The Other Half of the Franchise

It was easily the worst game of Stephon Marbury's young life. Last Friday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Minnesota Timberwolves' 6-2 point guard missed all eight of his field-goal attempts, capped by a long-range three-pointer that sailed past the rim by a good six feet. At the free-throw line, where his accuracy had been 80 percent, Marbury was likewise bereft of rhythm, clanking three of seven shots off the sides and back of the hoop. Worst of all, with Cleveland coach and defensive guru Mike Fratello devising a scheme that had 5-10 rookie jitterbug Brevin Knight and a host of teammates harass Marbury out on the perimeter, the man who ignites the Wolves' offense had as many turnovers (seven) as points (four) and assists (three) combined. More than anything else, that's why the less-talented Cavs pasted the Wolves 103-80 amid the first Target Center boos Marbury has heard during his brief career in Minnesota.

In the locker room, Marbury, following a routine first instituted by Kevin Garnett, normally doesn't answer questions or otherwise speak to the media until he is completely dressed. Then, especially if he has played well, he responds in a monotone, thoughtfully guarding his commentary until it is little more than obvious observations or downright clichés. After the Cavs game, however, he emerged from the shower, plopped himself into a chair, draped a towel over his lap, and regaled the media horde with a 10-minute soliloquy.

"I'll just give y'all a brief comment. I played like shiiiiiiit!" he began, breaking into a high-pitched wail, a smile tugging at his lips. "I'm not going to be talking to you about it--just write something bad," he added, then good-naturedly forged ahead. "In the second quarter I had no energy, no hop to my step. If I wanted to try and do this I couldn't have played this badly... I thought I was focused but my mind wasn't in the game. I shouldn't have been out there... Everything starts with me at the point guard. If I play well and get a lot of assists, we win and I take the credit. Tonight I take the struggle for the way we played."

Finally a member of the media squeezed in a question: Would it be better if the Wolves had a game tomorrow, instead of having to wait a few days? "Yeah it would," Marbury answered quickly, then immediately reconsidered. "Nah, we need the practice--I need the practice. I have to sit down and watch the film, so I can make sure it doesn't happen again." The little smile flickered once more. "I doubt that it will happen again."

Ever since his first press conference as a Timberwolf, when he declared that "point guards are sent from God," Marbury has exuded an aura of inevitability about his future leadership of this franchise, with or without Kevin Garnett. He's rarely boastful, and his physical panache, seething determination, and craving of responsibility have set a standard for his performance that no mere braggadocio could establish. In that respect, Marbury's eagerly embraced, out-of-character locker-room behavior on Friday was simply part of his purposeful maturation. Indeed, even during his scathing self-critique, Marbury made it plain that he viewed his horrendous outing as a rite of passage, claiming that "I went through an experience every player goes through," and noting that "the best thing about this is that we have 75 more games--that's a lot of games."

In this way, ever so steadily, his leadership is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Among the Wolves' magnificent trio, Garnett is the team's emotional motivator and holler guy, while Tom Gugliotta is the offensive anchor who is expected to take the big shot with the game on the line. But during the first month of this season, the overall caliber of Marbury's play has been the most reliable barometer of how the team will ultimately fare. The Wolves' most surprising losses have been the disaster against Cleveland and a close defeat at home against Washington, in which the Wizards consistently deployed a trapping defense out on the perimeter that effectively took the ball out of Marbury's hands and slowed down the pace of the game. And in Minnesota's most unexpected victory to date, on the road against Phoenix, Marbury outplayed All-Star guards Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson to almost single-handedly spark a come-from-behind rally in the final quarter.

With a full year of pro ball under his belt, Marbury's improvement this season was a foregone conclusion. Yet the splendor and totality of it has still been a pleasure to witness. His shooting percentage is up and he remains a legitimate long-range threat despite the more distant three-point line. True to his word, he has toughened his defense, albeit to a mediocre level. And he continues to excel at maintaining his dribble in the face of pressure. More than anything, however, Marbury has learned how and when to involve his teammates in the offense, the most fundamentally important task for any point guard. Where last season he was just as likely to come out firing as give up the ball, this year he consciously looks for passes early that exploit advantageous matchups and defensive rotations. This both conserves his own shooting option for when the defense is looking elsewhere (hence his late-game heroics) and gets the Wolves in a rhythm of rapid ball movement that, when fully functional, transforms Minnesota into one of the two or three best offensive teams in the league.  

Opposing ballclubs have taken note. As the Washington and Cleveland games demonstrated, the way to beat the Wolves is to trap Marbury on the perimeter and bang their big men--the sub-par centers and finesse-oriented forwards Garnett and Gugliotta--underneath the basket. Already it is clear that Chris Carr is a better backcourt mate to counterattack this strategy than Doug West, since Carr is a superior outside shooter when opponents leave him open to concentrate on Marbury (plus Marbury's defensive improvements mean he needs less help from West at that end of the court). But ultimately it is Marbury who must rise to the challenge by either recognizing the traps sooner or fighting through them more strenuously. If that occurs, he will ratify a growing consensus around the league that he ranks with Jason Kidd and Rod Strickland in the second-tier of star point guards behind Gary Payton, John Stockton, and Terrell Brandon. And of these, all but Kidd, at 24, are at least seven years older than the 20-year-old Marbury.

In fact here is a thought that should make Wolves owner Glen Taylor quake in his wingtips: It is quite possible that Marbury will command a bigger contract to remain with the Wolves long-term at the end of this season than the six-year, $125-million deal required to secure Garnett's services after last year. Of the two budding superstars, Garnett still is more likely to develop into a uniquely talented force in the league--his package of size, skills, and selflessness is already unparalleled. But the recent $2.6-billion television contract could add as much as $11 million to the amount each team can spend under the league's salary-cap structure, enabling many otherwise-constrained teams to bid for Marbury. Certainly the quality of his leadership--he wants the ball in key situations, yet is disciplined and talented enough to also find the open teammate with the game on the line--and the versatility of his game make him attractive to most any ballclub. And having made a huge investment in Garnett, Taylor ironically cannot afford to go halfway in his bold venture to turn the Wolves into a championship contender; given the synergy of their talents and temperaments, not signing Marbury severely diminishes Garnett's chances of becoming the marquee champion that will enable Taylor to hit the marketing jackpot.

Barely one-seventh of the way through the 1997-98 season, the Timberwolves are, as expected, an exciting, inconsistent team on the rise. Gugliotta has for the most part cut down on his turnovers and defensive lapses and may be playing better than his All-Star campaign of a year ago. There are problems at shooting guard, where West has been dogged by injuries and a difficulty adjusting to fewer minutes in his backup role, and where Carr continues to display a glaring inability to guard active opponents on defense. At least Carr is trying harder: At center, it is becoming apparent that Stanley Roberts doesn't have the heart or the intelligence to surmount what excess weight, injuries, and infirmity have robbed from his game. Cherokee Parks remains an intriguing offensive complement and a pussycat under the basket, with toothpicks for calves. Clifford Rozier is an embarrassing thug and rookie Paul Grant's foot ailments may sideline him for the season. Garnett continues to be a marvelous defender and shot-blocker with an even more accurate outside jump shot this year, but he still lacks the proclivity and sinew to consistently mix it up under the basket--he'll have four rebounds one game, 20 the next--which further exacerbates the team's weakness at center.

Nevertheless, given Minnesota's brutal November schedule, winning six of their first 11 games--including road victories against Phoenix and San Antonio and a solid thumping at home against 11-3 Charlotte--is an encouraging start. If nothing else, it has certified the probability that this team has two phenomenal talents who are worth the (soon to rise) price of admission on a nightly basis. Increasingly, what was once Garnett's franchise is evolving into a bona fide Garnett-Marbury partnership. It is something Stephon Marbury knew would happen all along.

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