The Source of All Swagger

Minnesota Timberwolves

Minutes before the Wolves faced off against the Miami Heat last week, the scoreboard screens at American Airlines Arena showed the Heat players clustered in the hallway between the locker room and the court. Resplendent in their white sweat suits, they were jumping up and down, banging shoulders and mock jousting. It's a fairly common pre-game ritual around the league, a way for the players to break a sweat and shake off the physical cobwebs.

But what you don't see every day were the accents in the Heat's body language. As the jump-'n'-bump subsided, some of the players collapsed into each other, the way you do to acknowledge the shared intimacy of a great joke. A couple of players bumped forearms, made eye contact, nodded heads. As the camera showed the cluster breaking into groups and heading for the court, the vibe of fellowship was palpable in their easy saunter, the subtle roll of their shoulders. Their confident grins followed them onto the floor, topped by Shaquille O'Neal--last but the opposite of least in the procession--and his megawatt smile.

Right then and there I suspected that the Heat were going to kick the Timberwolves' ass. Four quarters later it was Miami 107, Minnesota 90.

The word for what the Heat displayed is swagger. Last year, for the first time in franchise history, swagger happened for the Wolves. The arrival of Cassell and Sprewell were the obvious catalysts--not, as one might suppose, for their fiery emotions, but for their cold-blooded willingness to try seizing control of the game. For Cassell, it was the fourth-quarter jumpers, which often happened early in the shot clock, ambushing all nine other players on the court. For Spree, it was the transition layup. Whether there were none, one, or two opponents between Spree and the hoop, there seemed to be nothing he enjoyed more than leaving his teammates in the dust and taking it strong to the hole.

Added to the all-around excellence of Kevin Garnett, these were the sort of signature plays that preyed on the minds of opponents, injected energy and confidence throughout the roster, and created room for less-heralded teammates to thrive.

Having the capability to go beyond the borders of teamwork, albeit for the sake of the team, is integral to creating swagger on a ballclub. But selfish players don't make a team swagger. In addition to guts, you need talent and timing. When Sammy misses those crunch-time jumpers (as has happened all too often this year), or Spree fails to convert the layup, it reverberates beyond the scoreboard. And even if the success rate is extraordinarily high, too much individual brilliance dissipates the sense of shared glory upon which swagger is fostered.

That's why players must not only be willing and able, but must also possess enough dramatic intuition to know when it's time to rise to the occasion. For example, despite all his talent and, I believe, relative lack of selfishness, Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury has such a miserable sense of timing, of when to seize and when to share, that he has become the poster boy for bad team chemistry.

If anything, Kevin Garnett has a tendency to share too much, which is why his signature, swagger-inducing exploits--a crucial blocked shot or a three-pointer with the shot-clock running down--most often occur within the natural flow of the game. By contrast, Kobe Bryant seizes too much, which is why, despite Kobe's deserved reputation as the best clutch shooter in the game, his Lakers lack swagger.

Watching the intoxicating mixture of confidence, competitive fire, and goodwill wafting off the Heat players fortified my belief that Shaq is the NBA's sultan of swagger. Sure, a lot of that comes from his being the league's most dominating player: His signature move is flattening 250-pound opponents en route to a vicious slam dunk.

But, as any of his current or former teammates other than Kobe will attest, Shaq shares as much as he seizes. His innate ability forces opponents to collapse their defenses around him, allowing sidekick stars like Dwyane Wade (and Kobe before him) room to penetrate and then dish or shoot the ball. In turn, complementary role players such as Damon Jones and Udonis Haslem find new space to launch open threes or crash the weak-side boards for offensive rebounds and put-backs. And, when the timing is right and the Heat are in the crucible, Shaq can and usually does take over. He is, hands down, the league's MVP this year.

Meanwhile, the NBA's reigning MVP continues to endure a hugely dispiriting season. When the Wolves dumped coach Flip Saunders back in mid-February, KG was quick to endorse the move. He called Saunders' replacement (and executioner) Kevin McHale a breath of fresh air, and went on to favorably compare McHale to Saunders just three games after the transition. Whether Garnett had a hand in Flip's removal (as I have suggested) or was being a good team soldier and bowing to the authority of the front office (as others have suggested), it's clear by now that the air still isn't fresh and that Saunders wasn't the problem with this ballclub. This makes KG's injudicious comments after Flip's firing particularly distasteful, not least, one suspects, to KG himself. It's time for damage control, but there's a lot of damage and not a lot of control over the situation.

For the past few weeks, I've believed that it would be preferable for the Wolves to fall out of the playoff picture altogether, rather than endure a short and brutal series against San Antonio or Phoenix. Losing out on the playoffs not only would provide the team with a better draft pick, it would remove their stink from the national conversation, as attention focuses on first-round match-ups and beyond. By contrast, the Wolves getting roasted by the Spurs or Suns would provide pundits across the country with more than a week to disparage and ridicule Minnesota's dreadful underachievement this season. Which do you think would be tougher on KG?

As far back as mid-December, Saunders was lamenting the need to get our swagger back. That never happened, and whether it was because Sammy and Spree weren't willing, weren't able, or (most likely) a little bit of both, it's difficult to see where the swagger comes from next year. One would assume Cassell and Spree are history. Wally Szczerbiak is a marvelous offensive player, and for the past week or so Trenton Hassell has shown an ability to broaden his game beyond being just a shut-down defender. But right now Wally's upside looks to be, at best, as a sidekick star, and Hassell still has to be considered a valuable role player. Of all the other players on the roster, Eddie Griffin would seem to have the most potential, but signing Griffin is far from a sure thing.

A month into his tenure, McHale has done some good things for this team. But ultimately, he sounds a lot like Flip did back in January, when the mantra from players and coaches both was we have to keep working hard.

Down in Miami, I'm sure the need to work hard is part of the agenda. But in the same breath, I bet they're saying, We need to keep having fun. Because all work means no play. And no swagger.

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