Hopeless

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

Some teams might not have been hurt so badly by the loss of a role player like Sealy, but the Wolves have long faced an additional burden: They are more hamstrung by the NBA salary cap than any other team in the league. In the fall of 1997, Garnett was entering the final year of his first contract with the Wolves and would soon become eligible for free agency. The buzz around the league was that KG would sign a lucrative deal with the Chicago Bulls. At the time Bulls GM Jerry Krause was eyeing the breakup of the Jordan-Pippen-Phil Jackson dynasty and needed a bold move to weather the negative fallout. It was also noted that Garnett spent his final year of high school in the Chicago area.

But Glen Taylor was determined to keep Garnett. When he announced in October 1997 that Garnett would receive $126 million--at the time the largest contract in the history of team sports--many NBA owners blanched at the precedent. If a kid three years out of high school could command that much up on the frozen prairie, what would it cost to sign a veteran superstar in a major market? For years, NBA commissioner Stern had been lobbying for a salary cap that would enable the owners to plan their budgets around fixed costs and give small-market franchises a chance to bid on star free agents. KG's contract gave Stern the leverage to convince owners to initiate a training camp lockout in the fall of 1998.

Pressured by the loss of the first two months of the regular season, the owners and the players' union hammered out a collective bargaining agreement that capped and structured salaries for individual player contracts as well as team-wide payrolls. Unfortunately for Taylor, the maximum salaries allowed under the agreement were substantially less than he was paying Garnett.

David Kern

In practical terms, it meant considerably less room under the salary cap to pursue other players to complement KG. This year, for example, the league's maximum individual player salary is pegged at $18 million. But under the terms of the deal he negotiated with Taylor in 1997, Garnett will be paid $25 million this season. Because the teamwide cap (expected to be more than $40 million this year) is the same for the Wolves as for other franchises, that means Minnesota has $7 million less to work with than almost every other team. (The Lakers' deal with Shaquille O'Neal put them in a similar situation, but as a glamorous championship team in the nation's second-largest market, they don't face Minnesota's recruitment obstacles.)

The collective bargaining agreement allows a team to exceed the salary cap in order to re-sign players already on the roster. Past a certain point, however, teams have to pay a luxury tax to supplement more frugal franchises. The size of Garnett's deal puts the Wolves in that luxury tax bracket. Consequently, Taylor is not only unable to compete on an equal footing with other teams in the free agent market; he is paying millions more, through the luxury tax, to supplement their efforts. The bottom line is that Taylor and the Wolves are financially constrained from surrounding KG with the talent necessary to get the club into the second round of the playoffs.

As if chemistry problems, injuries, bad personnel decisions, tragedies, and financial roadblocks weren't enough to contend with, the Timberwolves have also endured more than their share of simple bad luck. If the Wolves were one of the westernmost teams in the Eastern Conference rather than one of the easternmost teams in the Western Conference, they likely would have won a playoff series or two last year, and the year before that. Last season, the Wolves played better basketball than the Boston Celtics. Yet it is the Celts who are currently riding the momentum of surviving in the playoffs all the way to the Eastern Conference finals, and it is the Wolves who are trying, unsuccessfully, not to let another first-round playoff defeat gnaw at their confidence and their fan base.

Only five of the NBA's 29 teams finished with a better record than Minnesota last season; naturally, the Wolves had to play one of them in the first round. Over the past four years, only six clubs have won more total games than KG's crew. Yet somehow, in every one of those years, the Wolves have entered the playoffs with fewer wins than their opponent. That only happens through horribly bad luck.

Bad chemistry, bad decisions, and bad luck have led this franchise to where it is now: a troublesome crossroads with precious few options and even less hope.

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