Many Happy Returns

Eddie Griffin, shot-blocker extraordinaire, is delivering huge value on his new contract with the Wolves

If you want to feel good about the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves over the next couple of years, go to hoopshype.com/salaries.htm and start clicking on the annual paychecks of the various journeymen, aged, unproven, and/or dinged-up centers and power forwards around the league. Check out Danny Ainge's Boston Celtics, who signed forgettable power forward Brian Scalabrine to a 5-year, $15 million contract this summer despite having a boatload of cash already invested in the likes of Mark Blount, Raef Lafrenz, and even the since-departed Vin Baker. Or look at the Sacramento Kings, who are paying Corliss Williamson, Brian Skinner and Kenny Thomas an average of $5 million apiece over the next two years. Chris Mihm is earning $4 million for each of the next two years for the Lakers, Tony Battie is making $5.2 million in Orlando, Lorenzen Wright is pulling down $7.7 million in Memphis, Theo Ratliff tops that at $11.6 per season for the next three years in Portland, and Jerome James and Eddy Curry are receiving a combined $12.4 million from the Knicks.

Now click on Eddie Griffin, the shot-blocking fiend who can't seem to supplant Michael Olowokandi in the starting lineup (more on that absurdity in a moment) but has quickly become a crunch-time security blanket for new Wolves coach Dwane Casey. Griffin's salary? A measly $2.5 million this year, bumped up to $2.7 million next season, with Griffin having the option of accepting or rejecting $2.9 million for the 2007-08 campaign.

Giving Eddie Griffin precedence over Michael Olowokandi in the Wolves player rotation is a slam dunk.
Giving Eddie Griffin precedence over Michael Olowokandi in the Wolves player rotation is a slam dunk.

Expect him to reject it. By 2007, it wouldn't be surprising to see Griffin courting eight-figure, multi-year offers from a bevy of teams that all could have had him for the relative pittance the Wolves paid this summer. Because after his stupendous, 8-block performance against Utah Monday night, Griffin now ranks 8th in the NBA with 2.5 blocks per game thus far this season despite playing an average of less than 20 minutes per contest. Once Eddie is allowed to step on to the court, only Miami's Alonzo Mourning is swatting away opponents' shots at a faster pace.

Which begs two questions. Why did 29 NBA teams pass on Griffin when anyone could have had him for a fraction of the $5 million salary cap exception all clubs are allowed? And why isn't he getting more playing time in Minnesota?

The answer to the first question is simple, and fairly simple-minded: Griffin carries a lot of baggage from his past mishaps. Here's a thumbnail sketch of his woes that I wrote in a Hang Time about EG last December, updated for chronological accuracy.

Five years ago, Griffin was widely regarded as the top high school basketball player in the country. Then a cafeteria fight with a teammate got him expelled from Roman Catholic High in Philadelphia, forcing him to complete his studies under home supervision. His lone year in college at Seton Hall was marred by an occasion when, according to news reports, he "sucker punched" another teammate in the locker room. During his first three seasons in the pros, he was convicted of marijuana possession, charged with felony assault for allegedly punching and shooting a gun at his girlfriend (he eventually pled down to the misdemeanor of "deadly conduct"), and was arrested for allegedly attempting to assault a man outside a Houston gas station at three in the morning.
Two years ago, he was dropped by two teams without playing a single game. He has been treated for depression and anger management, had his driver's license suspended, spent 11 days in jail, and checked into the Betty Ford Center for more than a month to stem his alcohol abuse. As he told a Philadelphia reporter a year ago, "I couldn't get any lower than I was." He will be on probation well into 2006 for his various offenses.
Last season with the Wolves, Griffin was a model citizen, soft-spoken when he wasn't completely mum, and free of any incident that might have further tarnished his reputation. But then in July, he was jailed for 15 days for violating his probation. According to his attorney, he went to a Houston nightclub to pick up a friend when a fight broke out. Although he was not involved in the altercation, even after being harassed by two men at the scene, and wasn't drinking at the time, the police report listed him as a witness. This caused the district court to rule that he violated probation by "consorting with disreputable people" late in the evening.

Wolves fans should regard that probation violation as a blessed event, even as personnel executives around the league slap their foreheads in self-disgust for passing on Griffin, whose scrapes with the law were amplified by the East Coast media's sports echo chamber. No question, the guy has a checkered history. But any back-channel inquiries should have revealed Eddie solid citizenry last year. And anyone who saw him play last season knows he has rare skills, including an incredibly quick second and third jump that enables him to recover even after being faked into the air on defense.

Instead, Ainge signed the utterly mediocre Scalabrine for more years at more money that what Griffin received. Or look at the Lakers. Not content with doling out $8 million to Mihm for two years, they traded capable swingman Caron Butler and backup point guard Chucky Atkins to Washington for Kwame Brown, after agreeing to pay Brown $25 million over the next three years. This is the same Kwame Brown who had numerous run-ins with coaches and front office personnel during his three years in Washington, culminating in his suspension (his second of the season) for the final six games of the playoffs last year after complaining about his playing time and then begging out of practice over what was perceived to be a phantom stomach ailment.

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