In one of the most draconian penalties levied in professional sports, NBA Commissioner David Stern on Wednesday docked the Minnesota Timberwolves their next five first-round picks and $3.5 million for signing forward Joe Smith to an illegal secret contract.
Stern said he may add further penalties for owner Glen Taylor and General Manager Kevin McHale. He asked the players union to discipline player-agent Eric Fleisher and voided Smith's last two contracts.
Voiding Smith's contracts denies him credit for the two seasons he played in Minnesota, which had put him one season from gaining "Larry Bird rights." In a year, the Timberwolves could have increased his salary to $3 million or more, even though the team is over the cap.
However, arbitrator Kenneth Dam last week specifically ruled that Smith could keep his Bird rights, so this part of Stern's ruling, at least, may be challenged.
"They [NBA] don't have the ability to do that," said Dan Fegan, Smith's new agent. "They're definitely trying to rewrite the arbitrator's ruling."
Stern made no statement, other than to announce the decision in a printed statement. Timberwolves officials issued a release saying only they were "assessing the ruling."
Said NBA attorney Joe Litkin: "This reflects the seriousness of a finding of circumvention."
Smith, the top pick in the 1995 draft, had betrayed enough of his promise to play for three teams in the last three seasons and was a 6-foot-10 reserve with the Timberwolves. With no offers from any of the teams with cap room over the summer, Smith accepted a one-year, $2.5-million deal from Minnesota.
However, under the table, Taylor, Smith and Fleisher signed a six-year deal that wouldn't start until next season--and wasn't supposed to be revealed before then. NBA sources say such deals are common enough--except that this one wasn't an informal, unrecorded, nod-and-wink gentleman's agreement. This was written down on paper.
The secret contract came to light in a court fight between Fleisher and a former partner, giving the league office its first documented proof of a deliberate cap circumvention.
Dam, the arbitrator, ruled last week that the Timberwolves had, indeed, made an illegal agreement with Smith, and Stern was free to levy any penalty he deemed fit on the club and its officials, consistent with the NBA constitution.
Wednesday, Stern swung from the heels.
Smith, now a free agent again, can entertain offers from any team that needs another big man, and, as usual, there are plenty.
The Lakers say they'll offer their $1.2-million exception, but at least as far as cash value goes, that puts them behind the Chicago Bulls, who are reportedly interested and $9 million under the cap.
Miami, also interested, is hoping to get a $3.9-million exception for losing Alonzo Mourning this season, and would offer it to Smith.
The Timberwolves, one of the league's bright, young teams, made the playoffs for the first time in 1999 and won a franchise-record 50 games last season. However, this off-season has been a nightmare, starting with the death of Malik Sealy in an auto accident last spring.
Capped years into the future by Kevin Garnett's $117-million contract, the Timberwolves were already hard-pressed to add new players, and Stern's decision casts a pall over the franchise, which will next have a first-round draft opportunity in 2006.
Stern could still decide to suspend Taylor and McHale. The commissioner's request to the union is aimed at getting it to decertify Fleisher, so he can no longer represent NBA players.
As recently as Tuesday, Smith had been indicating he wanted to stay in Minnesota.
"I like it here," he said after an exhibition game at North Carolina. "I've been here two years and a month of training camp, and it would hurt both of us if I just up and leave."
Until Stern's decree is reversed, however, Smith would have to take a big pay cut to stay. He may now feel obliged to go after the money, wherever it presents itself.
"Right now, it's open," Smith said. "I'm just looking for the best situation. I'll listen to whoever about whatever they want to say. . . .
"I just want to get it over with as soon as possible, so I am free to make the best move for me. I've been dealing with this for a while, and it's kind of getting on my nerves."
Of course, Smith may soon be elsewhere. The Timberwolves will be living with the impact of this decision for years.
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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
PAYING THE PRICE
The Nixed Deal
Joe Smith's contract--1 year, $2.5 million--with the Timberwolves is voided.
$3.5 million levied against the Timberwolves.
The Timberwolves lose their first-round draft picks in the 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005 NBA drafts.
Possible suspensions for owner Glen Taylor and General Manager Kevin McHale.
Joe Smith Profile
Joe Smith was the No. 1 overall pick of the 1995 draft by the Golden State Warriors. The forward played college basketball at Maryland:
* Born: July 26, 1975
* Height: 6-10
* Weight: 225 pounds
Year Team Pts Reb 1995-96 Golden St. 15.3 8.7 1996-97 Golden St. 18.7 8.5 1997-98 Golden St./Phila. 14.6 6.0 1998-99 Minnesota 13.7 8.2 1999-00 Minnesota 9.9 6.2
THE HIDDEN DEAL
* Contract reported to NBA: Last summer Smith accepted a one-year, $2.5-million deal from Minnesota.
* Deal not reported to NBA: Under the table, owner Glen Taylor, Smith and former Smith agent Eric Fleisher signed a six-year, multimillion-dollar contract for next season. It was not supposed to be revealed before then.