The Long and the Short of It
Aside from the time when the Minnesota Timberwolves were on the verge of being sold and moved to New Orleans a few years back, the 50-game, 13-week campaign that begins this Friday night in Denver is probably the most pivotal period in the decade-long life of this franchise. Certainly ardent pessimists and optimists alike can marshal enough plain facts and plausible scenarios to justify their attitudes.
An objective handicapper would have to give the pessimists the edge. Forward Tom Gugliotta, the Wolves' first-ever All Star and the team's leading scorer the past three seasons, has departed for Phoenix. Joe Smith, signed by the Wolves to a one-year, $1.75-million contract to replace Gugliotta, will either continue to underachieve on his enormous potential or perform well enough to command more than the $2-million maximum that Minnesota can offer him next season. Finally, and most significant, there's a real chance the Wolves are on the verge of losing their burgeoning superstar point guard Stephon Marbury.
Under the new financial terms arising out of this fall's NBA labor lockout, Marbury and his fellow third-year players are eligible to sign new six-year, $71-million contracts with their existing teams--in excess of $10 million more than what other clubs can offer. Since the lockout ended two weeks ago, the most coveted of Marbury's peers have taken the money and extended their associations with the teams that drafted them. Marbury, on the other hand, has stated that he doesn't want to talk about his contract until after the playoffs. Asked point-blank last week if where he played was more important to him than how much he was paid, Marbury replied, "That's right." Coupled with the New York City native's comments last year about the relative demerits of the weather and social life in Minnesota (both of which are predominantly cold and white), logic would indicate that he's on his way out of town.
Members of the Wolves' front office haven't forced the issue, but they're unlikely to remain in limbo until July. This season's deadline on new contract negotiations--and for trading players to other teams--is March 13, just nine home games away. In an interview late last week, owner Glen Taylor said he "will talk to either Stephon or his agent [David Falk] before March 13 and find out what they are thinking."
Taylor, who in contract talks with both Gugliotta and Kevin Garnett has proven himself to be a negotiator of honor and goodwill, adds that he will "take Stephon's word for it" if Marbury and Falk indicate the Wolves still have a legitimate chance to retain him. Conversely, if Taylor gets the message that Marbury wants out, then look for an arrangement in which the Wolves can mitigate their losses by signing him for $71 million and then trading him to another club, either before the March deadline or during the off-season. If that happens, Minnesota will have lost two-thirds of its troika of stars, and, because of Garnett's huge prelockout $126-million deal, will have precious little room under the salary cap to go out and get players of similar quality.
Still, not everything is gloom and doom at the Target Center. On the contrary, even with the loss of Gugliotta, there is more talent, depth, and stylistic flexibility on the Wolves' current roster than ever before. A year ago at this time, Minnesota was deficient at two of the game's five positions--shooting guard and center. By trading Doug West to Vancouver for Anthony Peeler last February, the Wolves upgraded the shooting guard situation enough to go on a spring surge and extend Seattle to five games in the playoffs, despite losing Googs to a season-ending ankle injury the same week Peeler was acquired. Peeler's long-range prowess (he set a team record for accuracy by hitting 45 percent of his three-point attempts) enabled the Wolves to replace free agent Terry Porter (who went to Miami) with defensive specialist Malik Sealy. At 6-8, Sealy can guard the tall, wiry shooting guards who are too big for the 6-4 Peeler to handle, and he can guard the jackrabbit small forwards that give 7-2 Kevin Garnett the most trouble. During his three years with the Los Angeles Clippers, Sealy was an unconscionable gunner, jacking up a shot every two-and-half minutes and making only 41 percent of them, but last year in Detroit he exercised more restraint, something that will have to continue if he's to maximize his value with the Wolves.
The upgrade at center comes from a familiar face, the Wolves' 1996-97 starter Dean Garrett. After signing for more money in Denver last year as a free agent, Garrett was reacquired in a postlockout trade that also brought the Wolves Bobby Jackson, a Gopher graduate and hometown hero who can fill in at both guard positions. Garrett is more athletic and a better rebounder than either Stanley Roberts or Cherokee Parks, the departed duo that platooned at center for Minnesota last year. He also has an acutely intuitive relationship with Marbury when the point guard drives to the hoop, a factor that bolsters the offense--and, one hopes, Marbury's desire to stay with the Wolves.
Minnesota can't completely compensate for the loss of the multitalented Gugliotta at power forward, but the combination of Joe Smith and Sam Mitchell will come closer than many realize. At age 35, Mitchell has the work ethic, if not the talent level, of a Michael Jordan, and he has dramatically improved his all-around game over the past five years. Longtime Wolves fans adore his outspoken character and leadership in the locker room, even as they underrate his contributions on the court.
As for Smith, there's no sugar-coating his lackluster performance for two losing teams last year, when dolor and indifference eroded his formidable skills. But this is the same guy who was talented enough to be the top pick in the college draft (ahead of Garnett) back in 1995 and who turned down a huge long-term contract with Golden State just two years ago after a stellar rookie season. He doesn't shoot or pass as effectively as Googs, but he's a better shot blocker and a more disciplined defender near the basket--and, because he needs the ball less, he's a better fit in an offense that includes Marbury, Garnett, and Peeler. As for attitude, what could be better than an extraordinarily gifted athlete anxious to resurrect his career at the ripe old age of 23?
Which brings us to Minnesota's other two wunderkinds, KG and Stephon. Garnett is ridiculously, redundantly brilliant: Expect another highlight reel's worth of jaw-dropping exploits mixed with the profound subtleties of a consummate team player. With Garnett it's easy to take the miraculous for granted. Last Thursday night, in an exhibition game against Milwaukee, Marbury skimmed him a bounce pass that rose no higher than knee level, a tough catch for any pro. Garnett, who has grown to be 7 feet 2 inches tall (or as coach Flip Saunders quips in deference to Garnett's claim to be under 7 feet, "6 foot, 14 inches"), handled the pass off the dribble without breaking stride. This year he has added a devastating lateral fake to get open for his face-up jump shot, and in view of Gugliotta's absence, he's poised to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2.5 blocks per game. And don't forget his hellacious defense.
For the second year in a row, Marbury worked out like a maniac during the off-season, adding 10 pounds of muscle to his 6-2 frame. He also followed Saunders's instructions and worked on a midrange jumper, which gives him another weapon to complement his long-range bombs and kamikaze drives to the basket. The addition of Garrett and the subtraction of Googs will afford him even more opportunities to excel. Sometimes his ego gets in the way, but more often that same arrogance enables him (and his team) to thrive under pressure.
Will he stay? That's the defining question for the Timberwolves franchise. The best hope for a positive answer would seem to be a start so torrid that Marbury could envision a championship in the not-too-distant future. And some aspects of this uniquely truncated campaign favor the Wolves. With a roster that runs eight or nine players deep and that contains three stars under age 24, Minnesota is well-equipped to deal with the grind of four games per week over a three-month season. And as a veteran of the chaotic Continental Basketball Association, where players come and go on a daily basis, Flip Saunders thrives in a fluid, improvisational setting; witness the way he picked up the pieces when Gugliotta went down last year. Everyone on the team, with the possible exception of Marbury, is more than happy to be here. The mixture of youth and experience, speed and savvy, bulk and height, makes this a team that can play a pressing, up-tempo game, or bang, clutch, and grab underneath the hoop. Although not quite ready to supplant the Lakers, Spurs, or Jazz as conference favorites, a record of 30-20 and a first-ever playoff series triumph is not unlikely, if Marbury sticks around past mid-March.
And if he goes? The Wolves will persevere. Over the past three years, Saunders and Kevin McHale have proven themselves to be top-notch traders and talent scouts. Barring a Gugliotta-like fiasco, they'll get something of value (a quality point guard and a draft pick, perhaps?) for Marbury. The likely departure of Smith will be partially absorbed by the arrival from Italy of 7-footer Radoslav Nesterovic, the team's top draft pick this year. And losing Marbury and Smith would free up enough money to sign an attractive free agent: Given the Wolves' successful restoration projects with Peeler and Garrett, plus the allure of teaming with KG, there should be no shortage of candidates. In other words, it will be many years before the Wolves threaten a return to the days of 20-win seasons.
That said, give the pessimists the last word: No Marbury, no championship.
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