Wolf at the Door

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

Two things about this stink to high heaven if you enjoy pro hoops in Minnesota. First, almost all the people in the "trade KG" chorus are far more concerned about getting one of the NBA's most charismatic and versatile performers back in the spotlight, preferably in a marquee market like New York or L.A., than in improving the Timberwolves. Second, although people have chattered about Garnett leaving town since his first contract was due to expire in 1997, the subject has been raised with unremitting frequency this season. No matter how much you like your employer, listening to everyone ask if you wouldn't really rather work somewhere else can wear a person down. In mid-January, Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith, a flagrant ass who has been clamoring for Garnett to play in his city for nearly a decade, actually wrote, "If Garnett doesn't demand a trade, one might assume he doesn't really care about anything but the money."

But regardless of how specious or cynical the campaign has been to pry KG away from Minnesota, it wouldn't have caused a ripple if bad luck, penalties from an illegal contract, and a long string of idiotic personnel moves hadn't combined to sabotage the future of this franchise—with or without Garnett on the team. Because the dispiriting bottom line behind all the trade talk is that, now and for the next three to four years, the Timberwolves are screwed whether they trade KG or keep him. What follows are the gory details. Read them and weep.

DAMNED IF THEY DO

David Kern

The supposed strategic rationale for trading Garnett is to collect $20 million or so in expiring contracts—i.e., future cap room to bid for free agents—and a couple of draft picks. Thanks to a series of horrendous moves by Wolves VP of personnel Kevin McHale, however, that approach is dead on arrival. McHale's last two trades essentially doomed it. Last summer, he dealt Cassell, whose contract expires at the end of this year, to the L.A. Clippers for Marko Jaric, but only after working out a six-year, $38-million contract with Jaric and throwing in a first-round draft choice to boot.

Then, as part of the sprawling seven-player trade with Boston in January, McHale swapped center Michael Olowokandi and his expiring contract for center Mark Blount, who is owed $28 million for the four seasons after this one. (He tossed the Celtics another first-round pick in the deal in exchange for two second-rounders.) Thus, even if Minnesota doesn't sign point guard Marcus Banks and forward Justin Reed when their contracts expire this season (and McHale has claimed Banks was a key player in the Boston deal), they are spending slightly more money in each of the next two years on Blount and Ricky Davis than Boston will owe ex-Wolves Wally Szczerbiak and Dwayne Jones. And, of course, they lose that first-round pick.

Throw Jaric's and Blount's long-term abominations on the money pyre beside the $25 million being paid to Troy Hudson over the next four years, subtract the two first-round picks lost to the Clippers and Boston, and you've got a team that can't start from scratch. Without signing any free agents (meaning Jaric and Hudson are your point guards), or picking up any existing options on contracts in the future, the Wolves owe more than $34 million in guaranteed salary to players besides KG next year, and $35 million for non-KG personnel in 2007-08, $27 million in 2008-09, and $24 million in 2009-10. The salary cap this year is only $49.5 million, and doesn't figure to rise sharply in the near future.

Even if you essentially give KG away—for the expiring contract of a permanently injured player like the Knicks' Allen Houston or the Magic's Anfernee Hardaway, plus a bevy of draft picks—what's the sales pitch to free agents once you've got the dollars in hand? With just enough money under the salary cap to sign one maximum-salary free agent, how do the Wolves convince a cornerstone player to throw down with them after they couldn't make the playoffs two years running with Garnett? The scenario conjures visions of the post-Jordan nightmare in Chicago, when Bulls general manager Jerry Krause couldn't bring home any free agents due to the fallout over his breakup of the Jordan-Jackson-Pippen dynasty. A management team in chilly Minnesota that caused the likes of Kevin Garnett to flee the premises would likely encounter a similar boycott. As for the value of any draft picks the Wolves might acquire, consider that any team receiving Garnett for little more than draft picks is going to finish high enough in the standings to make those picks relatively worthless.

Rather than rebuilding, the Wolves would be better off trying to get equal value in a Garnett trade, but that too is problematic. Even granting that KG is on the downhill side of his prime years, unlikely to repeat his peak seasons of two and three years ago, he's not yet 30 and remains one of the top 10 players in the NBA. He grabs the highest percentage of his team's rebounds by a wide margin, and since there's no one on the current roster who can take up the slack, getting a monster on the glass would be a necessary part of any equitable deal. But then you also need someone who can get you 20 points per game, dish for at least four assists, adequately defend centers and point guards in a pinch and shut down most power forwards, and play the role of leader-by-example in practice and the locker room.

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