Wait Until Next Year?

What the Wolves could and should do to improve

 Six years of first-round playoff exits down the road, the natives who follow the Minnesota Timberwolves are beyond restless. Talk show radio callers who aren't demanding that coach/GM Flip Saunders and personnel VP Kevin McHale get canned are howling that a major shakeup of the Wolves' roster belongs at the top of the agenda.

Well, Saunders and McHale aren't going anywhere-not yet anyway. But it's fair to assume that the Wolves' mortifying collapse this season has put the dynamic duo on probation. A year from now, if the franchise is still without a playoff series victory, the McSaunders' brain trust is probably kaput. But there are few likely scenarios, let alone easy answers, for how the team can take that crucial next step into the second round. The Wolves have no first-round draft choice this year (taken away as part of the penalty for Joe Smith's illegal contract), and no room under the salary cap to compete for any of the league's better free agents. Doctors say there's a 50-50 chance their $10 million point guard won't sufficiently recover from knee surgery. Their superstar and their best pure scorer have chemistry problems. And their increasingly alienated fan base will be asked to pony up for a 25 percent bump in ticket prices for many of the seats at the Target Center next year. Disaster beckons.

Do Saunders and McHale blow up the team? Or should they keep the core group of players intact and hope that another year's experience yields enough improvement to advance at least another round in the playoffs? Both options contain enough uncertainties and potential pitfalls to make any answer to that question mere guesswork-most likely, even they're not sure yet which way to go.

For years, McHale has tried to adhere to the formula that was successful when he was with the Celtics--grow the team through stability and maturation--only to be sabotaged by the defections of Tom Gugliotta and Stefon Marbury, the death of Malik Sealy, and the penalty meted out for the illegal signing of Smith. This year, with Smith re-signed (legally this time) and Brandon, Garnett, Nesterovic, and Szczerbiak a year wiser and more familiar, the foundation was finally set. Then Brandon got injured, resentments rippled over Wally's need for the ball, and KG's chronic inability to dominate during crunch time and the playoffs became more acute.

After allowing their dysfunction to hasten the demise in this year's playoffs, the players further aggravated their fans by opining that another year together would be nice, a show of unity that was sorely lacking on the court during the last two months of the season. KG, Szczerbiak, and Chauncey Billups all said they wanted to keep the core group intact. Saunders claimed he'd only shake up the roster if it would improve the team, a statement that was either duh! obvious, a coded argument for the status quo, or, most likely, an acknowledgment that the Wolves are in a difficult position to make positive changes. Even McHale, who was blunt in his displeasure and hinted at radical remedies during the club's horrid losing streak in March, tempered expectations by saying that the makeup of the team needed to be "tweaked" during the off-season.

Tweaking won't cut it. Wolves' owner Glen Taylor can take this (and not much else) to the bank: Without a bold move by the McSaunders tandem during the next few months, there will be thousands fewer fannies in those price-inflated seats at the Target Center next season.

By "a bold move," I'm talking about the addition of at least one star-caliber player; unfortunately, that can't be done without a significant sacrifice by the Wolves. Even if Minnesota refused to sign all their existing players with expiring contracts--Rasho Nesterovic, Gary Trent, Sam Mitchell, Will Avery, and Loren Woods--Garnett's enormous paycheck leaves them precious little wiggle room under the league's salary cap. Consequently, a bold move involves unloading either KG or Wally.

Trading Garnett would obviously countenance enormous risk. League rules require that the principals in any trade must match salaries within 15 percent of each other, meaning KG would have to fetch at least $20 million worth of talent in any swap. Trying to make it work is an interesting parlor game: Garnett to Toronto for Vince Carter and Antonio Davis? Naaah. For Jermaine O'Neal, Al Harrington, and Brad Miller in Indiana? Well, how's Harrington's knee injury coming along? Would the Pacers pull the trigger?

You would want to deal Garnett to an Eastern Conference team, to minimize the embarrassment that might well result after saying goodbye to one of the league's five best players as he enters his prime. Superstars are traded less often in basketball than in any other team sport because they have a habit of going on to accumulate championship rings-think Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and Wilt Chamberlain. The Wolves are in trouble, yes, but the situation is not yet desperate enough to part with KG.

Swapping Szczerbiak is a better bet. Whether or not you believe (as I do) that he was unfairly scapegoated by his teammates (and, tacitly, by his coach) for being a ball hog this season, Wally's lack of defensive prowess limits the net value of his deadly accurate shooting--he often gives away nearly as many points as he registers. But as a reigning all-star with matinee idol looks and a sweet jump shot, he's a natural crowd-pleaser who would attract plenty of interest from other teams. Ironically, if he weren't already with the Wolves, Minnesota might covet him as a natural complement to KG. The hazing Szczerbiak has received during his three years alongside Garnett and Saunders has stunted that synergy, however, perhaps permanently. Rather than try to surmount their checkered history next year, it makes sense to trade Wally, if only to send a message to Wolves players and their fans that passive-aggressive business as usual--on the court and in the locker room--is no longer acceptable.

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