Let the Games Begin

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

Now that the NBA lockout has finally been settled, perhaps it's time for basketball fans (goaded on by reactionary, analytically lazy sportswriters) to muzzle all those complaints about the "greedy players"--or, at least, to consider what has transpired since Michael Jordan secured yet another championship for the Chicago Bulls seven long months ago. For the record, if it were up to the players, the 1998-99 season would have proceeded without a hitch: This was an owner-instigated work stoppage, a lockout, not a strike. The owners could afford to take a hard line in negotiations because the very smart and powerful NBA commissioner, David Stern, had earlier struck a television deal that called for each team to receive nearly $20 million from the participating networks even if no games were played.

After losing out on three months of the season and being deprived of approximately $500 million in salary payments, the players were ready to capitulate. In fact, it was the near-certainty that a majority of players would go against the recommendation of the union's executive committee and vote to accept the owners' proposal that pushed union head Billy Hunter to work out a last-minute deal with Stern last week. That deal resulted in an agreement to set maximum levels on individual players' salaries, an unprecedented concession by a major-league players' union.

In one fell swoop, the owners have gained a level of certainty over their future payroll costs and guaranteed that those costs won't rise as quickly as their total revenues. It is written into the new deal that the players' share of revenues will be ratcheted down from 57 percent to 55 percent (with each percentage point worth tens of millions of dollars) for a three-year period beginning in 2002, and won't get back to 57 percent unless the owners want it that way in 2005. The owners will realize these cost savings by drastically curtailing the earning potential of the NBA's most desirable players. Under the new agreement, no player can sign a new contract worth more than $14 million a year. (For players with fewer than 10 years' experience in the league, the annual maximum is $11 million; for fewer than six years of service, $9 million.) While that's obviously an enormous amount of money, it's a whopping 50 percent less than the $21 million Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett will average over the next seven seasons; and until the lockout, at least a half-dozen players would have likely matched or exceeded Garnett's salary by the year 2000.

This isn't a plea for sympathy toward pro basketball players--far from it. It's nigh impossible to defend chuckleheads like Boston Celtics guard Kenny Anderson, who worried about retaining his exorbitant lifestyle without selling off some of his spare automobiles; or Cleveland Cavaliers' forward Shawn Kemp, who has fathered a raft of out-of-wedlock children and has allowed himself to balloon out of shape. But it's curious how much attention has been devoted to Anderson's comments and Kemp's behavior, and how easily they have become catalysts for a more generalized animus toward all NBA players, even as a majority of players were voicing a willingness to make significant concessions in order to end the lockout.

Granted, ever since sports became big business, we have been less forgiving of athletes than of other entertainers: Nobody squawks when Arnold Schwarzenegger rings up Garnett-level money for a rancid project like Jingle All the Way, or when blues guitarist B.B. King has 15 children by 15 different women (no lie). But even in relation to other athletes, contempt for pro basketball players seems unreasonably easy to come by. For example, if basketball player Latrell Sprewell was justifiably pilloried for choking his coach in a premeditated, seemingly unrepentant manner, was football player Kevin Greene justifiably forgiven because he was properly contrite after spontaneously attacking his assistant coach? If so, why hasn't more attention and goodwill been paid to clauses in the new basketball labor agreement that call for longer suspensions and higher fines for player misconduct? (The players also agreed to annual drug tests for banned substances that include marijuana and illegal steroids.) Why have pro basketball players become the poster boys for athletic greed and arrogance, when hockey is the sport with the most expensive average ticket price, and baseball is where you see player salaries corroding the competitive balance between teams in the league?

Finally, if we're going to get serious about restoring fiscal sanity to professional sports, capping player salaries is barely half the battle. Why not get the owners to open their books and impose a fair but lucrative cap on team profits, with any excess returned to the fans in the form of lower ticket prices and cheaper media access?

 

But enough about money. After a seemingly interminable hiatus from the game, pro hoops junkies are on the verge of a stimulation overload. This Monday marks the onset of a bizarre bazaar--dozens and dozens of free agents are up for grabs, operating under new economic rules that diminish the difference in what various teams can offer them in the three weeks before the beginning of the NBA's abbreviated 50-game season.

For the hometown Timberwolves, the stated priority is to sign current free agent Tom Gugliotta and then free-agent-to-be Stephon Marbury to long-term contracts, thus retaining a troika of stars (Garnett being the third) who could elevate the Wolves into championship contention in the not-too-distant future. The new collective-bargaining agreement makes that dream more financially feasible, but it is unclear whether Googs and/or Marbury want to stay. Gugliotta's intentions will be known in a matter of days. His decision, and the Wolves' response, could in turn have a significant impact on what happens to Marbury.

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.

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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