Center of Attention

LIKE ALMOST EVERY action and reaction undertaken by the Minnesota Timberwolves during the 1995-96 season, the primary motivation behind the trade that sent Christian Laettner and Sean Rooks to Atlanta for Andrew Lang and Spud Webb last week was to make the world a more pleasant place to play for the team's phenomenal rookie, Kevin Garnett. During the Wolves' first 30 games, when the club was under-utilizing Garnett in the mistaken notion that this teenager with no college experience had to be brought along slowly, Laettner was the team's most valuable player. But it was no coincidence that Laettner's contributions gradually diminished as Garnett emerged; both are multi-talented, big men who are most effective as the primary way station in the flow of the offense.

Garnett more or less officially took over during the Wolves' highest-profile game of the year, at home against the Bulls on February 16th, when he sparkled at both ends of the court while Laettner was reduced to afterthought status. Two days later, Laettner complained that there was too much individual-style basketball being played (something Laettner is also guilty of) and that "the rookies" should shut up (something Laettner never did as a rookie). The outburst was transparent: Laettner might just as well have pissed on the four corners of the court to mark his territory.

But in his self-absorption, Laettner failed to recognize that the keys to this franchise had already been flipped to the kid, for a number of reasons. Garnett is the player upon whom the Wolves' current braintrust of VP Kevin McHale and coach/general manager Flip Saunders have staked their reputations. He has the potential to be a perennial all-star, even one of the top five players in the game, the type of guy who can be the foundation for a legitimate championship contender. After just 53 games, he has progressed further and faster than anyone expected. It should quicken the pulse of any local hoops junkie to consider that his skills probably won't peak until about 2004, when he'll be 27 years old. Meanwhile, the Wolves have comparatively precious little time to convince him that this is the place to continue his career.

Under pro basketball's new collective bargaining agreement, players are paid a relatively low, fixed wage for their first three years in the league, but after that can become free agents, available to the most attractive bidder. A team has the option of trying to ward off a player's free agency by renegotiating his contract after his second year, which for Garnett is only 14 months away. The Wolves are almost certain to offer their budding star a fabulous amount of money at that time; Garnett's response will indicate whether he wants to lead this franchise out of its current position as the Siberia of the basketball world or reinforce that image by fleeing Minnesota as soon as possible. The stakes are huge.

Which brings us to the Laettner-for-Lang trade. (Rooks and Webb don't really matter--they have expiring contracts and won't be signed by either team next year anyway.) Laettner is obviously more talented and more versatile than Lang, and in the short term Atlanta should benefit from the deal more than the Wolves. But the trade did free up $2 million in salary money that Minnesota can use on next year's free agent crop. Plus, Lang is a better fit physically and psychologically than Laettner was for the Wolves. Lang's strengths are shot-blocking and defense, which will enable Garnett and Tom Gugliotta to play the sort of roaming defense that suits their skills and makes them happy. And on offense, Lang is strictly a role player who doesn't need to touch the ball much, which is a welcome respite on a team overloaded with ball-hungry talent like Garnett, Googs, and J.R. Rider. Lang is also a class act whose meticulous work ethic should ensure slow, steady improvement as he becomes accustomed to the Wolves' system. And he won't bad-mouth his teammates to the media.

The trade isn't totally risk-free. Unlike the rest of the Wolves' starting lineup, Lang does not function well in a passing offense, preferring a more deliberate, half-court game. A more subtle source of friction may be how Lang's somber, dignified demeanor meshes in a locker room dominated by the effervescent Garnett. Over the weekend, while Lang was enduring an endless round of media questions with thoughtful, soft-spoken answers, Garnett, standing just two locker stalls away, began loudly proclaiming him "The Punisher" for his intimidating defense. Without any trace of playfulness or irritation, Lang said, "We're going to have to talk about you giving me nicknames in public like this."

Get used to it, Andrew. The fun-loving kid is in the driver's seat: The Punisher it is.

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