Wait Until Next Year?

What the Wolves could and should do to improve

Speaking of troubled histories, one popular fantasy that has been beguiling Wolves' fans in recent weeks involves swinging a deal to bring Stephon Marbury back to town. Three years ago, Marbury's ego eclipsed his common sense when he decided he couldn't play second fiddle to Garnett and demanded a trade. The motivating theory behind the trade talk is that Marbury has been humbled enough by his failures in New Jersey and Phoenix to become more of a team player--yet still has a swagger the Wolves so desperately need.

It's true that Marbury has always possessed the panache to catalyze Saunders' point guard-oriented offense and ease the crunch-time burden on KG. But why would Phoenix make the deal? Having acquired Marbury in exchange for current MVP candidate Jason Kidd just a year ago, it's unlikely the Suns would admit defeat by unloading Stephon so quickly. And assuming the Wolves were willing to part with anyone other than Garnett, what do they have to offer in exchange? Shawn Marion and Anfernee Hardaway make Szczerbiak redundant, Brandon would be a slight downgrade from Marbury even if he wasn't damaged goods, and Nesterovic is not significantly better than Jake Tsakalidis at center.

A more plausible and productive trade would send Szczerbiak to the Cleveland Cavs for point guard Andre Miller, who lacks Marbury's charisma but is more inclined to share the ball, penetrates to the hoop just as effectively, and is at least Marbury's equal on defense. A gritty, fundamentally sound player who doesn't shirk from taking (and making) shots when the game is on the line, Miller is actually better suited for Saunders' system. And, unlike Marbury, he requires very little emotional maintenance and doesn't have a drunk driving conviction on his resume.

Could a player of Miller's caliber be pried away? Well, rumor has it that he doesn't want to resign with Cleveland, a moribund franchise whose obscurity probably cost him a spot on this year's Eastern Conference all star team. And his contract expires at the end of next season. Another factor that could help grease the deal is that Szczerbiak is a fan favorite in Cleveland, having starred in college at Miami of Ohio in nearby Oxford. The Cavs were mightily disappointed when the Wolves' selected Szczerbiak with the sixth pick in the 1999 NBA draft. With the eighth pick, they opted for Miller. The salaries of the two players are comparable enough to meet the league's requirements.

What about the Wolves? Assuming that Miller would demand and deserve the maximum salary for a fifth-year player when his contract expires at the end of next year, the team would have more than $20 million tied up in the point guard position (if Brandon's injury isn't severe enough to force his retirement). Add in KG's monster salary--in the range of $24-$28 million annually over the next two years--and the Wolves would be pushing close to the salary cap paying just three players, two of whom play the same position. While league rules permit the team to resign players already on the roster to healthy increases, they would only have the two salary cap exemptions with which to add new players--one for slightly more than a million dollars, the other for about $4.5 million. And owner Glen Taylor would be likely be forking over additional money--perhaps millions--to the league in "luxury taxes" (a financial penalty for grossly exceeding cap limits), something he is loath to do.

It's easy to say that Miller is worth the cost when you're not the one who has to pay it. But if the Wolves stand-pat this off-season, fans will probably vacate the Target Center in droves, costing Taylor millions anyway. And if Miller's presence improves the team's performance enough to generate another half-dozen home games during the playoffs, Taylor will recoup a chunk of his dear investment.

Losing Szczerbiak would create a void at shooting guard, where the combination of Anthony Peeler (for one more year before his contract expires) and Felipe Lopez (who has the option to leave this year if he chooses) is a poor substitute. If Taylor, Saunders, and McHale are serious about building a contender, they could use one of the salary cap exemptions to go out and get a promising young guard. The best fit would be Michael Redd, a second-year player currently with Milwaukee. After injuries limited him to just six games and 35 minutes in his rookie season, Redd blossomed with the Bucks this year, averaging 21 minutes and 11.5 points per game and converting 48 percent of his shots, including 44.4 percent from beyond the three-point line, making him the league's eighth most-accurate long-range bomber. At six-feet, six-inches, Redd is tall enough to guard most opposing guards-defensively he is probably quicker and definitely better than Szczerbiak. And he's only 22 years old.

The rub is that Milwaukee has the right to match any offer for Redd, who is sure to draw interest from other clubs if he does decide to test the market. The most the Wolves could offer is their $4.5 million salary slot exemption. Milwaukee has said that retaining Redd is a top priority, but the team plays in a small market and has the fifth-highest salary, overburdened by fat contracts to untradeable underachievers (Tim Thomas and Anthony Mason) and their three cornerstone stars (Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, and Sam Cassell).

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