The Two-Year Plan

Risks, rewards, and the future of the Wolves

It was weird to see pointless speculation turn into teeth-gnashing fulmination last week as the NBA trading deadline passed without the Timberwolves executing a single deal. Loose, erroneous talk about the Wolves' trading options fed into frustration over the team's legendary playoff failures, revealing just how little faith fans have in the current makeup of this club--which happens to be performing better than at any time in the history of the franchise, having won 19 of their past 24 games as of last Sunday night.

Anyone who bothered to research the rules involved in making a trade in today's NBA--contracts, salary caps, luxury taxes, and other regulations--knew that the Wolves had precious little chance of improving themselves last week. Only a lunatic would deal Kevin Garnett, the league's best player this year. Wally Szczerbiak recently signed a contract that had a "poison pill" provision that essentially would penalize the Wolves $7 million against the salary cap if they traded him. League rules stipulate that Rasho Nesterovic cannot be traded because he has a one-year contract and will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. And permanently injured guard Terrell Brandon's annual $10 million contract can't come off the books of a team's salary cap numbers until February 2004 (two years after his last game), giving him limited value even for a club looking to clear room under the cap. The rest of the Wolves' roster is full of bit players who by themselves aren't going to fetch anyone good enough to make the difference in an upcoming playoff run.

Most of this was reported by the Wolves' beat writers from the two major dailies. But none of it mattered to national NBA websites and local radio talk shows, who eagerly bandied about the idea that the Wolves could somehow obtain superlative Seattle guard Gary Payton without giving up much more than the soon-to-be-retired Brandon. Few bothered to ask why Seattle would choose to sacrifice their cornerstone player in exchange for $10 million in cap relief in 2004, when even by standing pat they could enjoy Payton's services for another two months and then take $12 million (Payton's salary) off the books when his contract expired at the end of this year.

After Payton was traded to Milwaukee, in a deal that provided Seattle with perennial all-star Ray Allen, a column by the Star Tribune's Sid Hartman further muddied the waters. Hartman quoted Wolves' owner Glen Taylor as saying that Seattle had inquired about including Szczerbiak in a package with Brandon in exchange for Payton, and that Minnesota had turned it down. This left anyone who was aware of Szczerbiak's "poison pill" contract provision scrambling to figure out how Seattle and the Wolves could make such a deal add up salary-wise, and, if they could, why the hell Minnesota would turn it down. As it turned out, either Hartman misquoted Taylor or the owner didn't know what he was talking about (both are plausible scenarios), because Hartman's next column two days later had Wolves' personnel director Kevin McHale explaining how Wally's poison pill prevented the trade.

The other hot and stupid rumor had Brandon going to Miami for swingman Eddie Jones. Now Jones is a nice player; a reliable 15-20 point scorer who was once regarded as one of the premier defenders in the league. But he's 31 years old, with a lot of mileage, and has four more years left after this one on a seven-year, $93 million contract. Landing him certainly would have been a short-term improvement over the absent Brandon, albeit at an enormous long-term expense that would essentially preclude any future maneuvers to upgrade the team. One member of the Wolves' front office calculated that making the trade for Jones would cost the franchise $90 million over four years. Not only would Minnesota have to pay Jones's overpriced salary, plus millions more in NBA luxury taxes for exceeding the salary cap, they would also lose the insurance money that will compensate for Brandon's salary during the next year, and forfeit the $10 million in salary cap flexibility Brandon's retirement will bring.

There is a plausible path by which McHale (or his potential successor) and Taylor can build the Wolves into a legitimate championship contender over the next two years. It begins with drafting a quality player with their first-round pick at the end of this year. Then, at the end of the 2003-04 season, the Wolves will have $10 million in additional cap room due to Brandon's retirement. The expiration of Garnett's monster contract in 2004 would clear another $28 million off the books. The team could then go out and sign a top-notch free agent for maximum money--$10 million to $14 million a year, depending on length of service--before re-signing KG.

The risks in this strategy are enormous. Would Garnett be willing to wait for a new contract so the Wolves have the freedom to pursue free agents? Under league rules, Minnesota can re-sign KG for slightly more than his current six-year, $126 million deal, while other teams can offer him only $14 million a year. But if they sign him to a hefty extension before his deal expires, they'll have no salary cap room to acquire free agents. (Teams can exceed the salary cap as much as they want to re-sign their own players, but once they are over the cap, they can only use $4 million or $5 million a year in "exemption" money to sign free agents.) What if Garnett agrees to wait until his current contract is off the books before re-signing, only to discover that the Wolves can't lure a quality free agent to be his teammate; does he then also bolt for another team? Another question is how much he will demand for his next contract in order to stay with the team. About 20 percent more than $14 million a year that other teams can offer seems an appropriate reward for his spectacular performance and loyalty over the past six years; but anything closer to (or exceeding) the size of his current contract would realistically hinder Taylor's desire to bankroll a championship contender.

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