Saunders Prepares to Take Garnett and Co. to Next Level


Saunders Prepare to Take Garnett and Co. to Next Level

October 31, 1997

Moments after the Timberwolves suffered a first-round sweep in last season's NBA playoffs to the Houston Rockets, Flip Saunders mapped out the direction of the franchise, saying, "Our age of innocence is over."

As the Wolves open the season tonight against the Golden State Warriors at Target Center, they enter perhaps an "age of promise" - led by the club's big three: Kevin Garnett, Tom Gugliotta and Stephon Marbury.

That's two all-stars and maybe one on the way. The Wolves' hopes to improve on last season's 40-42 record and advance beyond the first round of the playoffs hinge on the productivity of the team's three key players. Or do they?

"I know people might think of us as a three-man team, but we're far from that," Marbury said. "There's too many other guys on this team that have a role as valuable as ours. The three of us know we have a job to do, but it won't get done without everybody else."

All three speak to the team concept. All preach team responsibilities first, despite their increased notoriety.

Since Garnett signed his six-year, $126 million contract extension on Sept. 30, his popularity has even surpassed that of his first NBA season after skipping college. Garnett is wary and weary of the added attention. The media's requests after the emotional contract talks wore him down mentally during training camp and the exhibition season.

But the pressure is about to build. Opposing players will be tempted to find out if Garnett is worth that much money, even though the extension doesn't kick in until 1998-99.

"I know there's going to be guys out there trying to see if I'm all that, but that's not what I'm about," Garnett said. "It's about us as a team, more than whether teams can stop me or not. Teams also have to worry about what to do with Stephon's game and what Tom can do."

Garnett admitted his game is "not where it should be." The negotiations delayed his arrival for workouts. But who could tell? As the Wolves edged closer to tonight's game during practices this week, Garnett seemed to be compensating for the missed precamp workouts he normally had with Wolves Vice President Kevin McHale.

"Kevin made big strides this week," Saunders said. "He's the kind of player that will eventually reach his expected performance level. He works too hard not to do that, and he loves to play so much."

Saunders, however, told Garnett he wouldn't mind if he put the "team concept" on hold every now and then. In other words: Be a little more selfish and take a defender to the basket.

"Flip said I've been a little too passive," Garnett said. "He wants me to be more assertive and shoot more, be a little more greedy."

If teams see a more greedy Garnett, it will pose an interesting dilemma. Do they double-team him more often and risk leaving more scoring opportunities for Gugliotta, Marbury and other teammates? The beauty of having three impact players with different skills is that other teammates will benefit if teams figure out ways to slow down Garnett, Gugliotta and Marbury.

"Right now, I'm just like the air-traffic controller for them when I'm out there, like the director," Wolves guard Doug West said. "They're the guys making our team what it is, but I know I need to do my part and more if they're not producing for whatever reason."

There could be games in which the big three are having one of those days. Gugliotta, despite his all-star season, showed signs of stress in bad games, occasionally getting in confrontations with opposing players. Saunders doesn't mind Gugliotta displaying aggression on the court, but not when it affects his play.

"Sometimes, you have to sit Tommy down when he gets heated emotionally," Saunders said. "That's the kind of player he is."

Gugliotta, Garnett and Marbury have only eight years of NBA experience among them. The Rockets' Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler have 40 years of experience, yet they still have off nights occasionally.

"The guys we have are young, so we really can't put that kind of pressure on them to carry us all the time," Wolves forward Sam Mitchell said. "But the guys we have are very good, and that's what's scary. When things are going right, it spins off on the rest of the team. That gives us a chance to do some special things on the court."

That's what McHale had in mind as he added them one by one beginning in 1995. The challenge now is to keep them together. The organization is just settling down from Garnett's negotiations but will go through more anxiety next summer when Gugliotta and Marbury will be eligible to sign new contracts.

Gugliotta can take advantage of an option-out clause to become a free agent if he chooses; Marbury will be in the same situation as Garnett, able to sign an extension after his second season to avoid free agency in 1999.

"We dug in for the long haul when we signed Garnett, so we know what's at stake," Saunders said. "We know the value of holding on to what we've started."

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