Unfortunately for the Wolves, any cavils regarding talent vs. teamwork quickly becomes moot when you consider that at least four Western Conference teams possessed better chemistry and deeper rosters than Minnesota last year. And there is little evidence to support the notion that this season will be any different.
When it comes to assembling talent, the Wolves' ruling troika of Saunders, McHale, and Taylor have been exponentially more astute and resourceful than their dunderheaded predecessors, which is why the performance of the franchise has progressed from pathetic to mediocre. By the same token, the team's chronic mediocrity is largely the result of limited talent. It isn't that the Wolves underachieve in the playoffs, it's that they just don't have the horses to get past the first round. More than seven years into their tenure, the McSaunders group still hasn't closed the ability gap between the Wolves and the Western Conference elite.
It's easy with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to take cheap shots at the brain trust whose misjudgments sabotaged our favorite ballclub; it's one of the sadomasochistic rituals of fandom in any team sport. But that's not the point here. To zero in on the most egregious personnel decisions made by the McSaunders group requires that we resist the revisionist approach, consider the context, and give them the benefit of most every doubt.
Yeah, center Paul Grant was a lousy first-round draft pick in 1998, but the scarcity of successful players chosen after Grant proves that it was an exceptionally thin talent pool that year. Sure, it's easy to argue that the Wolves should have worked out a trade for Gugliotta before he jumped to Phoenix, especially after the Lakers offered up Campbell and Jones, who continue to be NBA starters more than three years later. But Campbell had a questionable work ethic at the time, and Gugliotta was a fan favorite who provided hard-nosed energy and stability. Gambling that he'd opt for the extra millions that were available only if he stayed with the Wolves was a legitimate decision, wrong in the end but not foolhardy.
The wisdom of the team's commitment to Brandon is a more complicated matter. Once Marbury made it plain he was leaving Minnesota, the complex, last-minute trade that landed a high-caliber replacement like Brandon, plus a first-round draft choice, seemed like an ingenious salvage operation. But when the McSaunders regime turned around and signed Brandon to a six-year, $60 million pact five months later, in August 1999, it felt like a shipwreck waiting to happen.
Brandon was 29 years old at the time, and already showing signs of chronic injury problems. He missed 32 games with a couple of sprained ankles while in Milwaukee during the 1997-98 season, and was waylaid for 11 games with a thigh contusion three weeks after joining the Wolves. Last year he sat out 16 games with a bum knee, came back for seven games of part-time duty, then played 44 minutes against Boston and felt something give in his leg. After two more pain-filled contests, doctors diagnosed the cartilage fracture that caused him to miss the rest of the season. This year, the timetable for his return--if he returns at all--is unknown. Given the severity of his latest injury, it's likely that his quickness and agility are permanently diminished.
Even if Brandon had beaten the odds and stayed healthy, handing him $10 million a year up to the age of 35 would have been a premium, if not exorbitant, price to pay. Ironically, the Wolves have fruitlessly tried to trade him ever since he first arrived. Obviously, overpaying for an injury-prone player that they not-so-secretly want to unload has not been the shrewdest managerial maneuver by the McSaunders crew. Because Brandon has performed with just enough skill and frequency to become an integral part of the Wolves' identity, his cloudy future is a major reason that this upcoming season feels so hopeless.
The Wolves' management team can plausibly retort that Marbury's determination to leave the team forced them to flirt with disaster no matter how they dealt with Brandon. The alternative to trading Marbury and signing Brandon was to create a gaping void at point guard, the most important position in Saunders's offensive schemes.
Fair enough. But there have been other misguided personnel decisions where the hands of management were not tied, and where they weren't dealing from a position of weakness. On the contrary, on two occasions, the McSaunders regime has twice overrated the value of a player, gotten the chance to rectify the mistake, and overrated him again.
Within days of Gugliotta bolting to Phoenix in January 1999, the Wolves pulled off an improbable coup by replacing him with forward Joe Smith, who at the time was one of the most coveted free agents in the league. Under the salary cap restrictions imposed by the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, Minnesota could only offer Smith a one-year deal for $1.75 million. That was chump change for the six-ten forward, who had been the top pick in the 1995 draft, had earned $2.5 million during his rookie season at Golden State three years earlier, and was expected to reap many times that on the open market. Yet there Smith was, sitting next to Taylor at a triumphant press conference, claiming that he accepted the Wolves' pittance because of his close friendship with Garnett and the family atmosphere that pervaded the team.