Hopeless

Despite KG's best efforts, it looks like another year, another one-and-out for the troubled Wolves. If they're lucky.

In September 2000, a series of leaked documents revealed the real story. In violation of the salary cap regulations, Glen Taylor and Smith's agent had secretly drawn up and signed a series of contracts that would pay Smith more than $90 million over the next 10 years. The punishments handed out by NBA commissioner David Stern were strict and wide-ranging. Taylor and McHale (who also signed the contracts) were suspended from their duties with the team. The Wolves franchise was stripped of four first-round draft picks (later amended to three) over the next five years. Smith was summarily booted off the Wolves for at least a year, was once again declared a free agent, and signed a one-year contract with Detroit.

Ironically, Stern did the Wolves a financial favor by declaring all the secret contracts null and void. While Smith had shown himself to be a gritty defender and rebounder during his first two seasons in Minnesota, he was undersized as a center and power forward, and his offensive output was significantly below the point totals he had compiled during his first two years in the league. He certainly wasn't worth the $8-$10 million a year that Taylor had illegally agreed to pay him.

At this point, the Wolves should have counted their blessings and walked away from Smith for good. Instead they signed Smith again in August 2000, this time to a six-year pact worth $34 million. And once again Smith has proved himself an enigmatic underachiever. As Minnesota battled down the stretch for a higher playoff seed, Smith's playing time only diminished. In last year's playoff series against Dallas, he logged a grand total of 44 minutes.

Told to bulk up and get himself in shape for this season, Smith irked Saunders by arriving for training camp with less weight on his wiry physique. The first week in camp, he pulled a groin muscle that has been slow to heal, and he still isn't ready more than a week into the 2002-03 season. Asked how much Smith has to worry about regaining his starting forward job when he returns, Saunders replied, "A lot. He has to worry a lot." But he won't have to worry about getting paid.

The other player vastly overrated by the Wolves' management was point guard Will Avery. On the night of the 1999 NBA draft, McHale told the Star Tribune that he and Saunders "held [their] breath" hoping that Avery would still be available when the Wolves made the 14th pick of the first round. A few weeks earlier, the Wolves had brought in four of the year's top draft-eligible collegiate point guards--Avery, Andre Miller, Baron Davis, and Jason Terry--for informal workouts. Avery proceeded to sink 17 of 20 three-point attempts in one drill, prompting McHale to proclaim him one of the three best shooting prospects in the entire draft. Afterward, Saunders said he felt Avery had "the best upside" of the four collegians.

Well, Miller led the NBA in assists last year. Davis was named to the All Star team. Avery is desperately trying to land a spot on the bench with any team that will have him.

Whatever Saunders and McHale saw in those magical workouts vanished during Avery's brutal attempt to adjust to pro ball after only two years at Duke. From the beginning his stiff, upright style of dribbling precluded smooth ball movement, and his court vision was lousy--fundamental flaws that would bedevil any point guard. He averaged less than six minutes a game during his rookie season and converted just 31 percent of his field goal attempts.

At the end of that 1999-2000 season, the McSaunders brain trust decided not to re-sign free agent Bobby Jackson in order to groom Avery for more minutes as the backup point guard--a potentially crucial position, given Brandon's history of injuries. But if anything, Avery seemed more lost the second year than he was the first, and he finished the season with even fewer minutes played. When the Wolves decided not to pick up the option year on his contract and then played him in only 28 games, it was a foregone conclusion that he was done in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Jackson has blossomed into the league's most exciting player off the bench, delivering instant energy as the sixth man for the Sacramento Kings, who compiled the NBA's best record last season and extended the champion Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference finals. Always an above-average rebounder and superb full-court defender, the former Gopher has steadily refined his offensive game, improving his field goal percentage each of the five years he's been in the league. Last season, he began supplementing his jitterbug drives to the basket with an accurate three-point shot. It's hard to imagine a player better suited to Saunders's new motion offense.

 

Bad Luck and Trouble

Among the litany of hope-sapping events that have befallen the Timberwolves franchise, the death of Malik Sealy carries its own special resonance. Sealy was one of those glue guys, like the Lakers' Robert Horry, adept at what is often labeled "the little things," the binding things, like poise and perimeter defense, both of which have been in woefully short supply since Sealy was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver on May 20, 2000.

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