Wait Until Next Year?

Six years of first-round playoff exits down the road, the natives who follow the Minnesota Timberwolves are beyond restless. Talk show radio callers who aren't demanding that coach/GM Flip Saunders and personnel VP Kevin McHale get canned are howling that a major shakeup of the Wolves' roster belongs at the top of the agenda.

Well, Saunders and McHale aren't going anywhere-not yet anyway. But it's fair to assume that the Wolves' mortifying collapse this season has put the dynamic duo on probation. A year from now, if the franchise is still without a playoff series victory, the McSaunders' brain trust is probably kaput. But there are few likely scenarios, let alone easy answers, for how the team can take that crucial next step into the second round. The Wolves have no first-round draft choice this year (taken away as part of the penalty for Joe Smith's illegal contract), and no room under the salary cap to compete for any of the league's better free agents. Doctors say there's a 50-50 chance their $10 million point guard won't sufficiently recover from knee surgery. Their superstar and their best pure scorer have chemistry problems. And their increasingly alienated fan base will be asked to pony up for a 25 percent bump in ticket prices for many of the seats at the Target Center next year. Disaster beckons.

Do Saunders and McHale blow up the team? Or should they keep the core group of players intact and hope that another year's experience yields enough improvement to advance at least another round in the playoffs? Both options contain enough uncertainties and potential pitfalls to make any answer to that question mere guesswork-most likely, even they're not sure yet which way to go.

For years, McHale has tried to adhere to the formula that was successful when he was with the Celtics--grow the team through stability and maturation--only to be sabotaged by the defections of Tom Gugliotta and Stefon Marbury, the death of Malik Sealy, and the penalty meted out for the illegal signing of Smith. This year, with Smith re-signed (legally this time) and Brandon, Garnett, Nesterovic, and Szczerbiak a year wiser and more familiar, the foundation was finally set. Then Brandon got injured, resentments rippled over Wally's need for the ball, and KG's chronic inability to dominate during crunch time and the playoffs became more acute.

After allowing their dysfunction to hasten the demise in this year's playoffs, the players further aggravated their fans by opining that another year together would be nice, a show of unity that was sorely lacking on the court during the last two months of the season. KG, Szczerbiak, and Chauncey Billups all said they wanted to keep the core group intact. Saunders claimed he'd only shake up the roster if it would improve the team, a statement that was either duh! obvious, a coded argument for the status quo, or, most likely, an acknowledgment that the Wolves are in a difficult position to make positive changes. Even McHale, who was blunt in his displeasure and hinted at radical remedies during the club's horrid losing streak in March, tempered expectations by saying that the makeup of the team needed to be "tweaked" during the off-season.

Tweaking won't cut it. Wolves' owner Glen Taylor can take this (and not much else) to the bank: Without a bold move by the McSaunders tandem during the next few months, there will be thousands fewer fannies in those price-inflated seats at the Target Center next season.

By "a bold move," I'm talking about the addition of at least one star-caliber player; unfortunately, that can't be done without a significant sacrifice by the Wolves. Even if Minnesota refused to sign all their existing players with expiring contracts--Rasho Nesterovic, Gary Trent, Sam Mitchell, Will Avery, and Loren Woods--Garnett's enormous paycheck leaves them precious little wiggle room under the league's salary cap. Consequently, a bold move involves unloading either KG or Wally.

Trading Garnett would obviously countenance enormous risk. League rules require that the principals in any trade must match salaries within 15 percent of each other, meaning KG would have to fetch at least $20 million worth of talent in any swap. Trying to make it work is an interesting parlor game: Garnett to Toronto for Vince Carter and Antonio Davis? Naaah. For Jermaine O'Neal, Al Harrington, and Brad Miller in Indiana? Well, how's Harrington's knee injury coming along? Would the Pacers pull the trigger?

You would want to deal Garnett to an Eastern Conference team, to minimize the embarrassment that might well result after saying goodbye to one of the league's five best players as he enters his prime. Superstars are traded less often in basketball than in any other team sport because they have a habit of going on to accumulate championship rings-think Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and Wilt Chamberlain. The Wolves are in trouble, yes, but the situation is not yet desperate enough to part with KG.  

Swapping Szczerbiak is a better bet. Whether or not you believe (as I do) that he was unfairly scapegoated by his teammates (and, tacitly, by his coach) for being a ball hog this season, Wally's lack of defensive prowess limits the net value of his deadly accurate shooting--he often gives away nearly as many points as he registers. But as a reigning all-star with matinee idol looks and a sweet jump shot, he's a natural crowd-pleaser who would attract plenty of interest from other teams. Ironically, if he weren't already with the Wolves, Minnesota might covet him as a natural complement to KG. The hazing Szczerbiak has received during his three years alongside Garnett and Saunders has stunted that synergy, however, perhaps permanently. Rather than try to surmount their checkered history next year, it makes sense to trade Wally, if only to send a message to Wolves players and their fans that passive-aggressive business as usual--on the court and in the locker room--is no longer acceptable.

Speaking of troubled histories, one popular fantasy that has been beguiling Wolves' fans in recent weeks involves swinging a deal to bring Stephon Marbury back to town. Three years ago, Marbury's ego eclipsed his common sense when he decided he couldn't play second fiddle to Garnett and demanded a trade. The motivating theory behind the trade talk is that Marbury has been humbled enough by his failures in New Jersey and Phoenix to become more of a team player--yet still has a swagger the Wolves so desperately need.

It's true that Marbury has always possessed the panache to catalyze Saunders' point guard-oriented offense and ease the crunch-time burden on KG. But why would Phoenix make the deal? Having acquired Marbury in exchange for current MVP candidate Jason Kidd just a year ago, it's unlikely the Suns would admit defeat by unloading Stephon so quickly. And assuming the Wolves were willing to part with anyone other than Garnett, what do they have to offer in exchange? Shawn Marion and Anfernee Hardaway make Szczerbiak redundant, Brandon would be a slight downgrade from Marbury even if he wasn't damaged goods, and Nesterovic is not significantly better than Jake Tsakalidis at center.

A more plausible and productive trade would send Szczerbiak to the Cleveland Cavs for point guard Andre Miller, who lacks Marbury's charisma but is more inclined to share the ball, penetrates to the hoop just as effectively, and is at least Marbury's equal on defense. A gritty, fundamentally sound player who doesn't shirk from taking (and making) shots when the game is on the line, Miller is actually better suited for Saunders' system. And, unlike Marbury, he requires very little emotional maintenance and doesn't have a drunk driving conviction on his resume.

Could a player of Miller's caliber be pried away? Well, rumor has it that he doesn't want to resign with Cleveland, a moribund franchise whose obscurity probably cost him a spot on this year's Eastern Conference all star team. And his contract expires at the end of next season. Another factor that could help grease the deal is that Szczerbiak is a fan favorite in Cleveland, having starred in college at Miami of Ohio in nearby Oxford. The Cavs were mightily disappointed when the Wolves' selected Szczerbiak with the sixth pick in the 1999 NBA draft. With the eighth pick, they opted for Miller. The salaries of the two players are comparable enough to meet the league's requirements.

What about the Wolves? Assuming that Miller would demand and deserve the maximum salary for a fifth-year player when his contract expires at the end of next year, the team would have more than $20 million tied up in the point guard position (if Brandon's injury isn't severe enough to force his retirement). Add in KG's monster salary--in the range of $24-$28 million annually over the next two years--and the Wolves would be pushing close to the salary cap paying just three players, two of whom play the same position. While league rules permit the team to resign players already on the roster to healthy increases, they would only have the two salary cap exemptions with which to add new players--one for slightly more than a million dollars, the other for about $4.5 million. And owner Glen Taylor would be likely be forking over additional money--perhaps millions--to the league in "luxury taxes" (a financial penalty for grossly exceeding cap limits), something he is loath to do.

It's easy to say that Miller is worth the cost when you're not the one who has to pay it. But if the Wolves stand-pat this off-season, fans will probably vacate the Target Center in droves, costing Taylor millions anyway. And if Miller's presence improves the team's performance enough to generate another half-dozen home games during the playoffs, Taylor will recoup a chunk of his dear investment.  

Losing Szczerbiak would create a void at shooting guard, where the combination of Anthony Peeler (for one more year before his contract expires) and Felipe Lopez (who has the option to leave this year if he chooses) is a poor substitute. If Taylor, Saunders, and McHale are serious about building a contender, they could use one of the salary cap exemptions to go out and get a promising young guard. The best fit would be Michael Redd, a second-year player currently with Milwaukee. After injuries limited him to just six games and 35 minutes in his rookie season, Redd blossomed with the Bucks this year, averaging 21 minutes and 11.5 points per game and converting 48 percent of his shots, including 44.4 percent from beyond the three-point line, making him the league's eighth most-accurate long-range bomber. At six-feet, six-inches, Redd is tall enough to guard most opposing guards-defensively he is probably quicker and definitely better than Szczerbiak. And he's only 22 years old.

The rub is that Milwaukee has the right to match any offer for Redd, who is sure to draw interest from other clubs if he does decide to test the market. The most the Wolves could offer is their $4.5 million salary slot exemption. Milwaukee has said that retaining Redd is a top priority, but the team plays in a small market and has the fifth-highest salary, overburdened by fat contracts to untradeable underachievers (Tim Thomas and Anthony Mason) and their three cornerstone stars (Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, and Sam Cassell).

Allen's presence almost ensures Redd would be coming off the bench in Milwaukee. The notion of starting for the Wolves alongside an unselfish superstar like KG might help convince Redd to agitate for a sign-and-trade arrangement to bring him here. If the Wolves' landed Miller, they could dangle Chauncey Billups, who could back up both Allen and Cassell in Milwaukee. If Szczerbiak is gone, Redd is preferable to Billups because Chauncey has proven to be too small to adequately defend opposing shooting guards.

If getting Redd isn't doable, the other options among free agent guards are Larry Hughes, Kendall Gill, Voshon Lenard; all three are less appetizing and, in any case, would function only as stopgaps. As mentioned earlier, given the diminished circumstances available to the Wolves, improving this team will require guts, creativity, and more than a little luck. Saunders and McHale can begin trying to woo free agents with their salary cap exemption slots on July 1, less than eight weeks from now.

Trading players aside from KG or Wally is another obvious option. Given the current state of affairs, the Wolves' will almost certainly retain Nesterovic--provided another team doesn't make him an offer he can't refuse--and Taylor doesn't want to match with a nice but not exorbitant bump in salary. Gary Trent is a good bet to depart for greener bankrolls, and the Wolves and Sam Mitchell need to reach an accommodation or say goodbye. KG, Joe Smith, Marc Jackson, Brandon, Peeler, Szczerbiak, and Billups (provided he's sincere about not exercising his option to leave this year) are all locked in.

McHale has properly stated that nobody is untouchable--not even KG, although it would take Shaq-like compensation for the Wolves to deal him.

Obviously it is far from certain that the Wolves could even be in a position to land Miller in a trade for Szczerbiak or to sign Redd. But it's not pie-in-the-sky fantasy either, and the point of my speculative scenario is that Saunders and McHale should be aggressive, even a little risky, in their off-season activity; especially if Taylor gives them the green light to spend a little more money. As the owner who paid KG the highest individual salary in the history of team sports, Taylor knows that sometimes you have to risk spending money in order for your franchise to make money. Your team is at a crucial crossroads, Mr. Taylor. Now is not the time to stand pat.

This will conclude my regular Monday column for the season. I've enjoyed writing on a steadier basis this year, and appreciate all the kind words I've received from online readers. Inveterate sports fans should check out our baseball writer, Brad Zellar, who brings as least as much passion and skill to writing on the diamond life as I do to covering hoops. And please feel free to check out this space the next time there is big news on the Wolves' front. Until then...

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