For all the excitement the Minnesota Timberwolves have provided during the 1997-98 campaign--with a trio of budding stars igniting the NBA's third-most-prolific offense--this most successful season in franchise history has produced precious little long-term suspense. Even before the team fired its first shot back in October, it was self-evident that the Wolves were superior to the sextet of woeful squads that comprise the dregs of the Western Conference, and yet were not quite mature or well-rounded enough to threaten the handful of legitimate contenders vying for the conference championship. The conventional wisdom that figured Minnesota would make the playoffs only to be defeated in a first-round series sounds as sage today as it did six months ago. What happens to the Wolves during the next six months, however, is far less certain, and far more crucial to the eventual health and well-being of this franchise.
At the end of the season, Timberwolves power forward Tom Gugliotta--the team's first-ever All-Star and its top scorer and best rebounder over the past three years--will exercise his option to become a free agent and likely spark a spirited bidding war for his services around the league. At the same time, under the terms of the NBA's rookie salary-cap structure, the Wolves can negotiate a new contract with Stephon Marbury, a future superstar who after just two years is already established as one of the top six point guards in the game. Should Marbury and the Wolves fail to agree on a new deal, it would signal his probable departure from the club after next year (when he would become a free agent) and create an enormous distraction throughout the 1998-99 season.
Last month Wolves owner Glen Taylor warned that under the league's current salary structure, it would be "very difficult" for the franchise to financially accommodate new contracts for both Googs and Marbury--a reasonable assessment in the wake of the seven-year, $126 million deal Taylor gave Kevin Garnett, the team's other marquee player, last fall. As soon as Garnett's blockbuster pact was finalized, the realities of the marketplace made it plain that, barring a "championship or bust" strategy, either Gugliotta or Marbury had to go. For a couple of reasons, the logical assumption was that Googs would be the one cut loose. First, he's at least seven years older than Marbury and KG, who were born a year apart; to best synergize the play of two stars, it helps to have them peaking at the same time. Second, while Googs possesses a dazzling array of skills, Garnett is one of the few players in the league with enough versatility and talent to buffer the damage should he depart. On the other hand, there is no match for Marbury's catalytic offensive prowess elsewhere on the Wolves' roster. Therefore, if the Wolves can afford only two stars, Garnett and Marbury would seem to be the most effective tandem.
That was the thinking six months ago, anyway. But the events of an otherwise predictable '97-'98 season are tweaking the conventional wisdom. And right now Googs might stand a better chance than Marbury of being a Timberwolf in 1999.
At the center of the problem is money--both the league-imposed constraints on spending it and the harsh realities of the team generating it. In March Taylor and the other NBA owners voted to reopen negotiations with the players' union over the terms of their collective bargaining agreement, and it's widely known that they'll lock out the players July 1 to bring the union to the table. The Wolves' brain trust--Taylor, Vice President of Personnel Kevin McHale, and coach/general manager Flip Saunders--is hoping the wrangling will result in a lower cost of re-signing young stars (under the guise of the owners' stated desire to reduce the vast disparity in player incomes). However unlikely such an outcome might be, the team realizes that any effort to keep its golden troika intact must begin with Googs: Unlike Marbury, who is tied to Minnesota until the summer of 1999, he can jump ship this year.
Aside from the subtleties of the NBA's voodoo economics, the vast improvement in Gugliotta's play this season (until he went down with bone chips in his ankle in late February) has enhanced his standing among members of the team's front office. Without sacrificing the unique blend of scoring, rebounding, and passing that made him an All-Star, he shored up the few weaknesses in his game by cutting down on his turnovers, hewing more doggedly to the team's defensive rotations, and not allowing his temper to disrupt his concentration.
Marbury's progress has been more problematic. Granted, his lightning quickness, passing instincts, and peripheral vision are skills that can't be taught, and he has improved his recognition of defensive schemes; though barely out of his teens, he's an inevitable superstar. But he has also been so lackluster on defense that a few weeks back Saunders cut his playing time. And while he excels at setting up shots for his teammates, his own shot selection occasionally suffers from lack of good judgment. According to refined statistics kept by Saunders, Marbury is the third-most-accurate shooter in the league from 10 to 17 feet away from the basket. Yet despite pleas from the coaching staff to penetrate halfway and take that midrange jumper more often, he's much more likely to either hoist a shot from three-point range (with a conversion rate below 30 percent) or drive all the way to the hoop, where savvy big men, alerted by scouting reports, are waiting to block or alter his layup attempt. Consequently, Marbury's overall shooting accuracy is mired around 41 percent, an infinitesimal improvement over his rookie average last year.
Marbury is simply too smart, too talented, and too determined to retain such bad habits for long. Ultimately, whether he stays or goes will have less to do with his flaws on the court than with his desire to live in a bigger city, preferably on the East Coast, near his native New York City. When the news broke in a national magazine late last fall that Marbury was bored with the chilly weather and Middle American domesticity of Minneapolis, he handled the potential public-relations gaffe with enough honesty and élan to defuse the situation. And why shouldn't a kid from the projects of Coney Island be discomfited by the thought of spending the bulk of his 20s in a freezing burg on the prairie? But by the same token, why should the Wolves lavish $100 million or so and gamble a championship run on a player who'd rather be someplace else? You can bet that McHale has asked himself that question, which is why it's not outside the realm of possibility that the Wolves will trade their superlative point guard within the next year.
Obviously, everyone connected with the Wolves organization knows that the best-case scenario is for Marbury to cope with his part-time Minnesota residency as Taylor finds a way to keep him and Googs alongside KG on the roster. But if that doesn't pan out, it would not be out of character for McHale to pull the trigger on a Marbury trade. Throughout his brief three-year tenure, the Wolves' VP has displayed a willingness to risk the fallout of a controversial maneuver to maximize the mental and physical makeup of his club. He unloaded the perpetually tardy J.R. Rider in exchange for two nondescript benchwarmers. He drafted Garnett right out of high school at a time when nearly everyone thought it was sheer lunacy. When Christian Laettner bitched about Garnett's growing leadership role, McHale dumped him for the workmanlike center Andrew Lang; and when Lang sulked about coming to Minnesota, McHale promptly packaged him up with draft pick Ray Allen and landed Marbury.
The Wolves' acquisition of shooting guard Anthony Peeler from Vancouver in exchange for Doug West gave the team better ball-movement and long-range-shooting skills (not to mention defensive savvy), taking some of the load off Marbury. But Peeler also moves Minnesota tantalizingly closer to becoming a championship-caliber team if they can retain their stars. Says Saunders, who is ecstatic about Peeler's all-around game: "I honestly believe that if we hadn't lost Googs, we'd be such a good passing team it would be scary--we'd be over 50 wins and fighting for the third- or fourth-place slot in the playoffs."
Considering the investment Taylor would have to make to keep this squad intact, however, 50 wins and third or fourth place represent middle rungs on a ladder the Wolves need to scale quickly for this expensive experiment to pay off. The clichéd phrase "Wait 'til next year" will carry a little more drama than normal during this off-season. For reasons that have little or nothing to do with the way the game is played--the tenacity of the NBA players' union, the scope of Stephon Marbury's nightlife, the depth of Glen Taylor's bank account--the 1998-99 edition of the Wolves could legitimately join the Western Conference elite next year, or suffer through a severe bout of wishful thinking.
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