What Happened?

Everybody thought the Wolves would contend for an NBA crown this year, and some picked them to win it. Not anymore: how egos and contracts turned one of the league's highest-paid teams into middle-of-the-pack underachievers.

On the opening night of their 2004-05 NBA season, the Minnesota Timberwolves trotted out a starting five composed of the reigning league MVP (Kevin Garnett), three past or current all-stars (Latrell Sprewell, Wally Szczerbiak, and Sam Cassell), and the first player chosen in the 1998 draft (Michael Olowokandi). On the bench were a pair of starters whose defensive tenacity helped propel the Wolves to the Western Conference finals the previous year (Trenton Hassell and Ervin Johnson), the shooting star of the 2003 playoffs (Troy Hudson), and a couple of gritty, unselfish vets (Fred Hoiberg and Mark Madsen) who would be ideal 9th and 10th men on any NBA roster.

Conventional wisdom had the Wolves--seemingly loaded from top to bottom with a $70-million payroll that is among the top five in the league--returning to the conference finals. Picking them to go all the way and capture an NBA championship seemed bold but hardly outlandish.

Well, it seems outlandish now. As the Wolves hit the halfway point in their 82-game season early last week, they needed a 3-game winning streak to boost their record to 22-19, a mediocre mark that wouldn't have even put them among the 8 conference teams qualifying for the playoffs. ESPN analyst Greg Anthony, one of the pundits who picked Minnesota to win the championship, recently referred to them as the most disappointing team of the current decade. And while that seems prematurely harsh, there is no question that for the first time since the four pillars of the franchise (KG, owner Glen Taylor, coach Flip Saunders, VP of basketball operations Kevin McHale) came together nearly a decade ago, the Wolves can legitimately be called underachievers.

Diehard optimists have cause to claim that it is far too early to write off this season as an unqualified failure. The Wolves still have time to overtake a surprisingly successful Seattle club and win the Northwest Division, which would give them no less than a third seed in the playoffs. If that were to happen, they probably wouldn't have to face the dominant San Antonio Spurs until the conference finals. And the other likely playoff teams in the West either lack Minnesota's recent experience playing together in the postseason, or tend toward the sort of wide-open, offense-first style that historically has not been successful in May and June.

For the Wolves to rescue their season with a dramatically improved performance from now on is plausible, but not likely. It will require them to surmount some fundamental obstacles, both physical and psychological, that have plagued this club since opening night.

After Shaq and the Lakers finally vanquished the Wolves in the sixth game of last year's conference finals, a frustrated Latrell Sprewell turned to Kevin Garnett and said, "It doesn't mean anything if you don't win it all." The comment, while ridiculous on its face--it meant plenty to nearly everyone associated with the franchise that Minnesota finally advanced past the first round of the playoffs--bespoke the kind of hunger and determination that you want in a veteran leader. Coming into this season, it was reasonable to assume that this taste of success would only whet the appetite and sharpen the focus of players who could see they had a viable shot at an NBA crown. Likewise, it seemed to augur well that the players with the most at stake were Sprewell and Cassell, a pair of aging stars to whom the '04-'05 season represented perhaps their last, best hope for a championship as well as an opportunity to dramatize their value shortly before they negotiated what might be the final contracts of their careers.

But Spree and Sammy shirked their leadership roles. They disrupted the team's focus on winning a championship because they weren't willing to wait on negotiating new contracts. The friction began when Cassell failed to show up for the very first day of training camp as a means of highlighting his desire for a two-year extension at the maximum level allowed by the league's collective bargaining agreement. Sprewell quickly followed with a series of alternately silly and damaging grumblings stemming from his dismay over not getting a new deal on his terms. Their churlish ploys have proven counterproductive in more ways than one.

Let's begin with Cassell. Sammy rightfully believes that he is worth more than he is being paid, but for that he has only himself to blame. Nobody, least of all Wolves owner Glen Taylor, forced Cassell, who was then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, to put his signature on his current long-term contract. Under league rules, the best Taylor can do is extend the terms of that deal with a 15 percent raise.

Okay, so when was the last time Taylor failed to offer a key player on his team at least as much as he was worth? This is a guy whose willingness to pay Garnett a king's ransom prompted his fellow owners to institute a new collective bargaining agreement, the terms of which he then violated by promising Joe Smith more money than he was allowed. And after being penalized a series of draft picks, he turned around and paid Smith the legal maximum, which was far more than Smith deserved.

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