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.

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

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.

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.

Let's get specific. Because he intuitively tries to score instead of drawing fouls, and wants to involve his teammates in the offense, one of the very few weaknesses in KG's arsenal is his lack of inclination and ability to produce points on his own in the fourth quarter. During his decade in Minnesota, Garnett has been teammates with probably the top two crunch-time shot-makers among NBA point guards, Chauncey Billups and Sam Cassell. Neither one is still with the team. Instead, McHale traded Cassell (whose attitude compelled the move) for Jaric, who both last year in L.A. and this season in Minnesota has proven himself skittish and unreliable late in the game. Among the other legitimate options, Marcus Banks is way too green for the role and Ricky Davis is a turnover machine, willing but frequently not able to put up shots when the game is on the line. Consequently, one of the very few roles for which KG is not ideally suited falls to him anyway.

One element of the game in which Garnett takes inordinate pride and pleasure is his ability to move the ball and serve as a way station on offense. Put simply, the more KG touches the ball, the better he plays. Ditto Ricky Davis. Before the trade with Boston brought Davis to the Wolves, Garnett led the team in assists 15 times in 40 games, with the Wolves going 11-4 when he was top assist man and 8-17 when he wasn't. Since the Boston trade, KG has led the team in assists just four times in 33 games, with the Wolves 0-4 when he's the premier passer and 12-17 when he isn't. Davis has been top assist man in 13 of those games, and the Wolves are 6-7 when he's dishing and 6-14 when he isn't. There are not enough touches for both players, or by extension the team, to flourish.

Mark Blount also arrived in the huge trade with Boston engineered by McHale. Garnett's main comfort zone as a shooter seems to be about 15-18 feet from the hoop. Ditto Mark Blount. Blount has been the one to compromise, frequently setting up in the low block to discourage the double-teaming of KG as he roams the mid-range perimeter. But Blount is a terrible rebounder—in 19 starts operating out of the low post, he's led the team in boards just once. And, like the other two expat-Boston starters, he's lazy on defense. KG's rebounding totals have soared since the Boston trade, largely as a matter of necessity.

Add it up and the net result of McHale's 2005-06 roster overhaul has been to provide Garnett with fewer touches and less control over the passing game, and much more responsibility for rebounds, defense, and crunch-time scoring. The team's record is the worst it has been since KG was a rookie.

Bottom line, the influx of new Timberwolves is incompatible with the team's franchise player. Because many of these newcomers carry large, long-term contracts, the array of possible solutions to the problem is limited and expensive. The Wolves can try to package a few of their pieces—Jaric, Hudson, Trenton Hassell, Davis, whomever—for a risk-fraught player of damaged reputation, such as Stephon Marbury. They can fire McHale and try to find some bright, creative soul who can transform the $12 million worth of deadwood at point guard (both of them on the books through 2009-10) into useful assets, and rehabilitate the standing of a franchise flirting with oblivion.

Or maybe it's already too late for that. 

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