5 Minnesota Timberwolves The signing of an above-average Joe can't hide the fact that this squad still has a gaping hole in the middle

October 29, 2001

Power forward Joe Smith is in no hurry. Fifteen minutes after the
Timberwolves' afternoon scrimmage at the Target Center has
wrapped, he calmly swishes five-foot turnaround jumpers in the
paint before ambling to the sideline and sliding into a folding
chair. "Last year in training camp I'd run from the court to the
phone as soon as practice was over, trying to find out what was
going on and wondering whether I'd have to start packing my
bags," says Smith. "Now I'm just happy to be back, to have a
home."

Smith's anxious sprints from the hardwood to the handset came as
the NBA was investigating an under-the-table, seven-year, $86
million contract engineered by Smith's former agent, Eric
Fleisher, and team owner Glen Taylor. The penalty for Taylor's
attempt to circumvent the salary cap was harsh: Commissioner
David Stern fined the club $3.5 million, voided Smith's contract
and declared him a free agent, suspended Taylor for the season
and stripped the team of five first-round picks. (One has since
been reinstated.) Vice president of basketball operations Kevin
McHale also was forced to take an eight-month leave of absence.

At least Minnesota's passion, though self-destructive, was
sincere. Given another shot at Smith in July, the Timberwolves
used their mid-level exception to sign him to a (legit) six-year,
$34 million deal. Was it worth throwing their last pile of cash
at a 26-year-old who shot 40.3% for the woeful Pistons in 2000-01
and seems, at best, a slight upgrade over last season's starter,
LaPhonso Ellis? "Joe is one of the best in the league at
defending off the ball, at taking charges, at helping from the
weak side, and he's our best offensive rebounder," says coach
Flip Saunders. "Joe's a great blend with our players, and he can
be extremely productive if he can find his niche."

Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, who have lost in the first
round of the playoffs for five straight seasons, tinkering with
role players won't be enough. Though Wally Szczerbiak, 24, was
offered in several packages, including a three-way deal that
would have brought Gary Payton, his standout performance for
Saunders at the Goodwill Games (13.0 points per game, 69.7% from
the field, 61.5% from three-point range) has sold the T-Wolves on
his long-term potential.

The team's most glaring weakness remains at center, where last
year Saunders employed a four-headed monster dubbed LaRasho D.
Slaterellis by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: Ellis, inconsistent
7-footer Rasho Nesterovic, journeyman Dean Garrett and undersized
Reggie Slater. This season the job is up for grabs among Garrett,
Nesterovic and Loren Woods, the 7'1" rookie from Arizona. Against
smaller frontcourts Smith, an effective low-post scorer, will
also be pressed into duty in the pivot, as he was in his two
previous seasons in Minnesota. Ideally, though, Saunders will
keep the 6'10", 225-pound Smith at the four and use the
super-sized pairing of Szczerbiak at off-guard and Kevin Garnett
at small forward. "Moving KG out on the floor helps us
tremendously," Saunders says. "With his versatility, his
wingspan, his ability to defend and to deflect balls, he causes a
lot of havoc." Adds Smith, his eyes widening at the prospect,
"That lineup would create some serious matchup problems."

In the off-season Smith married his longtime girlfriend, Yolanda
Moorer (with whom he has two children, Alanna, 8, and Cameron,
3), and moved into a three-story town house in Minnetonka--the
same suburb Smith lived in during his previous stint with the
Timberwolves. "In the last year I've heard so much doubt," Smith
says. "People want to know why the Timberwolves would risk
anything on a player like me, a player who hasn't really done
much during his career. I want to quiet those critics. That's my
main motivation."

--D.G.H.

COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER/NBA ENTERTAINMENT STOMPING GROUND The versatile Garnett can do damage in the paint, unlike, alas, the Timberwolves' woeful centers.

enemy lines
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Timberwolves

"Terrell Brandon is the key. They don't play well when he's out
because William Avery can't get it done and Chauncey Billups is
more of a two guard. If Brandon is healthy, he's one of the
premier points in the league, but that's a big if....They made
two good moves. Drafting Loren Woods will work because Flip
Saunders will find a way to make it work, like he makes
everything work. He'll move Woods around a lot, make sure that
he doesn't get overpowered. And it's not as if Woods has to come
in and take over in the middle, because Rasho Nesterovic is O.K.
He just doesn't have one thing that makes him stand out. He
needs to develop something--some unstoppable inside shot--that
would take him to the next level....The other good move was
picking up Gary Trent, who's an animal down on the blocks....
Wally Szczerbiak is O.K., but he's not really a two and they
would've been better off trading him and getting someone really
athletic at that position. Overall, they have average
athleticism besides, of course, Kevin Garnett....Garnett is
getting better and better, able to step out and make shots,
learning how to defend several positions. A guy like Joe Smith,
who is an average player, looks really good playing next to
Garnett; anything starts to go wrong, KG will cover....Saunders
and Kevin McHale have created a nice atmosphere in Minnesota,
and they have a great working relationship. But, ultimately,
this team probably won't get higher than Number 5 in the West."

projected lineup
2000-01 record: 47-35 (fourth in Midwest)
Coach: Flip Saunders (seventh season with Timberwolves)

STARTERS
PVR* 2000-01 KEY STATS

SF Kevin Garnett 22.0 ppg 11.4 rpg 5.0 apg 1.79 bpg 1.37 spg
5
PF Joe Smith[1] 12.3 ppg 7.1 rpg 0.72 bpg 0.68 spg 40.3 FG%
72
C Rasho Nesterovic 4.5 ppg 3.9 rpg 0.86 bpg 46.1 FG% 52.3 FT%
242
SG Wally Szczerbiak 14.0 ppg 5.5 rpg 3.2 apg 0.72 spg 51.0 FG%
88
PG Terrell Brandon 16.0 ppg 7.5 apg 3.8 rpg 2.06 spg 45.1 FG%
63

BENCH
PVR* 2000-01 KEY STATS

G Chauncey Billups 9.3 ppg 3.4 apg 2.1 rpg 0.66 spg 42.2 FG%
149
G Anthony Peeler 10.5 ppg 2.6 apg 1.21 spg 42.1 FG% 39.1 3FG%
158
G-F Felipe Lopez 7.9 ppg 3.3 rpg 1.5 apg 0.89 spg 44.1 FG%
190
F Gary Trent[1] 4.0 ppg 2.8 rpg 0.3 apg 43.8 FG% 52.8 FT%
193
C Loren Woods (R)[1]13.2 ppg 6.5 rpg 2.90 bpg 50.4 FG% 83.0 FT%
275

[1]New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 117)

"Szczerbiak's really not a two; they would have been better off
trading him."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)