Unfinished Business

Why should this man stay in Minnesota?
David Kern

That ticking sound you hear getting louder by the day is the sound of Kevin Garnett's six-year contract with the Timberwolves running out. Yeah, I know that KG's $126 million package binds him to the Wolves through one more season. But if his longer-term future is still unresolved by the opening tap of the first game, it will create an enormous distraction for all concerned. At that point, the Wolves could either try to trade Garnett during the season before his deal expires, or face the distinct prospect of losing him on the free agent market next summer.

Both are problematical. Under NBA rules, teams can only trade if the salary totals in the swap are fairly evenly matched, and no franchise is going to give up about $25 million worth of legitimate talent for a season-long date with KG. If the Wolves were to lose Garnett on the free agent market after next season, they would have all kind of room under the salary cap to pursue other players. But there probably isn't enough money in the world to convince other NBA stars to come to Minnesota after KG has bolted.

In the wake of seven straight first-round playoff series defeats, the Wolves' brain trust of VP Kevin McHale, GM/coach Flip Saunders, and owner Glen Taylor find themselves pressured to improve the team enough to win Garnett back for another tour. And since the Wolves are once again without a first-round draft pick next year, that upgrade most likely has to happen in the next few weeks. Tick-tick-tick.

At least the Wolves' management understands the gravity of the situation. Lately McHale has worked feverishly to overhaul the roster. But beyond acquiring 33-year-old point guard Sam Cassell and 35-year-old center Ervin Johnson by trading Joe Smith and Anthony Peeler to Milwaukee, he has had little success. The Wolves supposedly had the inside track on signing 30-year-old free agent forward Juwan Howard with the team's $4.8 million salary cap exception--until Sunday, when the Orlando Sentinel reported that Howard had agreed in principle to a deal with the Orlando Magic. "I want to win," Howard told the Sporting News last week, explaining the motivation for where he would sign. Apparently he feels that is more likely to happen with a mediocre team in the weaker Eastern Conference than with the Wolves in the brutal Western Conference. It isn't hard to imagine KG drawing the same conclusion in the weeks ahead.

Taylor has frequently stated that a priority for Minnesota during the off-season is re-signing free agent center Rasho Nesterovic to a new contract. But Nesterovic is drawing plenty of interest from other teams, including the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, and his return is by no means assured. Nesterovic could make his intentions official as early as today, July 16, when free agents can formally sign new contracts. Losing Rasho on the heels of failing to land Howard would wipe out any momentum generated by the trade for Cassell and Johnson. It would put additional pressure on McHale to acquire something of value by unloading Terrell Brandon to a team interested in some salary cap relief when Brandon can retire next February. But rival general managers around the league are aware of the Wolves' increasingly desperate situation, and will drive a harder bargain in any swap involving Brandon. At a minimum, if the Wolves have any hope of getting slashing forward Al Harrington or bruising center Brad Miller from Indiana, they'll also have to accept inept forward Austin Croshere and his ludicrously expensive contract. And even that scenario may be wishful thinking.

Because the Wolves used their first-round draft pick on a long-term project (teenage prep star Ndudi Ebi, who is increasingly looking like a KG replacement), McHale's only immediate upgrade thus far is the acquisition of Cassell, a combative veteran who has earned two championship rings and isn't afraid to take the big shot or get in people's faces when he feels they are underachieving. He has the talent, temperament, and experience to earn KG's respect as a fellow warrior. But while Cassell is a more experienced and rugged floor general than Troy Hudson, he shares Hudson's proclivity to look for his own shot at the expense of his teammates. He also doesn't address the two significant deficiencies that plagued last year's ball club--no physically imposing low-post scorer at center, no slashing players at off-guard or small forward.

With Cassell joining Hudson and Wally Szczerbiak (another shoot-first player) in the backcourt, and with Joe Smith and possibly Rasho gone, KG's dominant roles on the team become less appetizing. Unless McHale can rescue this off season with a dramatic move or two, Garnett will help this team most by passing the ball and defending bigger power forwards more frequently--meaning more dirty work and less glory. Even for a player who rivals Tim Duncan as the game's most selfless superstar, that's asking a lot. And even then, it's unlikely that the Wolves can improve enough to overtake the top four teams in the Western Conference, especially with Gary Payton and Karl Malone both reportedly headed to the Lakers.

Stay tuned, because the stakes are enormous. If Taylor were to simply hang on to Brandon, he would reap a whopping $22 million savings to his bottom line under the league's salary cap and luxury tax system. But if he doesn't deal Brandon (and whomever) and thus misses the chance to address pressing deficiencies on the court, he risks saying bye-bye to KG--and to any hope of keeping this franchise popular and competitive for the next five years.

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