Two Short For Comfort

The Minnesota Timberwolves sport three of the top 20 players in their conference, giving the club as many or more potential All-Stars this season than any of the 29 teams in the National Basketball Association. Yet if the Wolves absorbed their regular thumping from Seattle on Tuesday night, they will have lost eight of their last 10 games; with three tough contests looming against New York, Phoenix, and the Los Angeles Lakers, they have a good chance of owning a record of 8-14 on December 16.

So, are the Wolves' Big Three--Tom Gugliotta, Kevin Garnett, and Stephon Marbury--overrated, or is Minnesota's supporting cast that putrid?

Naturally the answer isn't that simple. At first glance, it's hard to find fault with any of the team's trio of stars. Last year, the only weaknesses in Gugliotta's All-Star season were his tendencies to roam on defense and turn the ball over on offense. This year, he's kept his discipline on defensive rotations and cut his turnovers by 33 percent (from 3.6 to 2.4 per game), while slightly raising his number of rebounds and assists. Meanwhile, Garnett has improved in every major statistical category--rebounds, points, assists, shooting accuracy, blocks, and turnovers--and has expanded his defensive versatility to where coach Flip Saunders is matching up the 7-footer with offensive superstar shooting guards such as Indiana's Reggie Miller and Sacramento's Mitch Richmond. Marbury has toughened his defense some (he was a sieve last season) and is the primary ballhandler and catalyst for an offense that ranks fourth in the league in total points scored while surrendering the second-fewest number of turnovers--a remarkable dual achievement.

Unfortunately, the game is played with five men per team on the court. And with the departure of center Dean Garrett to Denver and the aging of oft-injured shooting guard Doug West, the Wolves have gaping holes at two positions in their starting lineup, particularly with respect to team defense, the most crucial element of any successful ballclub. As young players who by rights should be in their junior years at college, Garnett and Marbury have often tried to overcompensate for these weaknesses, creating inconsistency and dysfunction in their own marvelous packages of skills. As a result, the Wolves currently add up to less than the sum of their parts, and only Gugliotta is more valuable now than he was a year ago.

It starts with the absence of Garrett. Inserted into the lineup as an unheralded 30-year-old rookie midway through last season, he was the ideal complement to the Wolves' gilded threesome, defensively intimidating opponents who drove to the basket, offensively slashing toward the hoop for slam dunks, and banging for rebounds at both ends of the court. In his stead, the Wolves have two players who each can do some but not all of those things. To go with his accurate jump shot, Cherokee Parks has added a Garrett-like ability to cut to the basket, opening space for Googs and KG and giving Marbury another viable option to spark the Wolves' kinetically potent passing offense. But Parks remains a timid, undersized defender who is routinely overpowered beneath the basket. Stanley Roberts is slow but staunch on defense, and a viable threat to muscle in some points when he gets the ball beneath the hoop on offense. But asthma and obesity severely limit his playing time, and the nature of his game retards the up-tempo pace that is the Wolves' métier. The team's fast-break offense is also hindered because neither Parks nor Roberts has rebounded well, leaving the Wolves next to last in the league in offensive rebounding percentage and in the bottom third in rebounding overall.

The shooting-guard situation is only marginally more optimistic. Eight years of bruising defense have clearly taken their toll on West, who is committing a foul every seven minutes he plays and is shooting an anemic 41 percent from the field while battling a slew of minor injuries. (The bad news is his contract runs through 2001.) Chris Carr, now the de facto incumbent at the position, provides sorely needed rebounding and outside shooting (he's the team's most legitimate three-point weapon), but is flat-out the Wolves' worst defensive player.

These two glaring position deficits coupled with the youth of two of their stars have made the Timberwolves an extremely inconsistent ballclub. When Parks and Carr are both on the court, the team's defense is ridiculously porous and Garnett is scrambling in vain to plug all the holes. When West and Roberts are in the game, the club's offense bogs into stasis and Marbury is apt to overextend himself trying to jump-start momentum. With such wildly varying, choose-your-poison skill levels at work, player roles and substitution rotations are not allowed to be defined clearly enough for quality control: Garnett grabbed 20 rebounds in the team's first game against Washington last month and only two in the rematch last week--both of them losses. The Wolves scored 80 points against Cleveland in late November (Marbury had 4) and 124 against Utah three night later (Marbury had 38)--and again, Minnesota lost both games.

Saunders has to be wincing at the Wolves' 25th-place ranking in points allowed--that's a blueprint for failure. But the coach is biting the bullet on behalf of long-term development: While West is 30 and Roberts is an old 27, Carr is only 23 and Parks is 25. At crunch time, with the game in the balance, however, Saunders increasingly inserts his grizzled veterans Sam Mitchell and Terry Porter alongside the three stars. While this creates a smaller front line and a slower backcourt tandem, the Wolves automatically become a smarter, more tenacious outfit.

Mitchell in particular has never been more valuable. Two weeks ago, when the pressure of losing was causing Garnett to lose sleep and question his own abilities for perhaps the first time in his life, Mitchell, who dresses at the locker stall adjoining KG's, was there with a mixture of friendly barbs and soothing reassurance. And when the Wolves hit their nadir with a loss to previously winless Denver two weeks ago, it was Mitchell who led a veteran contingent in blistering Marbury for being too selfish with the ball. Finally, it is Mitchell who continues to remind everyone that inconsistency is part of a painful maturation process that the Wolves, especially Garnett and Marbury, will eventually profit from. Mitchell's contract expires at the end of this season. Keeping him in uniform for at least another year would be a shrewd, deceptively crucial investment in the Wolves' future.

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