It wasn't supposed to be this way. Not now, not after six years of heroically tenacious mediocrity in which the Minnesota Timberwolves battled injury, death, and the departure of key players to make the playoffs every season. Not when last year's team tied a franchise record with 50 wins, when their resident superstar is entering the prime of his career, when two youthful members of his supporting cast appear to be growing by leaps and bounds. But the hard fact is this: The 2002-03 Wolves stand at an ominous crossroads.
The winsome team spirit they have displayed at the start of every season won't cut it anymore, and everybody connected to this ballclub--fans, players, coaches, administrators--knows it. When you are the perennial Miss Congeniality of the playoff pageant, you lose your taste for sunny pronouncements and start gagging on consolation prizes. In previous years, Wolves players and coaches have set intrepid goals for the team during its preseason training camp. At first the aim was simply to make the playoffs, then to finish high enough in the standings to secure home court advantage and actually win a series or two. This year, though, no one is willing to risk being the boy who cried Timberwolf. "There's no point in saying anything unless we go out and do it," says head coach and general manager Flip Saunders. Even the theme of the team's 2002 marketing campaign is humble and grim: We Go to Work.
That doesn't mean they're going to enjoy their work. After commanding league-wide respect by racing out to a 30-10 record during the first half of the season, the team abruptly became a bruised and bickering disappointment in the second half, losing more games than it won. And they saved the worst for last: a first-round sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks that was pathetic even by the Wolves' sorry standard.
Attempts to upgrade the roster during the off-season proved to be yet another study in futility. Free-agent forward Rodney Rogers signed with the New Jersey Nets for less money than the Wolves had offered. The Cleveland Cavaliers sniffed at Minnesota's offer of Wally Szczerbiak for point guard Andre Miller, eventually trading him to the Clippers instead. (The Cavs also trumped the Wolves' bid to sign restricted free-agent guard Ricky Davis by matching Minnesota's offer.) Meanwhile, point guard Terrell Brandon may never fully recover from a leg injury that precipitated last year's second-half swoon, and his main backup, Chauncey Billups, signed a long-term deal with the Detroit Pistons this summer.
Desperate for a serviceable point guard, the Wolves belatedly signed free agent Troy Hudson, a bit player who was passed over in the 1997 NBA draft; in five NBA seasons, Hudson has converted less than 40 percent of his field goal attempts. For depth and at least short-term stability, the team belatedly signed 36-year-old Rod Strickland at the end of training camp. The only other notable new face is free-agent guard Kendall Gill, a 12-year veteran signed as much for his leadership in the locker room as his play on the court. It could have been worse: At one point the club actually considered bringing back J.R. Rider.
The most significant change in this year's team is not a player but a scheme. After stealing a few wins early last season with an innovative matchup zone defense, Saunders again hopes to ambush opponents by installing a motion-oriented offense that features lots of freelance reactions and cuts toward the basket. It's a logical and potentially effective strategy, but one designed more to shore up the club's weaknesses--the lack of a savvy decision-maker at point guard and the absence of a reliable scorer in crunch time--than to bolster its strengths. It won't be enough to close the talent gap between the Wolves and the four elite teams in the Western Conference.
And so, barring a monumental setback to one of the West's elite, the Wolves once again will have to defeat either the Lakers, Sacramento, San Antonio, or Dallas on the road in order to end the long, lamentable streak of first-round failures in the playoffs. Fat chance. If you go by the textbook definition of hope--"A desire accompanied by confident expectation"--then the Wolves are about to embark upon their most hopeless season since Saunders and vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale assumed control over personnel more than seven years ago.
Situations like this are dreadful for sports franchises because they cost money and cause heads to roll. At the end of last year, before nearly all of the team's off-season attempts to upgrade came to nothing, the Target Center natives were already restless. Another early playoff exit (or a failure to make the postseason at all, which is not out of the question) would likely prompt drastic changes. Not coincidentally, owner Glen Taylor allowed center Rasho Nesterovic to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year, and waited for guard Wally Szczerbiak to reduce his contract demands by nearly $20 million before signing him to a six-year pact last week.
Then, too, Kevin Garnett's landmark six-year, $126 million deal is due to expire at the end of next season. Deciding whether to break another bank to re-sign him, or trade him for $25 million worth of talent from another team, or let him walk away without compensation (but freeing up plenty of dough with which to sign free agents) will be Taylor's most important decision.
As for the brain trust in the front office, Saunders signed a sweetheart, long-term guaranteed contract extension two years ago that will make it expensive for Taylor to fire him in the near future. But McHale--whose disdain for conniving agents, flashy egos, and other accoutrements of 21st-century basketball has turned him into a prematurely grumpy old man--could end up leaving.
Put simply, big changes are looming on the horizon. Before they occur, it seems pertinent to ask: What happened to all the hope that was part and parcel of the blueprint laid out by the McSaunders tandem over the past seven years?
The Timberwolves took their first step toward respectability in 1995, when then-owner Marv Wolfenson belatedly concluded that McHale should be ruling over personnel decisions instead of ridiculing the team as an irreverent television analyst. Up until that point, the club had been spectacularly mismanaged, first by Wolfenson's son-in-law, Bob Stein, and then by "Trader" Jack McCloskey. The two of them compounded each other's ineptitude: Stein used the team's precious lottery picks to draft mediocre centers two years in a row (Felton Spencer in 1990, Luc Longley in '91); McCloskey later traded Spencer for aging journeyman Mike Brown in June 1993 and dumped Longley for an abject stiff named Stacey King in February 1994.
Ten days before McCloskey's retirement was announced in February 1995, McHale engineered what remains the best trade in Wolves history. Forward Donyell Marshall--a horrendous defender with a lazy, immature attitude, whom McCloskey had chosen with the fourth overall pick in the '94 draft and signed to a ludicrous seven-figure contract--was sent to Golden State for scrappy, versatile forward Tom Gugliotta, who subsequently became the first Timberwolf ever selected to the All Star team. With one cornerstone in place, McHale continued his brilliant handiwork by gambling on a high school kid named Kevin Garnett in the 1995 draft, and executing a 1996 draft-day deal that brought another marvelous tyro, point guard Stephon Marbury, on board. Between the acquisitions of Gugliotta and Garnett, McHale hired Saunders, his former college teammate, to serve as general manager and then also as head coach, choreographing the development of a burgeoning championship contender.
Shortly after he joined the Wolves, Saunders provided the clearest, most concise definition of "team chemistry" that I've ever heard. In order for a team to be greater than the sum of its parts, he explained, the key players must accede to a pecking order roughly commensurate with their overall value to the ballclub. When people talk about "character" in a player, they are usually referring to the diligence and punctuality of his practice habits, and whether or not he keeps his name off the police blotters. But Saunders recognized it was equally important that a player accept his place in the pecking order and his role on the team.
Saunders and McHale provided the Wolves with a much-needed chemistry lesson in February 1996. Christian Laettner, at the time the team's most renowned and recognizable player, made some caustic comments about the rookie Garnett not knowing his place. Less than a week later, Laettner was traded to Atlanta. Message delivered: KG was top dog. Five months later, the Wolves also rid themselves of the gifted but toxic J.R. Rider, via a trade that netted them less talent but greater harmony.
Die-hard Wolves fans will never forget the hope and pulse-quickening glee they felt watching the team perform during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. Although the team's composite record during those two years was an ordinary 85-79, the seeds of a championship contender had clearly been sown. Garnett and Marbury were two superstars in the making, their development to be neatly supplemented by the All Star Gugliotta and a couple of savvy veterans in Sam Mitchell and Terry Porter.
Gugliotta, whose arrival was the first harbinger of hope in the McSaunders blueprint, was the first player to screw up the chemistry. As the team's leading scorer and rebounder during those two golden seasons, he chafed at falling to third in the pecking order behind Marbury, the arrogant wizard who controlled the offense and had more faith in his own shots than those of his teammates. When Gugliotta warned the club that he would leave when his contract expired, Saunders and McHale tested his resolve by spurning the Lakers' tempting offer of Elden Campbell and Eddie Jones in exchange for Googs. But Gugliotta wasn't bluffing. In January 1999, he signed a six-year contract with Phoenix for millions less than Minnesota would have paid him.
Fifty days later, Marbury was gone. He had his own problem with the pecking order: As the team's most exciting performer on offense, one willing to take the tough shots in crunch time, he resented standing in KG's shadow. With his own free agency just months away, he yearned to return to New York, where he had been a venerated prep star and playground luminary. Marbury announced that he too would reject any contract offers from the Wolves. Unwilling to risk losing a second star without getting anything in return, Saunders and McHale reluctantly swung a three-team trade that returned Marbury to the East Coast and brought Terrell Brandon in from Milwaukee to replace him.
For what it was worth, Wolves fans eventually got to see Gugliotta and Marbury receive their comeuppance. By the early part of last season, Googs had incurred enough ailments and injuries to make one think of vengeful shamans with voodoo dolls. Marbury, his new sidekick in the Phoenix desert, seemed to rack up more tattoos than victories during two years in Jersey before being mercifully traded out of town. Meanwhile, Brandon's steady, selfless proficiency was a balm that afforded Saunders the overall team stability to innovate and gave KG the room to mature into the league's most versatile player. On defense, the Wolves used Saunders's new matchup zone to confuse opponents; on offense, the team's crisp ball movement and the tendency of opposing defenders to focus on KG gave Wally Szczerbiak the opportunity to prove he was indeed one of the NBA's deadliest shooters. Through the first half of the season, the Wolves sported the league's third-best record and both Garnett and Szczerbiak were named to the All Star team.
It's been all downhill from there.
A week before the All Star break, Brandon was lost for the season, and maybe for good, when he suffered a cartilage fracture in his left leg. Around the same time, a reporter from ESPN The Magazine spent about 10 days covering the team. On March 4, the magazine published a story in which a handful of Wolves, particularly Brandon and backup point guard Chauncey Billups, essentially accused Szczerbiak of being a ball hog. Billups even went so far as to claim Szczerbiak stole passes intended for his teammates. Those corrosive sentiments contributed mightily to the Wolves' stagnant offense (marked by alternating bouts of timidity and heedless aggression from Szczerbiak) and overall lack of synergy during the second half of the season.
As if the Wolves players didn't face enough distractions and uncertainties, former NBA stars Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley lambasted Garnett for not shooting more often during the team's wretched three-game playoff series against Dallas. Their knee-jerk, bone-headed analysis betrayed a fundamental ignorance of KG's strengths (intuitive teamwork and an ability to dominate without scoring) and weaknesses (emotional volatility that creates a tendency to try to force the action at crunch time). Although Garnett eloquently rebutted his critics at the time, his frustrated comments during the off-season (while taping a sneaker commercial and in an interview with GQ) suggested that Johnson and Barkley hit a nerve.
As for the ruckus over Szczerbiak's need for the ball, Saunders now says, "It's always a tough situation when you've got guys playing who are trying to get a new contract. Sometimes it becomes more individual than team-oriented. When we lost Terrell, we didn't have the luxury of sitting those guys and playing somebody else."
"Those guys" almost certainly includes Billups, who signed a long-term deal with Detroit during the off-season. It may also include Szczerbiak, who unsuccessfully sought to extend his Wolves contract (which expires at the end of this year) at the maximum salary rate allowed under league rules. In any case, when Brandon went down last year, it was easy to see how Billups, holding the reins in Saunders's point-guard-centric offense, and Szczerbiak, the newly crowned All Star, might both stake a claim for second place in the pecking order.
The departed Billups was Garnett's best friend on the team. Szczerbiak, who, despite his transparent protests to the contrary, has never gotten along very well with KG, will be playing for a new contract this season. "Our chemistry is better than people think," Saunders insists. "Wally and KG had a long talk together, with me present, prior to this season. They are very much on the same page and very much understand that how they go will be the way the team goes."
Saunders had better be right, because in many respects, his new motion offense emphasizes teamwork as much as talent. Theoretically, the players running the system can be interchangeable. There will be fewer set plays meant to get the ball to a certain person in a certain place on the court, and more spontaneous reads and reactions designed to exploit weaknesses in opposing defenses as they respond to the Wolves' perpetual motion. "Scary as it may seem, that's the way we all used to play," says McHale, in grumpy old man mode. "You'd go to a gym and play pickup ball and you've got 10 guys all running around and moving. Last year our offense started out moving the ball very, very well. But by the end of the year, I was so frustrated I would just sit in my seat and be pissed the whole game because the ball would just stay on one side of the floor. It's very easy for me to guard you if you stay on one side of the floor. It's very hard for me to guard you if you are moving, if you are unpredictable.
"This isn't rocket science; it's just basketball. You need guys who know how to play, guys that can feed off each other. You and I can beat two guys better than us if we know how to play."
Unfortunately for the Wolves, any cavils regarding talent vs. teamwork quickly becomes moot when you consider that at least four Western Conference teams possessed better chemistry and deeper rosters than Minnesota last year. And there is little evidence to support the notion that this season will be any different.
When it comes to assembling talent, the Wolves' ruling troika of Saunders, McHale, and Taylor have been exponentially more astute and resourceful than their dunderheaded predecessors, which is why the performance of the franchise has progressed from pathetic to mediocre. By the same token, the team's chronic mediocrity is largely the result of limited talent. It isn't that the Wolves underachieve in the playoffs, it's that they just don't have the horses to get past the first round. More than seven years into their tenure, the McSaunders group still hasn't closed the ability gap between the Wolves and the Western Conference elite.
It's easy with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to take cheap shots at the brain trust whose misjudgments sabotaged our favorite ballclub; it's one of the sadomasochistic rituals of fandom in any team sport. But that's not the point here. To zero in on the most egregious personnel decisions made by the McSaunders group requires that we resist the revisionist approach, consider the context, and give them the benefit of most every doubt.
Yeah, center Paul Grant was a lousy first-round draft pick in 1998, but the scarcity of successful players chosen after Grant proves that it was an exceptionally thin talent pool that year. Sure, it's easy to argue that the Wolves should have worked out a trade for Gugliotta before he jumped to Phoenix, especially after the Lakers offered up Campbell and Jones, who continue to be NBA starters more than three years later. But Campbell had a questionable work ethic at the time, and Gugliotta was a fan favorite who provided hard-nosed energy and stability. Gambling that he'd opt for the extra millions that were available only if he stayed with the Wolves was a legitimate decision, wrong in the end but not foolhardy.
The wisdom of the team's commitment to Brandon is a more complicated matter. Once Marbury made it plain he was leaving Minnesota, the complex, last-minute trade that landed a high-caliber replacement like Brandon, plus a first-round draft choice, seemed like an ingenious salvage operation. But when the McSaunders regime turned around and signed Brandon to a six-year, $60 million pact five months later, in August 1999, it felt like a shipwreck waiting to happen.
Brandon was 29 years old at the time, and already showing signs of chronic injury problems. He missed 32 games with a couple of sprained ankles while in Milwaukee during the 1997-98 season, and was waylaid for 11 games with a thigh contusion three weeks after joining the Wolves. Last year he sat out 16 games with a bum knee, came back for seven games of part-time duty, then played 44 minutes against Boston and felt something give in his leg. After two more pain-filled contests, doctors diagnosed the cartilage fracture that caused him to miss the rest of the season. This year, the timetable for his return--if he returns at all--is unknown. Given the severity of his latest injury, it's likely that his quickness and agility are permanently diminished.
Even if Brandon had beaten the odds and stayed healthy, handing him $10 million a year up to the age of 35 would have been a premium, if not exorbitant, price to pay. Ironically, the Wolves have fruitlessly tried to trade him ever since he first arrived. Obviously, overpaying for an injury-prone player that they not-so-secretly want to unload has not been the shrewdest managerial maneuver by the McSaunders crew. Because Brandon has performed with just enough skill and frequency to become an integral part of the Wolves' identity, his cloudy future is a major reason that this upcoming season feels so hopeless.
The Wolves' management team can plausibly retort that Marbury's determination to leave the team forced them to flirt with disaster no matter how they dealt with Brandon. The alternative to trading Marbury and signing Brandon was to create a gaping void at point guard, the most important position in Saunders's offensive schemes.
Fair enough. But there have been other misguided personnel decisions where the hands of management were not tied, and where they weren't dealing from a position of weakness. On the contrary, on two occasions, the McSaunders regime has twice overrated the value of a player, gotten the chance to rectify the mistake, and overrated him again.
Within days of Gugliotta bolting to Phoenix in January 1999, the Wolves pulled off an improbable coup by replacing him with forward Joe Smith, who at the time was one of the most coveted free agents in the league. Under the salary cap restrictions imposed by the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, Minnesota could only offer Smith a one-year deal for $1.75 million. That was chump change for the six-ten forward, who had been the top pick in the 1995 draft, had earned $2.5 million during his rookie season at Golden State three years earlier, and was expected to reap many times that on the open market. Yet there Smith was, sitting next to Taylor at a triumphant press conference, claiming that he accepted the Wolves' pittance because of his close friendship with Garnett and the family atmosphere that pervaded the team.
In September 2000, a series of leaked documents revealed the real story. In violation of the salary cap regulations, Glen Taylor and Smith's agent had secretly drawn up and signed a series of contracts that would pay Smith more than $90 million over the next 10 years. The punishments handed out by NBA commissioner David Stern were strict and wide-ranging. Taylor and McHale (who also signed the contracts) were suspended from their duties with the team. The Wolves franchise was stripped of four first-round draft picks (later amended to three) over the next five years. Smith was summarily booted off the Wolves for at least a year, was once again declared a free agent, and signed a one-year contract with Detroit.
Ironically, Stern did the Wolves a financial favor by declaring all the secret contracts null and void. While Smith had shown himself to be a gritty defender and rebounder during his first two seasons in Minnesota, he was undersized as a center and power forward, and his offensive output was significantly below the point totals he had compiled during his first two years in the league. He certainly wasn't worth the $8-$10 million a year that Taylor had illegally agreed to pay him.
At this point, the Wolves should have counted their blessings and walked away from Smith for good. Instead they signed Smith again in August 2000, this time to a six-year pact worth $34 million. And once again Smith has proved himself an enigmatic underachiever. As Minnesota battled down the stretch for a higher playoff seed, Smith's playing time only diminished. In last year's playoff series against Dallas, he logged a grand total of 44 minutes.
Told to bulk up and get himself in shape for this season, Smith irked Saunders by arriving for training camp with less weight on his wiry physique. The first week in camp, he pulled a groin muscle that has been slow to heal, and he still isn't ready more than a week into the 2002-03 season. Asked how much Smith has to worry about regaining his starting forward job when he returns, Saunders replied, "A lot. He has to worry a lot." But he won't have to worry about getting paid.
The other player vastly overrated by the Wolves' management was point guard Will Avery. On the night of the 1999 NBA draft, McHale told the Star Tribune that he and Saunders "held [their] breath" hoping that Avery would still be available when the Wolves made the 14th pick of the first round. A few weeks earlier, the Wolves had brought in four of the year's top draft-eligible collegiate point guards--Avery, Andre Miller, Baron Davis, and Jason Terry--for informal workouts. Avery proceeded to sink 17 of 20 three-point attempts in one drill, prompting McHale to proclaim him one of the three best shooting prospects in the entire draft. Afterward, Saunders said he felt Avery had "the best upside" of the four collegians.
Well, Miller led the NBA in assists last year. Davis was named to the All Star team. Avery is desperately trying to land a spot on the bench with any team that will have him.
Whatever Saunders and McHale saw in those magical workouts vanished during Avery's brutal attempt to adjust to pro ball after only two years at Duke. From the beginning his stiff, upright style of dribbling precluded smooth ball movement, and his court vision was lousy--fundamental flaws that would bedevil any point guard. He averaged less than six minutes a game during his rookie season and converted just 31 percent of his field goal attempts.
At the end of that 1999-2000 season, the McSaunders brain trust decided not to re-sign free agent Bobby Jackson in order to groom Avery for more minutes as the backup point guard--a potentially crucial position, given Brandon's history of injuries. But if anything, Avery seemed more lost the second year than he was the first, and he finished the season with even fewer minutes played. When the Wolves decided not to pick up the option year on his contract and then played him in only 28 games, it was a foregone conclusion that he was done in Minnesota.
Meanwhile, Jackson has blossomed into the league's most exciting player off the bench, delivering instant energy as the sixth man for the Sacramento Kings, who compiled the NBA's best record last season and extended the champion Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference finals. Always an above-average rebounder and superb full-court defender, the former Gopher has steadily refined his offensive game, improving his field goal percentage each of the five years he's been in the league. Last season, he began supplementing his jitterbug drives to the basket with an accurate three-point shot. It's hard to imagine a player better suited to Saunders's new motion offense.
Bad Luck and Trouble
Among the litany of hope-sapping events that have befallen the Timberwolves franchise, the death of Malik Sealy carries its own special resonance. Sealy was one of those glue guys, like the Lakers' Robert Horry, adept at what is often labeled "the little things," the binding things, like poise and perimeter defense, both of which have been in woefully short supply since Sealy was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver on May 20, 2000.
Some teams might not have been hurt so badly by the loss of a role player like Sealy, but the Wolves have long faced an additional burden: They are more hamstrung by the NBA salary cap than any other team in the league. In the fall of 1997, Garnett was entering the final year of his first contract with the Wolves and would soon become eligible for free agency. The buzz around the league was that KG would sign a lucrative deal with the Chicago Bulls. At the time Bulls GM Jerry Krause was eyeing the breakup of the Jordan-Pippen-Phil Jackson dynasty and needed a bold move to weather the negative fallout. It was also noted that Garnett spent his final year of high school in the Chicago area.
But Glen Taylor was determined to keep Garnett. When he announced in October 1997 that Garnett would receive $126 million--at the time the largest contract in the history of team sports--many NBA owners blanched at the precedent. If a kid three years out of high school could command that much up on the frozen prairie, what would it cost to sign a veteran superstar in a major market? For years, NBA commissioner Stern had been lobbying for a salary cap that would enable the owners to plan their budgets around fixed costs and give small-market franchises a chance to bid on star free agents. KG's contract gave Stern the leverage to convince owners to initiate a training camp lockout in the fall of 1998.
Pressured by the loss of the first two months of the regular season, the owners and the players' union hammered out a collective bargaining agreement that capped and structured salaries for individual player contracts as well as team-wide payrolls. Unfortunately for Taylor, the maximum salaries allowed under the agreement were substantially less than he was paying Garnett.
In practical terms, it meant considerably less room under the salary cap to pursue other players to complement KG. This year, for example, the league's maximum individual player salary is pegged at $18 million. But under the terms of the deal he negotiated with Taylor in 1997, Garnett will be paid $25 million this season. Because the teamwide cap (expected to be more than $40 million this year) is the same for the Wolves as for other franchises, that means Minnesota has $7 million less to work with than almost every other team. (The Lakers' deal with Shaquille O'Neal put them in a similar situation, but as a glamorous championship team in the nation's second-largest market, they don't face Minnesota's recruitment obstacles.)
The collective bargaining agreement allows a team to exceed the salary cap in order to re-sign players already on the roster. Past a certain point, however, teams have to pay a luxury tax to supplement more frugal franchises. The size of Garnett's deal puts the Wolves in that luxury tax bracket. Consequently, Taylor is not only unable to compete on an equal footing with other teams in the free agent market; he is paying millions more, through the luxury tax, to supplement their efforts. The bottom line is that Taylor and the Wolves are financially constrained from surrounding KG with the talent necessary to get the club into the second round of the playoffs.
As if chemistry problems, injuries, bad personnel decisions, tragedies, and financial roadblocks weren't enough to contend with, the Timberwolves have also endured more than their share of simple bad luck. If the Wolves were one of the westernmost teams in the Eastern Conference rather than one of the easternmost teams in the Western Conference, they likely would have won a playoff series or two last year, and the year before that. Last season, the Wolves played better basketball than the Boston Celtics. Yet it is the Celts who are currently riding the momentum of surviving in the playoffs all the way to the Eastern Conference finals, and it is the Wolves who are trying, unsuccessfully, not to let another first-round playoff defeat gnaw at their confidence and their fan base.
Only five of the NBA's 29 teams finished with a better record than Minnesota last season; naturally, the Wolves had to play one of them in the first round. Over the past four years, only six clubs have won more total games than KG's crew. Yet somehow, in every one of those years, the Wolves have entered the playoffs with fewer wins than their opponent. That only happens through horribly bad luck.
Bad chemistry, bad decisions, and bad luck have led this franchise to where it is now: a troublesome crossroads with precious few options and even less hope.
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