying). But in the greater reckoning, it's not Sprewell but Cassell whom the Wolves need to flourish.

Put simply, Cassell needs to average at least 30 minutes a night for the Wolves to be viable championship contenders. To earn and maximize those minutes, however, he needs to exert some effort on D. And the Wolves need to compensate for his lapses, especially by having a fresh center who can guard the low block and help out on the pick-and-roll. Last year, Ervin Johnson filled that role, but EJ is a year older, and tighter officiating on incidental contact more frequently lands him in foul trouble. Madsen is undersized and has terrible hands and low-post moves on offense. And using Olowokandi is like playing Russian roulette with as many bullets as empty chambers in the gun.

Enter Eddie Griffin, who has quickly become the best reason for believing that this year's edition of the Wolves can improve on last season's performance. During the preseason, assistant coach Jerry Sichting gushed over Griffin's potential, daring to say that "down the road" Griffin could be the Wolves' starting center. Although Sichting's opinion has been reliable in the past, I skeptically thought it would be a long road. With just one year of college and three more in the pros under his belt, Griffin already had an off-the-court résumé that included a felony assault charge (for punching and then shooting at his girlfriend) and a history of chronic drug abuse.

On the court playing for Houston, he seemed to waste his size (he's two inches under seven feet) and extraordinary athleticism. He habitually launched too many long-range three-pointers on offense and frequently got lost on defensive rotations. I figured him for a punk who didn't know how to play the game and didn't care to learn.

I was wrong. After getting unceremoniously dumped by both Houston and New Jersey amid his legal woes and drug addiction last year, Griffin is rapidly emerging as another coup for the Wolves brain trust--a bigger steal than the acquisition of Hassell or Hoiberg last year. From the start of training camp he has been exceptionally quiet and alert, learning the very different assignments for playing the power forward and center positions. Frequently citing KG as a positive influence, and obviously thrilled to be here, he notes that his tendency to shoot so frequently from the perimeter in Houston was a product of the coaches telling him to stretch the offense so that Yao Ming would have more room to operate inside. (Reason #467 that Rudy Tomjanovich is an overrated coach.)

With the Wolves, Griffin has become KG's energy saver and the answer to the team's prayers in myriad ways. Garnett is a tremendous defensive rebounder who has too many responsibilities to crash the offensive boards. Griffin now fills that void. And as a low-post defender, he blocks more shots per minutes played than anyone on the team, and commits fewer fouls per minute than any other center. He's taller than Madsen, quicker than Johnson, and smarter than Kandi.

Currently nailing more than 48 percent of his three-point shots, he provides Garnett a passing outlet to the perimeter, or forces opponents to abandon their double coverage of KG in the low block. And as the backup power forward, he offers the skills and versatility to allow the Wolves to rest Garnett for more than two or three minutes without the team completely falling apart. Sunday night against Sacramento, Griffin sank four out of five three-point attempts (and registered 20 points overall), corralled nine rebounds, and blocked five shots in just 27 minutes.

Griffin still has a lot to learn about the game. His athleticism covers up some (but not all) of his blown defensive assignments and he has a tendency to shoot a tad too often. But he also has the surest hands and best passing instincts of any pivot man on the Wolves' roster. Best of all, he's just 22 years old, and seems to be improving fast. Sunday night will prove to be one of many occasions when he is the Wolves' crunch-time center, enabling Madsen and Johnson to go full bore in aid of Cassell when they are in the game.

If he keeps his nose clean and Glen Taylor comes up with the dough, he is the present and future man in the middle. That leaves Michael Olowokandi free to go find his sweatshirt.

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