Putting In the Fix
Minnesota is the place where cast-off players often go to rediscover their games
Marc Jacks on, the 27-year-old center who spent the last 4� months being miserable on the Warriors' bench, should fit in quickly with the Timberwolves. Give us your malcontents, journeymen and underachieving No. 1 draft picks, says Minnesota's vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale—and we'll beat you with them. "It doesn't make any difference to me what a player did before he came here," says McHale. "All I care about is what he does after he gets here."
Before joining the T-Wolves in 1995-96, coach Flip Saunders spent seven years in the CBA, where he worked with players who had lost confidence or failed to fit in. In Minnesota he has regularly turned players who couldn't find a niche elsewhere into consistent contributors. "Every two or three weeks I get the players together, and I talk to them one by one about the things we want them to do," he says. "I want the whole team to hear it, so everyone can get an idea of how we're supposed to work together."
Saunders's most valuable retread this season has been point guard Chauncey Billups, the No. 3 pick in the 1997 draft who failed to catch on with four teams before signing with Minnesota last season at the bargain price of $7.4 million over three years. With starter Terrell Brandon undergoing season-ending knee surgery last week, the Timberwolves, 37-18 at week's end, fifth best in the league, are counting on Billups to quarterback them deep into the playoffs.
The first adjustment Saunders made for Billups was to simplify the offense. It hasn't hurt the T-Wolves, who at week's end were 19-8 when Billups started, as opposed to 18-10 under Brandon. Billups is less consistent than Brandon, but he's more explosive, especially from the three-point line. After Saunders criticized his shot selection at halftime on Feb. 19 in Dallas, Billups came out and scored a franchise-record 24 points in a quarter—including five threes—to ignite a 117-100 comeback win over the division-leading Mavericks.
Billups's career-high 36 points that night were timely given the absence of Kevin Garnett, who was attending his grandfather's funeral in Greenville, S.C. It was Minnesota's second win without Garnett in 13 games over seven years. "My problem with Chauncey is that sometimes he's too focused on running the team," McHale says. "I tell him, 'Once you've initiated the offense, you've done your thing. When the ball comes back out, you've got to be aggressive and look to score.' "
The Timberwolves are the first team to accept Billups for the hybrid that he is: a lifelong point guard with a scorer's mentality. Celtics coach Rick Pitino gave up on Billups as a playmaker only 51 games after drafting him. "He told me he wanted to win right away? says the 6'3" Billups, 25, who went to the Raptors in the seven-player trade that brought Kenny Anderson to Boston. In January 1999 Toronto dealt Billups to the Nuggets in what amounted to a homecoming; he had been a second-team All-America at Colorado. However, in order to unload Ron Mercer, Denver needed to include Billups's salary in a five-player swap with the Magic in February 2000.
Billups says these "humbling experiences" made him a better team player. "A guy who is on his second or third team realizes his limitations," McHale says. "Nothing against the draft, but you win with experienced players, guys who know the league and have had their ass handed to them a few times. They aren't saying, I have to prove who I am. They're saying, I have to prove I belong on this team—and the way you prove it is by winning."
A prime example is Joe Smith, who in his first three years, with the Warriors and the 76ers, failed to live up to expectations that came with being the first pick in the '95 draft. "You're expected to be the savior of the organization right away," says Smith, who last summer signed with Minnesota for a reasonable $34 million over six years. "When you're a young player, you don't realize that you can only succeed as part of a team."
The T-Wolves' reliance on other teams' castoffs has been a matter of necessity. This was a franchise burned by the departures of Stephon Marbury and Tom Gugliotta and stripped of three No. 1 picks for the under-the-table deal they made with Smith in '99. If Minnesota advances past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, it will be because All-Stars Garnett and Wally Szczerbiak are surrounded by a tightly knit band of discards, including Anthony Peeler, Gary Trent, Sam Mitchell, Felipe Lopez and the 6'10", 270-pound Jackson, who was dealt 10 minutes before the trading deadline last Thursday and now could supply much-needed low-post scoring.