Wolf at the Door

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

According to the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, the salaries of any players exchanged for each other have to come within 15 percent of being equal. Because KG will earn $20 million for the 2006-07 season, Minnesota must receive approximately $17-$23 million worth of salaried players from any team(s) involved in a deal for Garnett. Another bit of fine print in the collective bargaining agreement requires that KG be paid a $12 million "trade bonus" on top of his $20 million salary, a surcharge that could make many prospective suitors flinch.

It's an entertaining parlor game to peruse the rosters over at hoopshype.com and try to structure the most equitable and potentially viable trade for KG. The best I could come up with was Houston sending the Wolves center Yao Ming, power forward Stromile Swift, and point guard Rafer Alston—total 2006-07 salaries, $21.6 million. That would provide Minnesota with a stud center, a raw but leaping power forward, and a mediocre (at best) point guard. Would the prospect of a KG and Tracy McGrady combination be enough to entice the Rockets to part with Yao's enormous marketing clout overseas? Who knows? Would Minnesota want to gamble on the tallest NBA player (Yao is seven-feet six-inches high) remaining healthy enough to justify a $17 million-plus salary in 2010-11? That's the kind of long-term risk Wolves owner Glen Taylor would probably have to assume to make a deal that would yield approximate equal value for Garnett.

Even a strategy midway between a salary dump and fair value—grabbing some emerging players and a pick or two—is fraught with financial risk for Taylor. Garnett is rightfully beloved in this town, perceived as a victim of bad luck (Malik Sealy's death and Fred Hoiberg's heart condition, for starters) and long-range incompetence in the front office that has ranged from the illegal, and costly, secret contract with Joe Smith to the drafting of future trivia questions Ndudi Ebi and Will Avery to the dumping of Chauncey Billups and Bobby Jackson.

KG is the only constant counterpoint to this blinkered history. Consequently, short of immediate, dramatic improvement, there would be no honeymoon from the Target Center faithful for any players acquired through his departure. The team's attendance has already fallen off a cliff: 11th to 15th in the league a year ago, 24th of 30 this season.

And that, in a nutshell, is why Taylor steadfastly repeats that Kevin Garnett isn't going anywhere.

DAMNED IF THEY DON'T

But that isn't all Taylor has said since KG finally stopped being the good soldier and erupted after the Wolves' fourth-quarter travesty versus the Knicks. Against more than 60 games' worth of evidence to the contrary, the owner maintains that his team possesses more talent than its division rivals in Denver and Utah. If it weren't for injuries to Troy Hudson and Fred Hoiberg and a season-long plague of losses in close games, Taylor believes, his team's fortunes would look very different. Never mind that the injury bug has bitten those other teams harder than the Wolves, or that chronically failing to take charge of close games is usually a symptom of more than bad luck. The most distressing thing about Taylor's recent ruminations is that, contrary to all reason, he seems to have decided that Kevin McHale is a besieged hero in this crisis, and Dwane Casey a principal suspect.

Taylor, for example, continually notes how hard McHale is working to improve the team, when it's common knowledge that Casey burns more midnight oil than anyone within the organization. Perhaps to atone for choosing Casey, a rookie head coach, over McHale's top pick, the veteran P.J. Carlesimo, Taylor has also indicated that it might be a good idea for Casey to get a little more seasoning among his cadre of assistants next year. That's if Casey is around at all next year. After speaking with Taylor last week, Pi Press columnist Charlie Walters wrote that "Casey's status seems precarious."

Garnett has gone 180 degrees the other way, ripping McHale at regular intervals while staunchly defending Casey. "Glen and I have great communication," he declared last week. "Some of the people in between, it's not the same kind of communication. But it's all good...I have faith that Glen will step in." Lest anyone think it was Casey he meant to criticize, Garnett added later that it was "not fair at all" to talk about firing the coach: "You make acquisitions and changes, it makes it difficult not only on him but on his staff." That pretty much lays the blame at the feet of McHale, who wisely isn't talking.

The discrepant loyalties of Garnett and Taylor reflect their overlapping but ultimately different priorities. The superstar is most concerned about the standings, the owner about the balance sheet. It is much easier—and cheaper—for Taylor to contemplate the return to health of players he has already signed (although he did cut Hoiberg to save cash this year), and to imagine a more experienced coaching staff reversing those narrow losses. The alternative is that his personnel guy has signed a batch of very expensive players to long-term contracts only to learn that their skills don't mesh well with each other or with Garnett on the court.

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