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As for the brain trust in the front office, Saunders signed a sweetheart, long-term guaranteed contract extension two years ago that will make it expensive for Taylor to fire him in the near future. But McHale--whose disdain for conniving agents, flashy egos, and other accoutrements of 21st-century basketball has turned him into a prematurely grumpy old man--could end up leaving.
Put simply, big changes are looming on the horizon. Before they occur, it seems pertinent to ask: What happened to all the hope that was part and parcel of the blueprint laid out by the McSaunders tandem over the past seven years?
The Timberwolves took their first steptoward respectability in 1995, when then-owner Marv Wolfenson belatedly concluded that McHale should be ruling over personnel decisions instead of ridiculing the team as an irreverent television analyst. Up until that point, the club had been spectacularly mismanaged, first by Wolfenson's son-in-law, Bob Stein, and then by "Trader" Jack McCloskey. The two of them compounded each other's ineptitude: Stein used the team's precious lottery picks to draft mediocre centers two years in a row (Felton Spencer in 1990, Luc Longley in '91); McCloskey later traded Spencer for aging journeyman Mike Brown in June 1993 and dumped Longley for an abject stiff named Stacey King in February 1994.
Ten days before McCloskey's retirement was announced in February 1995, McHale engineered what remains the best trade in Wolves history. Forward Donyell Marshall--a horrendous defender with a lazy, immature attitude, whom McCloskey had chosen with the fourth overall pick in the '94 draft and signed to a ludicrous seven-figure contract--was sent to Golden State for scrappy, versatile forward Tom Gugliotta, who subsequently became the first Timberwolf ever selected to the All Star team. With one cornerstone in place, McHale continued his brilliant handiwork by gambling on a high school kid named Kevin Garnett in the 1995 draft, and executing a 1996 draft-day deal that brought another marvelous tyro, point guard Stephon Marbury, on board. Between the acquisitions of Gugliotta and Garnett, McHale hired Saunders, his former college teammate, to serve as general manager and then also as head coach, choreographing the development of a burgeoning championship contender.
Shortly after he joined the Wolves, Saunders provided the clearest, most concise definition of "team chemistry" that I've ever heard. In order for a team to be greater than the sum of its parts, he explained, the key players must accede to a pecking order roughly commensurate with their overall value to the ballclub. When people talk about "character" in a player, they are usually referring to the diligence and punctuality of his practice habits, and whether or not he keeps his name off the police blotters. But Saunders recognized it was equally important that a player accept his place in the pecking order and his role on the team.
Saunders and McHale provided the Wolves with a much-needed chemistry lesson in February 1996. Christian Laettner, at the time the team's most renowned and recognizable player, made some caustic comments about the rookie Garnett not knowing his place. Less than a week later, Laettner was traded to Atlanta. Message delivered: KG was top dog. Five months later, the Wolves also rid themselves of the gifted but toxic J.R. Rider, via a trade that netted them less talent but greater harmony.
Die-hard Wolves fans will never forget the hope and pulse-quickening glee they felt watching the team perform during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. Although the team's composite record during those two years was an ordinary 85-79, the seeds of a championship contender had clearly been sown. Garnett and Marbury were two superstars in the making, their development to be neatly supplemented by the All Star Gugliotta and a couple of savvy veterans in Sam Mitchell and Terry Porter.
Gugliotta, whose arrival was the first harbinger of hope in the McSaunders blueprint, was the first player to screw up the chemistry. As the team's leading scorer and rebounder during those two golden seasons, he chafed at falling to third in the pecking order behind Marbury, the arrogant wizard who controlled the offense and had more faith in his own shots than those of his teammates. When Gugliotta warned the club that he would leave when his contract expired, Saunders and McHale tested his resolve by spurning the Lakers' tempting offer of Elden Campbell and Eddie Jones in exchange for Googs. But Gugliotta wasn't bluffing. In January 1999, he signed a six-year contract with Phoenix for millions less than Minnesota would have paid him.
Fifty days later, Marbury was gone. He had his own problem with the pecking order: As the team's most exciting performer on offense, one willing to take the tough shots in crunch time, he resented standing in KG's shadow. With his own free agency just months away, he yearned to return to New York, where he had been a venerated prep star and playground luminary. Marbury announced that he too would reject any contract offers from the Wolves. Unwilling to risk losing a second star without getting anything in return, Saunders and McHale reluctantly swung a three-team trade that returned Marbury to the East Coast and brought Terrell Brandon in from Milwaukee to replace him.
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