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At long last, the Minnesota Timberwolves will embark upon a season in which there is no honor in a first-round playoff defeat. Every year since the fall of 1996, the franchise's Sisyphean superstar Kevin Garnett and a rotating cast of characters have waged a plucky uphill battle to get into the post-season, only to wind up steamrolled by an obviously better team. At first, in the wake of the Wolves' early history of ineptitude, these playoff cameos were a tonic for the team's long-suffering fans, beguiled by the promise of future glory.
Then, slowly but steadily, the Fates conspired to crush this tentative enthusiasm. Unnerved by the size of Garnett's exorbitant contract, the NBA implemented a salary cap that hamstrung the Wolves more than any other team. The rest of the litany is familiar enough to be shorthanded: Googs, Marbury, and Billups defected; Sealy was killed in a car accident; draft picks were rescinded by the league after Smith was signed illegally; Avery was a bust; Woods turned out to be a head case; and Brandon hobbled into early retirement.
Through it all, due to the ever-improving virtuosity of KG and the ingenuity of coach Flip Saunders, the Wolves persevered, beating the odds just enough to solidify their status as the most reliable playoff patsy in NBA history. And die-hard fans who were charmed by the team's tenacity from October through March not only felt like saps in April, but, in light of the Wolves' relatively modest talent, had nobody but themselves to blame for caring in the first place. Sooner or later, this dysfunctional dynamic had to change. This year, finally, it has.
Barring an injury to Garnett, if the 2003-04 Timberwolves once again perform as dogged warriors, they will win at least one playoff series, and maybe more. A marked upgrade in the team's talent gives fans cause to renew their faith without the attendant feelings of masochism--and cause to guiltlessly vent their displeasure if the Wolves don't deliver. An eighth straight first-round exit from the playoffs, or worse, would irrevocably mark this season as a colossal, expensive failure.
At considerable cost to Wolves owner Glen Taylor, last year's roster has been razed. The team retained three of its top four players--Garnett, Wally Szczerbiak, and Troy Hudson--and, save Gary Trent, rid themselves of the other eight. Taylor, an elfin wedding invitation magnate from Mankato, has again proven himself kin to such flamboyant moneybags as George Steinbrenner and Jerry Jones when it comes to opening his wallet to bolster his franchise. As if signing KG to the richest contract in team sports and circumventing league rules with a clandestine sweetheart deal for Joe Smith wasn't enough to establish his riverboat gambler nerve during years prior, Taylor threw fistfuls of c-notes in more than a half-dozen directions during the off-season to build a formidable playoff contender.
The renovation began in late June, when the Wolves fleeced the Milwaukee Bucks by trading them Joe Smith and Anthony Peeler for Sam Cassell and Ervin Johnson. Unloading Smith banished bad karma from the team in more ways than one. His illegal contract served to mortgage the Wolves' future when the NBA punished the franchise by taking away three of its first-round draft picks. And when Minnesota signed him for a second time (legally this time, after Smith spent a year's hiatus playing for Detroit), Average Joe played in a manner that personified the Wolves' dysfunction--he was gritty but injury-prone, with just enough talent to tease and dishearten. Cassell, on the other hand, is a fearless and savvy veteran point guard, with two NBA rings to his credit.
So why did the Bucks agree to the deal? Because they are in rebuilding mode and were anxious to avoid the league's luxury tax, which compels franchises to pay a dollar fee for every dollar their player payroll exceeds a certain amount (last year it was $53 million, about 20 percent over the salary cap). To get Cassell, Taylor had to take on the overpriced salary of the aging Johnson--totaling $9.3 million over the next two years--while the Bucks could dump Peeler, whose contract was expiring, as soon as they acquired him. (The contracts of Smith and Cassell are almost an even match.)
As beneficial as the Cassell swap was to the Wolves, the most significant upgrade in the club's talent occurred during a four-team trade in late July, when Minnesota sent permanently injured guard Terrell Brandon to Atlanta and backup center Marc Jackson to Philadelphia in exchange for four-time all-star guard Latrell Sprewell. Once again, the catalyst for this lopsided deal was Taylor's willingness to spend money and exploit the cost-consciousness of another franchise. Next February, Brandon will have reached the two years of inactivity required to officially retire him and his $11 million salary from the payroll. Rather than pocket the savings on that chit, Taylor gave it to the Atlanta Hawks, who at the time were desperately trying to reduce their debt load in order to entice prospective new owners.
By the time the dust settled on the convoluted transaction, the Wolves had given up a guy who never got out of street clothes and a bit player who finished ninth on the team in minutes played last year for a veteran dynamo who may well be the best perimeter defender (not counting the few times KG has played out there) in franchise history. If you add up the lost savings on Brandon, the cost of Sprewell's contract (minus the departed Jackson's wages), and the amount the trade pushed the Wolves over the luxury tax threshold, Taylor absorbed a $30 million hit to make it happen.
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