Let the Games Begin

With that pesky lockout behind them, the Timberwolves get down to business

On the plus side, under the new labor deal, the Wolves can offer Gugliotta $85.7 million over the next seven years, as compared to the maximum $67.5 over six years he can receive if he jumps to another team. In their three years together, Gugliotta and Garnett have proven to be a distinctively synergistic forward tandem, with Garnett as the "small" forward and better shot blocker, Googs as the "power" forward who's better at working the fast break, and both presenting matchup nightmares for opponents. Add in the extraordinary skills of Marbury at point guard, and Googs could realize his oft-stated goal of playing for a champion.

But that presupposes Marbury will stay--no sure bet, considering his previous disenchantment with the pace and the weather in this icy burg, and the fact that the new labor deal enhances the possibility that the Knicks or another team in a major East Coast city might be able to afford him. Even if Marbury does stay, it is not guaranteed that there will be enough "touches" of the ball to satisfy all five starters. When Googs went down at the midpoint of last season, Garnett successfully accepted the challenge of providing more of the team's offense. The trade that brought shooting guard Anthony Peeler from Vancouver generated even more firepower. Finally, Marbury himself has never lacked confidence or a willingness to shoot when the game is on the line.

Last year there were similar fears that Googs and Marbury wouldn't be able to share the offense, but Gugliotta banished them by tailoring his offense around the team's needs, improving his defense and shot selection and cutting down on his turnovers in the process. How much will he have to readjust to Peeler's stronger offensive presence, and to the continued emergence of both Marbury and KG? There were also rumors, downplayed by both sides, that after Googs was hurt last season, he was miffed that Wolves VP Kevin McHale suggested he keep playing through the pain. During this extended off-season, Gugliotta has played hard-to-get in his comments about the Wolves, even speaking of his tenure in Minnesota in the past tense. He adopted a similarly tough bargaining stance while hammering out a favorable contract with the team three years ago. And as one of the NBA's most coveted free agents during this whirlwind negotiating period, he certainly has plenty of options.

Stephon Marbury: Will he stay or will he go?
David Kern
Stephon Marbury: Will he stay or will he go?

But so do the Timberwolves. McHale and coach Flip Saunders are probably telling the truth when they say signing Gugliotta is a top priority, but both men also have enough brains and guts to be decisive and opportunistic if negotiations break down. And the alternatives are beguiling.

Among the vast pool of free agents out there is Phoenix power forward Antonio McDyess, who bangs underneath the boards and blocks shots better than Googs, rebounds almost as well, and needs the ball less. He's also younger and, with fewer years in the league, would require less money to sign under the new labor agreement. In other words, while not quite the player Googs is now, McDyess's package of skills might segue more smoothly into the team's current lineup, and he is also more likely to peak three or four years down the road, in sync with the prime of KG and Marbury. Sure, the Suns are desperate to retain him, but any team that boasts the likes of Garnett and Marbury will get a serious look from any young, blue-chip free agent who wants to win.

Or maybe the Wolves would hide their disappointment over losing Googs by addressing their biggest weakness and landing a quality free-agent center. Someone like Matt Geiger of Charlotte or Jayson Williams of New Jersey would be a vast improvement over last season's platoon of overweight Stanley Roberts, underweight Cherokee Parks, and undersized Tom Hammonds. Both Williams and Geiger will be hotly pursued by other teams, but either would be crazy not to at least consider the possibility of working with two burgeoning superstars. Getting a center who knows how to pick-and-roll, and who has the hands and the smarts to move to an open space and convert on a pass when Marbury penetrates toward the basket, might also prove invaluable in convincing Stephon to stay in Minnesota.

Make no mistake: Marbury has a huge ego, and the talent to back it up. If his coaches are to convince him not to hog the ball, especially at crunch time, then he needs teammates--and preferably a big, mobile center--who can finish off one of his breakneck drives with style and efficiency, much as Dean Garrett did during the point guard's rookie year.

The best-case scenario is keeping all three stars in the fold. The next-best case is securing Marbury via a long-term deal, either at the beginning or the end of this season. Either way, the Wolves have the right mixture of youth, experience, and Saunders's improvisational acumen to make a spirited playoff run during a short, rigorous campaign (averaging nearly four games a week over a three-month period) that will involve precious little preseason preparation. On the immediate horizon is a frenzied, fascinating game of musical chairs. Then it will finally be time for the NBA to shed the talk of greed and supplant it with a blend of grit and grace unrivaled by any other sport.

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