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Wait 'Til... This Year?

YES, THOSE REALLY are your Minnesota Timberwolves playing the most resilient, talented, and exciting basketball in the history of the franchise. And no, this heartening ascent to the upper reaches of mediocrity is not likely to dissipate as the dolor of deep winter sets in. Despite a hellish early schedule, injuries to three of the team's five starters, and the catastrophic play of $11.8 million free agent center Stoyko Vrankovic, the Wolves are in the play-off hunt with a franchise-best 14-18 record that includes victories in six of their last seven games. In a year when 35 wins will probably secure a play-off berth in the watered-down Western Conference, Wolves's fans can finally look forward to some meaningful games down the stretch this spring.

How does a team renowned for its chronic chaos and despair suddenly rip off six wins over a two-week period? Most obviously, the Wolves's troika of budding stars--in order of current value, Kevin Garnett, Tom Gugliotta, and Stephon Marbury--are all healthy and playing with an unselfish maturity that synergizes their considerable talents. But it is almost as important that the team's brain trust has essentially acknowledged that Vrankovic has been an expensive mistake; while reducing Vrankovic's playing time, coach Flip Saunders has solidified his substitution rotation, enhancing the roles of three players--Cherokee Parks, Sam Mitchell, and Terry Porter--who have all significantly raised the caliber of their game. As a result, the Wolves are spreading out and moving the ball better on offense, and playing tenacious, intimidating defense, particularly in the fourth quarter. Right now, this is a team to be reckoned with.

Let's begin with the guys coming off the bench. It's no coincidence that the Wolves really began to hit their stride when Saunders gave Parks, who had previously earned his reputation as a cream puff, extended minutes in place of Vrankovic even against a big physical center like Shaquille O'Neal of the Lakers. Parks will never have Vrankovic's raw strength, sinew, and shot-blocking ability on defense, but he has compensated with surprisingly active feet and hands (he leads the club in steals per minute played) and superior knowledge and instincts when it comes to the team's defensive rotations. But where Parks has really provided a lift is on offense. He has a reliable mid-range jump shot that lures opposing centers out from under the basket. That creates more space around the hoop for forwards Garnett and Gugliotta. Parks also moves well without the ball and has soft hands for a big man, skills that make him a scoring threat when opposing centers drop off him to double-cover Gugs or Garnett.

In the fourth quarter of a close game, however, neither Parks nor Vrankovic are usually on the court. That's when Saunders deploys Mitchell alongside Garnett and Gugs in what becomes an undersized but remarkably effective front line of defense. Being counted upon to shoulder these crunch-time minutes is the sort of subtle but crucial role that's tailor-made for Mitchell's proud, blue-collar virtues. The man's style of play is the antithesis of grace, but whether opposing coaches try to mismatch him with quick shooting guards or beefy centers (both are common responses), nobody is allowed an easy basket.

Mitchell practices the craft of banging as well as anyone in the NBA. He knows the idiosyncrasies of particular referees, along with the unwritten NBA protocols and hierarchies that help determine what constitutes a foul and when it is more or less likely to be called. He rubs up against that fine line between playing tough defense and committing a foul, harassing and annoying his opponents in ways large and small--especially late in a close game, when players are already tired and stressed. Because he plays that gritty, underdog style on a consistent basis, and is a veteran who knows how to whine and cajole with the officials, he gets away with things most players, including Parks and Vrankovic, would get whistled for. Mitchell's offense likewise favors efficacy over glamour. Ignore him and he'll usually sink the open jump shot; foul him and the odds are good he'll convert the free throws. You may barely notice him, but Steady Sam is currently third on the team in minutes played.

Here's another pretty surprising statistic: The Wolves have won all four games that starting shooting guard Doug West has missed due to injury. Much of the credit for this belongs to Terry Porter, who at the ripe old age of 33 may be the team's most improved player this year. Last season Porter signed too late to attend training camp. He was coming off a serious ankle injury, and coming to a new team after more than a decade with Portland. When Micheal Williams continued his injury-related sabbatical, Porter was thrust into extensive minutes running an unfamiliar offense and guarding lightning-quick opponents as the Wolves's starting point guard. It wasn't pretty. But with the teenaged Marbury now ensconced as Minnesota's point guard, Porter's playing time has dropped to a more effective 15-20 minutes per game. And with West out, he has proven to be more valuable to the team at shooting guard than he is at the point.

 

West is a marvelous defender, of course, but he is also a shooting guard who rarely shoots, and hasn't demonstrated the long-range accuracy that would make opponents respect him out in three-point territory, where he has converted just three of 18 attempts. Thus, teams can more easily bring a guard down from the perimeter for double-coverage on Gugs or Garnett. Of the Wolves's other shooting guards, Chris Carr has enormous offensive potential but has lost some confidence and still seems tentative on both offense and defense; James "Hollywood" Robinson can score, but doesn't pass the ball as well as Porter or West. So it has been Porter who has flourished at the shooting guard spot, playing decent defense, passing well, and stretching opposing defenses out to the perimeter by converting 41 percent of his three-point shots during Wolves's recent seven-game joyride. And when West is injured, Porter gives the team another stolid veteran presence at crunch time alongside the Wolves's trio of talented pups.

Ah yes, the Big Three. All of them possess superb passing skills, extremely high standards of personal performance, and a willingness to play team basketball. With contracts, injuries, and attitudes constantly churning the circumstances of the NBA, nobody really knows how long this situation will last, or how much better it can become. For now it's a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

After returning from an ankle injury that he suffered in the season opener, Marbury's first three or four weeks were marked by the kind of brilliant but erratic and self-absorbed play you expect from a very talented teenager. In early December, his teammates called him on the carpet for poor decision-making after Marbury missed 15 of 18 shots in an embarrassing 31-point loss to Seattle. Rather than sulk about it, Marbury has honed his game, better recognizing when to push the fast break and when to settle into the half-court offense, and slowly but surely upgrading his defense.

Sure, he still gets caught in mid-air with no place to put the basketball, and those breathtaking drives to the hoop don't result in points as often as you might expect. But these are sins of aggression, and Saunders is right to be patient about them--Marbury's quickness will be vital to the future development of this club. And as the team's best shooter from the perimeter, Marbury, even more than West or Porter, needs to launch three-pointers to stretch opposing defenses and keep them away from double coverage down near the basket. In terms of his decision-making and ball-distribution, he currently is averaging almost two shots for every assist, a ratio that puts him in company with the valuable, similarly styled point guard Tim Hardaway, and squarely between pass-oriented guards like John Stockton and gunners like Kenny Anderson. Put simply, Marbury is already the best point guard Minnesota has ever had. And he's going to get a lot better.

Despite all the hype about an all-star season, Gugs also had a pretty erratic, self-absorbed opening month this year. It is only in the last three weeks or so that he has truly performed like an all-star, reducing his shot attempts (and thus his points per game) and his turnovers, while raising his rate of assists, rebounds, and steals, the latter categories indicative of his team-oriented performance.

If Gugliotta is an all-star, what does that make Garnett? For a while it looked as if rough, physical play might be the way to short-circuit his nonpareil method of corralling rebounds, blocking shots, and sinking turnaround jump shots (he has the best accuracy among the Wolves's top eight scorers). But then, in a rematch against the ultraphysical New York Knicks the day after Christmas, Garnett had 12 points, seven rebounds, and three blocked shots in the second half alone, and has been on a tear ever since, with 16 blocks in the last two games. Meanwhile, the 20-year-old seven-footer exudes the same combination of youthful enthusiasm and mature leadership in the locker room that he displays on the court. One minute he's gushing about a television commercial made by former NBA star Isiah Thomas: "He talked about seeing the desire and the willingness in each other's eyes when [Thomas's Detroit team] played. I took that to heart." The next minute he's speaking with genuine concern about Vrankovic, who is a dozen years older and making about twice his salary while sabotaging the team's fortunes. "I try to get Stoyko to understand he has to have confidence in himself. He's a long way from home [Croatia] and I know how I'd feel in his shoes," Garnett says. "I try to make him laugh, get him out of his depressive state. When I get him to smile, I know I've got him."

 

Two years from now, Garnett will either be gone (followed by Saunders and McHale--bet on it) or his fat new contract (and Marbury's a year later) will have spiked ticket prices beyond the means of most of us. Better to catch this team now, when they are a compelling mediocrity, just maybe on the brink of something very good indeed.


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