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Timberwolves Confidential: Glen Taylor Tells All

David Kern

As the Minnesota Timberwolves plunge into the 2006-07 regular season this week at Target Center, fans' enthusiasm for the team is at its lowest point in over a decade. And small wonder. Over the past two years, the Wolves have plummeted from a playoff berth in the Western Conference finals to the second-worst record in the conference, a span that saw their win total drop from 58 to 44 to 33. During this freefall, there have been numerous calls for the firing of the Wolves' personnel director Kevin McHale, and even some talk of unloading the franchise superstar Kevin Garnett in order to rebuild the team from scratch.

The tenures of both McHale and Garnett coincide almost exactly with the period during which Mankato businessman Glen Taylor has owned the franchise. Whatever one thinks of the job Taylor has done, he has always been forthright with the fans and the media, and he has been willing to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to improving the ballclub.

Two weeks ago, I went down to the headquarters of the Taylor Corporation in Mankato and spoke with Taylor for nearly two hours. It was a remarkably candid conversation even by Glen Taylor's standards.

 

City Pages:I think a lot of people were surprised—I was surprised—that you didn't fire Kevin McHale this year. Did it ever enter your mind? What kind of conversation did you have with him at the end of the year?

Glen Taylor: But if I fired Kevin, that would have to be [because] I had a plan to end up with something better. If I knew of changes that I could make that would make us better, would I hesitate to [fire McHale]? I wouldn't, because I have fairly compensated Kevin and all that, and Kevin would not make an issue of leaving, I don't think. That's not the problem. I guess I would just say to the public, at the time last year, I didn't know of a person—and we have had different people that have asked for that job—I didn't see a person that I thought would do the job better than Kevin.

We're addressing that issue a little bit by bringing back some people and picking up the staff. Now let me just say, let's talk about Kevin a little bit. You have to remember it isn't like Kevin came and begged me for the job. I took over a franchise very quickly, and we had a problem with the team. I knew Kevin's name, didn't really know him personally. I came down and asked Kevin, could he help me in the basketball things? He said to me, Glen, that's not what I do. I don't even know if I could do that. And I said, Well, but you do know how to play basketball, you've seen how to win, you knew those things. I know the business part, so let me try to help you with the business part.

But Kevin was very realistic up front in saying, Okay, I'm growing a family. I earned my money already. I have some priorities, this isn't like I'm doing this for money now. So you understand, and he says, You know, I love to hunt. I love to fish. I love some other things. I mean, he was always up-front with all of those things. He didn't want to do basketball and give up those other things in his life. So it's not like he said, I'm going to work 80 hours a week, or 70, or 45 hours a week.

In turn, I didn't give him two years to train him or anything. It was on-the-job training. Quite frankly, things went pretty well. But we started with a team that had been run poorly. We took a big risk—which I have always let McHale make—on drafting Garnett. That paid off. We took a risk on Stephon [Marbury]. I can't be critical of Kevin [McHale] for that. It didn't work out, but I absolutely don't know what he could have done to change that environment. I personally met with Stephon, I personally met with his agent, and was just told it didn't have anything to do with Kevin. Stephon was going to go to New York no matter what we did. It forced us into a number of trades that have not worked out well for us.

So one might say, with [Terrell] Brandon, for example, Well, geez, Kevin, that sure didn't work out very well. But that trade was done in a short period of time, kind of based upon, oh, cripes, everything else is falling out, this is the only thing on the market. And I'm not sure that would go down as a bad trade, except that [Brandon] got injured and the guy just didn't seem to know how to handle the injury.

 

There are certain individuals—like, you know, we lost Rasho [Nestoveric]. Had not planned that. I guess I have never said this before, but I will be very blunt about that—Rasho only left because of [former coach] Flip [Saunders]. He liked Kevin, he liked me, he personally met with me. If we would have traded the coach, he would have stayed. But he did not like how he was treated by Flip. Rasho said, number one, he wanted somebody with more discipline, he wanted somebody with more consistency, he didn't see this coach was doing that. He was told that if he went down to San Antonio, he would get that. Now I don't think it's worked out so well down there. But I was talking about Kevin [McHale]. I don't know what I can say about Kevin on that particular trade—we lost a center that Kevin went out and helped recruit, brought here, helped train, all that stuff.

I can tell you that Chauncey [Billups] left not because of Kevin but because of Flip. Now, have we said that? We didn't want to say that about Flip because he was here at the time. But I think since then it's been stated that Kevin asked me if I would pay for Chauncey. I said I would. Kevin said he would, went to Chauncey, Chauncey said he would stay, because we were going to offer him the same [money] as Detroit. But then Chauncey went to Flip and said, would you play me, and Flip—I'm not saying that Flip said the wrong answer, but he said, I'm not sure that I think that you're our starting guard. Chauncey then went back to Kevin, and Kevin says, basically, we're going to be truthful. Kevin could have said to Chauncey, Oh, we're gonna start you. And I know some GMs do that stuff. Then they get the player but they have an unhappy player. But Kevin doesn't do that.

So, you know, we've lost some good people, but Kevin's kind of taking the fall on these things, and personally I know that that hasn't been the case.

 

CP:But more recently, you've had a situation where you have more contracts tied up through 2009-10, outside of Garnett, than almost every other team in the NBA. And a lot of those deals—Mark Blount, Marko Jarich, Trenton Hassell, Troy Hudson—are ones where you have extended the time and money commitment without improving the team.

Taylor: Should we walk through some?

 

CP:Sure.

Taylor: Okay. So we went out and brought in Sam [Cassell] and Latrell [Sprewell]. Big decision on our parts because it was big bucks. But I paid it. That was a big gamble. But Kevin gave me the information—well, let's just say he sold me on it. Whatever. I went along with it.

 

CP:And with good reason.

Taylor: But there is a story. Here's two guys, they're characters, but for one of the first times in the history of our business, we are bringing some guys on the team who are a little inconsistent with the way that Kevin would bring them in. His feeling after talking to them was, they're getting toward the end of their careers, and maybe they will do more "we" than "me" just because they have the chance to win. They had told him, yes, we're changing, this will [work].

And quite frankly, it worked out for one year. I mean, it fit exactly with Kevin's plan. The second year was just a disaster, because Sam started out saying, I want a contract. And I wanted a contract. I said, Sam you got two more years [on your current deal]—play one more year, and we'll do that. And he says, I want the contract now. And I said basically, No, no, play another year. I don't mind giving you a contract with one year to go. But, you know, play it. And he eventually came down, after talking to his agent and Kevin, and personally met with me. We went away with a deal—talked to his agent about it and everything—so he says, Do I have your word that next year you will talk about a contract after the year?

I said, You have my word. I'm not putting anything in writing, but you have my word that that's what I'm going to do. Well, he didn't show up for camp the very next day. He went back on his word. Now, Latrell sort of did the same thing. Kevin did offer him a contract. Quite frankly, it was fortunate he didn't take it. [Laughs] But I mean, he said, Kevin actually gave him probably a million dollars in an offer each year more than he should have offered. Maybe three million more than he should have. But Latrell said he wanted $12 million or $11 million [a year], something like that. We were [offering] $6 or $7 million.

 

His comment about "feeding my family" wasn't really the issue with me. That was just—that was a bad thing. What was worse was that he said, "Well, then, maybe I shouldn't play so hard," or something like that.

 

CP:I think it was, "Why would I want to help this team win?"

Taylor: Yeah. That I took issue with. And I would add, so you know, that he got a letter from me personally saying that, if that's the thing, you and I got big trouble because I'm not paying you. I basically said that. Now, in fact, he probably showed me up, because he didn't play three-quarters speed. [He played full-speed.] But he never said that again.

Okay. Troy Hudson. Again, I would just say the negotiations did not go well. We should have gotten them done sooner. We could have got it done at less money.

 

CP:Why did you give in and leave out any injury clause on that Hudson contract? That was the final sticking point in your negotiations, and it turned out to be crucial.

Taylor: Because the NBA wouldn't let us.

 

CP:Wouldn't let you do a clause that said, we will pay you only if you don't get injured?

Taylor: Yeah.

 

CP:Why? Because it was against the collective bargaining agreement?

Taylor: Yeah. And our problem was that we had promised him some [incentive] money, and that was the condition when we sent it to the league. We tried every way we could to get around it. Nobody has ever asked me that before about that contract, but it was one of those things where we offered him more than we would have offered him because of the [injury] conditions we'd put in there. And then, as it ended up, we lost [the injury clause] when we sent it to the league.

But let's be honest here. You could say, "Glen, maybe you should have checked it out earlier." And I would say, yes, I didn't check earlier because I thought they wouldn't have proposed it unless they thought that this was a legitimate [provision]. It certainly sounded reasonable to me. I didn't see why the league wouldn't do it. But I'll say again that maybe we should have checked that out before we go out and make an offer.

 

CP:Did you ever have the option of bailing on the offer?

Taylor: I suppose at the end, we could have walked away and backed out on our word. We haven't done that to players. When the league said, You can do it this way, but you can't do it that way, I guess we could have said at that time, we are withdrawing our offer.

So we ended up with the contract. And if he had been healthy, nobody would have noticed. Quite frankly, he has not worked out and we don't have insurance on him. It is the worst of all worlds. We have to pay him even though he has been hurt.

 

CP:What about the deal with Boston? Because I heard different things. I heard Banks was the key to it. Some people were saying the key was Ricky Davis because of his quickness and his ability to play defense and get up and down the floor on offense. But the one that really got to me is that you were trading a center who had an expiring contract, Michael Olowakandi, for a center who has a lot of money owed him for a lot of years down the road, Mark Blount. And Blount's skill set is such that it seems you are going to be asking Kevin Garnett to do a lot of the dirty work of rebounding and interior defense.

Taylor: Yeah, I would say that the trade with Boston was pretty complicated. Even the reasons for doing it.

 

CP:You mean the friction between Garnett and Szczerbiak?

Taylor: I'm just saying there was probably more to it that had to do with Wally that we have chosen not to talk about—that Kevin has never said and we have never said. I am just going to say that no matter what I say, people are going to deny it. But I would say some things came to a head that forced us to get into something we didn't necessarily want to do. I think it would have been pretty dangerous for Kevin McHale not to do the trade. That kind of thing. And that's all I'll say about that.

You also had Michael, and the Michael thing was festering on the team. It wasn't that Michael went up and down [in his on-court performance]. It was that Michael.... Very seldom do you see someone with such poor relationships with the other players, and I am saying all of them. It was just that they could not feel he was a team player.

 

What we were dealing with, with a new coach, was probably some potential problems in the locker room. And I think we were forced to go out and get the deal we got. It is a little bit like, after you got that deal, you have to go out and manufacture the positives of the deal. So that's why you heard a number of things.

 

CP:So the deal was more about erasing negatives than creating positives?

Taylor: When we started out. Okay. Ricky [Davis] is a person McHale has always liked. This is not the first time he has tried to get Ricky. He's different from Wally, but I don't know that we dropped down there. We got a lower contract and Wally's contract was going to create a big problem for us later on. And the relationship in the locker room was way better. So we had the [approval] of our players and all that. If we could have done [Szczerbiak-for-Davis] straight up, that would have been a deal. But to get rid of Michael, we had to take Mark. It isn't that we didn't like Mark and didn't want Mark. He's a good player and not a bad guy. But the pay isn't right. And we really had, at one time, what we thought was a third-team option that could be worked out.

 

CP:There are a lot of people who view the arrival of Randy Wittman as the hiring of a coach-in-waiting, so that if you're not happy with the way Coach Casey takes the team this year, then Randy will take over.

Taylor: Yeah, that's an interesting thing, because we thought of that before. Dwane was going to bring in some people, we knew that. And that scared me a little bit. But we didn't want to tell him who to bring in. It was to our advantage that Dwane went out and recruited Randy Wittman!

I really like Randy, we know Randy, and Randy is really good. So I know why you are asking the question. And I said, "Geez, Casey, I'm really happy. You could have picked this guy or that guy and you picked Randy." And then Randy calls. He's thought of the same thing too, and he called me personally and said, "Listen, if I am coming up there to replace Casey, and that's the deal, I'm not coming." He said, "I am going to be in this league too long, everybody will know that, and you are not doing me a favor, Glen, if that is the deal." And I said to him, "It isn't any deal. Casey is the one picking you. He is the one interviewing you. I would love for you to come, but you talk to Casey and you make your decision."

 

CP:That says something about Casey.

Taylor: And it says something about Randy too. He was saying, I am here only if I can help Casey become a winning coach. I will get my opportunities either way.

 

CP:On a related matter, somebody might also look at Freddie Hoiberg and say that you are grooming him for the general manager's job if McHale doesn't work out or decides to leave.

Taylor: And when we look back over Kevin and his time here, as I said to you, we didn't have a person to bring in and replace him. So let's be realistic: Do I criticize Kevin for that, or do I criticize myself? So now I am working through this situation. Again, had we planned on Freddie? No. Were there other people around the league who wanted to come here [and possibly be groomed to replace McHale]? Yeah. But would they have worked out? No, not with my personality and the way we run things.

But all of a sudden the situation landed the way it did with Freddie. It wasn't his intent. I made the decision. Kevin didn't even make the decision that Freddie wasn't going to play anymore [after receiving a pacemaker for his heart during the offseason in 2005]. I made that decision. I didn't even ask Kevin; I told Kevin. I had a heart thing, and I know what happens. I am very competitive and I know Freddie is very competitive. I know what's right and that is, we are not going to put the pressure on him. We are going to pay him all his money.

When Freddie said he wasn't going to play anymore, I said, "You'd really go back to coaching? How about staying with us instead?" And he said, "Doing what?" And I said, "Grooming you for something." But I want to do it different than with Kevin. Kevin, I just threw in.

 

I said, I could have made it like, if I wanted Kevin to be gone, I could say I'm bringing in Freddie. But for my fans and for the organization, I don't think that would have been the right thing to do. I am in this for the long run. To me, it is like, bring in Freddie. And bring in some other support. So we brought Rob Babcock back. Why? Because Rob probably helped Kevin on a number of things. Kevin used Rob. Where Kevin is visionary, Rob is thorough; he is Mr. Write Everything Down and Make Sure Nothing Goes Wrong. And when they were together before, that was a good team.

Freddie will have to learn the business side. I'm going to have him learn from Chris Wright about the business side. It is going to take me a little longer, but I am grooming him, and I think someday he is interested in being the GM. I don't think there is any question as to why Freddie is doing this; it is not to be the assistant GM or the scout. And I don't even think it is to be the coach at this point. So I think Freddie has made up his mind that someday he wants to be an executive in the NBA. We are grooming him. If he ends up with some other company or some other team, so be it. I would still do it for Freddie and I would still do it for our team.

 

CP:Are you involving Garnett more? Because one of the things Garnett used to say that puzzled me was, "They don't talk to me."

Taylor: I and Kevin have both involved him more. I have always talked to him. But the relationship has changed. In the past, he wanted a lot of times to be in the conversation and wanted the information, but he didn't feel confident enough to say, This is what I want.

 

CP:So he didn't want the responsibility?

Taylor: Well, it just didn't go that way. I don't know what his reasons were. But this year was different. There was no question: He was very clear on what he thought he could do and what he could do. And he took way more time and was way more patient in listening to McHale, because I sat in on that. He listened to McHale, he heard McHale and what the plan was, and his questions were different, they were more directed. I just saw him as more deeply involved in the plan. And because of that, we got him more involved. He made the commitment that, Okay, I will get into doing certain things this year. I will take the guys out for lunch [on a regular basis during off season workouts], I will bring the guys into practice. But you've got to get a guard then. Get me the guard. And he also wanted a strong [big] guy. And I'm not sure we got that. He wanted two things—the guard and the strong guy, the banger. And we may have the strong guy in [second round draft pick] Craig Smith, but we didn't get the veteran guy.

We are trying to put all the tools together. We've asked Ricky [Davis] defensively—he has got to be better at that. The coaches are seeing to that, and that is the coach's responsibility, not Kevin's. And so far Ricky is giving all the right answers, but we'll see. He hasn't always been the best defensive guy for us. But I also see that Garnett has gotten himself way closer to Ricky, and I think that peer pressures are probably as good as any for players.

 

CP:Let's back up a little. Kevin Garnett has always been regarded as a great team player. But there have been situations when a hard decision was required, and the franchise player—who is obviously a compelling force in the whole equation—would say, "It doesn't involve me," or "I am not involved in that decision." What I am hearing you say now is that Kevin has a more tangible leadership responsibility.

Taylor: Yeah, I'd really prefer that you ask that question of him. But that's my observation of him.

 

CP:But you guys have always been close.

Taylor: Yes, and so let me see if I can address why I am saying that. The meetings that we had with McHale and with the coach that I sat in on, I've seen it there. What he has done and communicated this summer, and how he has communicated back after the James thing. He not only talked to James but called me back right after talking to James and told me what he thought. He said he was happy with James. So there have been those little extra things he is doing. I think part of that is just recognition. I think Kevin has always wanted to be a leader and has been a leader. But I think the recognition of how to be a leader has been growing with him. It is maturity. If you ask me, it is age, being married, that kind of characteristics of maturity that you see happen in other people is happening to him.

 

I think we saw it in the camp. We had our own [offseason training] camp, and Kevin spoke to the team. He did it differently than I have seen him do it before, what he said and how he said it. It certainly was different than last year, way different than last year.

 

CP:The Cassell and Sprewell situation still left a bad taste in his mouth.

Taylor: Last year, yes. And then last year, I think if Kevin had had his druthers, I think he would have liked if we had gotten a coach—he didn't have a name in mind—who maybe had coached 10 years, a coach he had confidence in. He didn't know Casey, he didn't know what to expect. He had always had Flip, and he was thinking, Gosh, what is he going to do? I can see this year that he knows Casey, and Kevin has always reacted with more comfort to stuff that he knows. This year I see him asking Casey all kinds of questions: We did it this way last year, why are we doing it this way this year? That kind of stuff. And he used to do that stuff with Flip. So there was a lot of new stuff and a lot of the guys were gone last year. All of a sudden he was the leader, and what does that all mean?

 

CP:If Kevin ever decided he wanted to leave, would you try to make that happen? Or, if despite the best efforts of you, Kevin, and Kevin McHale, this team is not performing well with the core you have, would you ever consider moving Kevin without his asking?

Taylor: I don't think it will happen either of those ways. I think the way it would happen is more like the second thing: We have surrounded Kevin with players we want and that he thinks he wants—not 100 percent, but as much as we can—and for some reason, it doesn't work. That's how I think it would come, and I think then we would come to a mutual conclusion.

I don't know who would come to the other first. But let's say I went and said, Kevin, we are not doing well. I think Kevin would then say, Well, with my salary and my deal we are not going to win here. I want to go where I have a chance to win. Would you trade me? Or I might say to Kevin, Kevin, you can stay here, but I've got to bring in young guys. Do you want to stay here? And my guess would be that he wouldn't really want to go through that.

But I think it is a mutual thing. We've been together so long that I don't think he is going to independently come to me and say, Glen, I want to leave. I think he would have done it by now if he wanted to do that, and he has never done that. He has always said, and we have said, I want to play with you my whole life and I hope we are together and we have a good team. And we both have said, Yeah, but that means we both have to believe we are going to win. So I think there could be a scenario [where he leaves], but I don't think it will be because Kevin puts pressure on me or that I would blindside him. If it happens, it will be because we talk to each other and say, you know, it isn't going so good this year. I think we need to sit down at the end of the year and talk. And I think we would both know what we are going to talk about. That is how my relationship works with him.

 

Mary O'Regan assisted with the transcription of this interview.


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