Wolf at the Door

Sooner or later, Kevin Garnett will leave Minnesota without a championship

PRELUDE TO A MELTDOWN

So the heart of Kevin Garnett pumps red stuff after all. This comes as a crushing disappointment to the dwindling legion of people who call themselves diehard fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves. They have seen Garnett take a franchise that was a league-wide joke, a gulag of ineptitude on the remote, frozen plains, and remake it in his image by compiling the most productive career prior to age 30 of anyone who has ever played pro basketball. Through last season and this one, Wolves faithful have clung to the not-very-likely hope that

KG's patience and perseverance would prove as exceptional as his court skills. The deal he signed on October 1, 2003 suggested as much, after all.

On that day, Garnett agreed to a five-year, $100-million contract extension, the longest allowed under league rules, with an option KG could exercise to stay in Minnesota for the rest of his career. "At the end of the day, man, I'm a Timberwolf," KG proclaimed. "I bleed blue and green. That's in my veins."

But Garnett was seeing red when he opened a vein and vented his frustration after the ugliest victory in Timberwolves history on March 26. Minnesota was up by 23 points with less than 13 minutes to play against the pathetic Knicks, who loath their coach and had already lost 30 more games than they'd won. In the waning minutes, the Wolves nonetheless managed a choking act that very nearly cost them the game. Coming shortly after a winless two-week road trip that saw the Wolves leading at halftime in all six of their losses, Minnesota's toxic cocktail of no grit, no cohesion, and no potential finally corroded KG's legendary sense of loyalty.

KG's patience and perseverance would prove as exceptional as his court skills. The deal he signed on October 1, 2003 suggested as much, after all.

On that day, Garnett agreed to a five-year, $100-million contract extension, the longest allowed under league rules, with an option KG could exercise to stay in Minnesota for the rest of his career. "At the end of the day, man, I'm a Timberwolf," KG proclaimed. "I bleed blue and green. That's in my veins."

But Garnett was seeing red when he opened a vein and vented his frustration after the ugliest victory in Timberwolves history on March 26. Minnesota was up by 23 points with less than 13 minutes to play against the pathetic Knicks, who loathe their coach and had already lost 30 more games than they'd won. In the waning minutes, the Wolves nonetheless managed a choking act that very nearly cost them the game. Coming shortly after a winless two-week road trip that saw the Wolves leading at halftime in all six of their losses, Minnesota's toxic cocktail of no grit, no cohesion, and no potential finally corroded KG's legendary sense of loyalty.

"I've always said I'd be in Minnesota as long as they want me here," he acknowledged, sitting in front of his locker stall. "[But] I don't think I can take another one of these rebuilding stages." Speaking in clipped sentences, he declared that he deserved a chance to be on a team that could compete for a championship. "At the end of the day, they should at least give me that. And if it is anything different than that, then that's a discussion we have to talk about. Because I don't want to go through another season like this." Translation: Make it better—much, much better—or punch my Big Ticket out of here.

In retrospect, the 30 months between KG's contract signing and his post-game rescue flare seem tailor-made to induce claustrophobia. First, Garnett got a fleeting glimpse of the heights that can be achieved when he is surrounded by a decent supporting cast. The acquisition of a pair of aging but still relatively healthy, capable, and motivated veterans, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, propelled the Wolves into the Western Conference finals and earned Garnett the NBA's Most Valuable Player award for the 2003-04 season. Always one to share acclaim, KG made sure that Spree and Sammy joined him on Craig Kilborn's talk show and the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Then the bottom fell out. Sprewell and Cassell started bitching about their contracts shortly before the start of the 2004-05 season. Riven by dysfunction, the team finished out of the playoffs for the first time in eight years. And the front office fell prey to an impulse that haunts the management of every struggling sports franchise: the temptation, after a while, to do something just to prove you're doing something, addressing the problem. First they fired longtime coach Flip Saunders with 31 games left in the '05 season. Come 2006, when the team began underperforming after a fast start, the Wolves executed a monster trade with Boston that promptly sent the club's winning percentage even further south.

Even before this year's Wolves went into the tank, though, every lazy pundit on the NBA beat was bleating about Minnesota's obligation to trade Garnett. The rationale was that the Wolves lack the means to surround KG with sufficient talent to contend for a championship, leaving it in the best interest of both the superstar and the franchise to unload him and rebuild from scratch.

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