A drunk driver and the stupidity of the team's front office have doomed the Minnesota Timberwolves to a long stretch of mediocrity that will test the patience and character of everyone associated with the ballclub.
Malik Sealy's fatal auto accident in May, coupled with the severe penalty NBA commissioner David Stern imposed last week in response to the Wolves' rule-flouting contract with power forward Joe Smith, has brought the Chicken Littles out of the pundit hen house. This is nonsense. Barring an injury to forward Kevin Garnett, the team's performance during the next five years will likely match or exceed the club's success over any comparable time span during its sorry history. Still, whatever slim hopes the Wolves had of becoming a serious championship contender in the foreseeable future have been dashed. The fair-weather fans that fatten a franchise's profit margin won't materialize, and a Sisyphean frustration will inevitably set in. This is harsh justice, but, given the Smith fiasco, it's justice all the same.
Stern's punitive vigor shouldn't come as any surprise. The commissioner has always guarded the health and integrity of the league like a mother bear--albeit one with a Ph.D. in marketing. Presented with irrefutable evidence--a copy of Smith's illegal contract, likely provided by associates of one of the player's former agents--that the Wolves were attempting to subvert the NBA's collective-bargaining agreement, Stern must have relished the chance to send a clear message to all franchises--many of which have been circumventing the agreement with handshakes rather than gold-nibbed pens--that transgressions won't be tolerated.
The press conference Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor held during halftime of Thursday night's exhibition game hardly rebutted the appropriateness of the Stern measures. Incredibly, Taylor claimed he wasn't familiar with the rules when he made the Smith deal. This profession of ignorance is a mite suspicious, given that those widely publicized rules were catalyzed by Taylor's signing of Kevin Garnett to a whopping $126 million pact. Taylor also dodged the question of whether Wolves' VP Kevin McHale and coach/general manager Flip Saunders were privy to the backroom negotiations. He defended himself and members of the organization as "good people, and good people don't change overnight," adding cryptically that "very, very unusual circumstances" surrounded the signing--ones that would someday cast the team's actions in a better light. Since then, there have been cryptic references in the media to Taylor's coincident recuperation from a heart ailment. Whatever the case, all the "good people" connected with the team seemed quite comfortable with the deal until they got caught.
Stern's punishment--crippling, but not insurmountable--would appear to fit the crime. The $3.5 million fine is the least of it, as Taylor will save anywhere from $40 million to $86 million by not having to honor Smith's deal and is unlikely to lose that much in diminished gate receipts, etc. In other words, Smith's contract was not only illegal; it was an unwise investment. What's more, Stern's ruling does not preclude Smith from signing with the Wolves this year for a fraction of what he could receive elsewhere. An improbable scenario, to be sure, but not impossible. The Wolves might also retain Smith at greater expense, if the player's union successfully challenges Stern's authority to deprive Smith of his so-called Larry Bird rights to re-sign with his current team even if it means exceeding Minnesota's salary cap. As of now, Smith is sitting tight and will meet with an arbitrator tomorrow as part of the challenge to Stern. If Smith remains firm in his determination to reverse the ruling, it could take months to resolve.
At first blush, Stern's harshest measure was to strip the Wolves of their first-round draft choices for the next five years. Certainly, draft picks are a valuable commodity for the league's worst teams. But with Joe Smith or without him, the Wolves have enough core talent to be a marginal playoff team for the next few years. So their number in the draft order is likely to fall somewhere between 12 and 20, a position that requires luck and exceptional scouting in order to land a quality player. Many teams have been able to remain successful without significant help from the draft, mostly by abetting the continued improvement of their existing players with free-agent signings. Under the collective-bargaining agreement, even teams that have topped the salary cap are allowed limited annual exemptions to add free agents. Next year the exemption limit will rise to $4.5 million, an amount that smart talent scouts can use to invest in free agents who are far more polished and productive than most midlevel draft picks. If Stern's nullification of Smith's deal holds, Taylor will have the means as well as the incentive to be an active participant in the market.
As the 2000-2001 season gets under way, the Timberwolves find themselves confronting roughly the same situation they faced at the beginning of last year: a decent shot at the playoffs, and a likelihood of being disposed of in the first round. Copious ink and much handwringing has been devoted to the loss of Smith and the draft picks, but both on and off the court, Malik Sealy's absence will prove to be the bigger blow. Last year Sealy established himself as an invaluable role player and the perfect complement to superstar Kevin Garnett and floor general Terrell Brandon. On offense, he became a reliable safety valve when opponents pressured KG with double and triple teams, converting open jump shots off Garnett's passes with sufficient regularity to force defenses to give KG more room to maneuver. On defense Sealy was quick and dogged enough to compensate for some of Brandon's roaming (read: steal-oriented but also lackadaisical) tendencies on the perimeter, and at six-foot-eight he was big enough to match up with the larger and more physical shooting guards that have begun to predominate throughout the league. Temperamentally, Sealy exuded just the right balance between Garnett's exuberance and Brandon's stoicism.
All that is gone. To help fill the void, the Wolves used this year's free-agent exemption to sign Chauncey Billups, the third overall pick in the 1997 draft who is on his fourth team in three years and has never shot better than 39 percent from the field. But Saunders believes Billups has been victimized by injuries and a lack of support and thinks his ability to penetrate will add a sorely needed dimension to the Wolves' offense. Billups's solid, confident play during the preseason has justified the coach's faith, and his capability to handle both point-guard and shooting-guard duties gives Saunders insurance when Brandon is hobbled or needs a breather.
This is important because the Wolves lost Bobby Jackson to Sacramento during the off-season and second-year pro William Avery still isn't ready for prime time. While it is far too early to give up on Avery, who would still be a college senior if he hadn't made himself available for the draft last year, the dirty secret is that his ball handling is shoddy for a point guard, his command of offensive tempo is uncertain, and his aptitude for the basic pick-and-roll play--integral to the team's offensive scheme since Brandon joined the club--is suspect. Look for Saunders to split the backup minutes at point guard between Billups and Avery until the latter gets more seasoning.
Even if Billups shines on offense at shooting guard, at the other end of the court the Wolves' perimeter defenders will be woefully undersized. Only one point guard in the Western Conference is smaller than the five-eleven Brandon, and at six-three Billups is at least two inches shorter than any starting shooting guard in the conference. Minnesota's other shooting guard, Anthony Peeler, is only six-four. Historically the Wolves have been poor defending against three-point shots; this year they'll also have to worry about opposing guards taking Billups, Peeler, and Brandon into the low post.
Up front, the likely loss of Smith will be mitigated somewhat by the improvement of center Rasho Nesterovic, who gained a psychological lift from his valiant effort against Portland's leviathan Arvydas Sabonis last year in the playoffs. Rasho still plays softer than you'd like to see a seven-footer, but his ball handling is above average, his rebounding at least adequate. Smith's absence will be most keenly felt in games when Nesterovic gets in early foul trouble and the team has to turn to Dean Garrett, whose interior defense and positioning for rebounds are proof that nice guys can finish last in the NBA.
So why is this team still a playoff contender? Because if he stays healthy, free-agent signee LaPhonso Ellis can fill myriad roles as a rebounder, midrange shooter, and tenacious defender. Because Wally Szczerbiak has upped his defensive intensity, is a threat to score from outside or through penetration, and has a year of experience under his belt. Because Brandon is among the best in the league at running a half-court offense. Because Western Conference foes like Utah, San Antonio, and Sacramento are on their way down and Vancouver, the Clippers, Dallas, and Houston are not ready for a serious playoff run.
And, of course, because Kevin Garnett is second only to Shaquille O'Neal as the best basketball player on the planet. Commentators nationwide are now opining either that Garnett will demand a trade or that the best way for the Wolves to recoup their losses is to deal their superstar for a passel of present and future talent. Both suggestions are ludicrous, and like all those smug assumptions that Garnett would jump to the Chicago Bulls after his first Wolves contract elapsed, they betray a total ignorance of KG's character--not to mention his value to the team. As long as Garnett remains here and healthy, the viability of the Timberwolves franchise is in capable hands.
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