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Timberwolves Make Moves to Keep Garnett

Minnesota hopes to convince its star player that it is serious about making a run for the NBA championship.

August 03, 2003|Sean Deveney | The Sporting News

A year ago, Warriors coach Eric Musselman was reminiscing about his early days as an assistant on the staff of his father, Bill, the first coach of the Timberwolves. The team was mediocre, winning 51 games in its first two years, then got bad once Bill Musselman was fired. The team stayed that way for years -- it was not until their eighth season that the Timberwolves hit the 30-win mark. Eric Musselman explained why: "No franchise player. Unless you have that franchise guy, you are not going anywhere."

Now, 14 years after the team's inauguration, Minnesota has been the most active team this offseason, landing Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell and Ervin Johnson through trades and signing center Michael Olowokandi and reserve forward Mark Madsen. Gone are Rasho Nesterovic, Anthony Peeler, Joe Smith, Marc Jackson and Terrell Brandon. The team has been remade and has improved.

The folks running the Timberwolves understand the history here. On announcing the deal that brought Sprewell to Minnesota, General Manager Kevin McHale said, "This is our time to make a run right now." Indeed, Minnesota must make a run now for reasons that go beyond winning in the short-term. These moves are a bargaining chip, a way to convince the Wolves' star player, Kevin Garnett, to sign a long-term contract extension before his deal runs out after next season. Garnett is the franchise player, and Minnesota is putting together the best supporting cast he has had, giving him reason to stick around.

Those well-versed in recent Minnesota basketball history know that the Timberwolves waited a long time to land a franchise player. It was not until 1995, the team's seventh season, that Garnett first suited up for the Timberwolves, and it was not until then that the Timberwolves had a name worthy of putting on the marquee. Sadly, as Musselman remembers, that name was not Pooh Richardson, the team's first draft choice. Nor was it Felton Spencer, Gerald Glass, Luc Longley, Christian Laettner, J.R. Rider or Donyell Marshall, the team's subsequent first-round picks.

The Timberwolves needed seven years to come up with Garnett and eight years to make the playoffs. Compare that with other expansion teams of the Timberwolves' vintage. The Heat had Glen Rice and a playoff berth by its fourth year. The Hornets drafted centerpieces Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning and were in the playoffs by Year 5. The Magic landed Shaquille O'Neal by its fourth season and got Penny Hardaway by its fifth. The team was in The Finals by its sixth year.

The Timberwolves were the slow-witted sibling of the late-'80s expansion family, but Garnett changed that. For Timberwolves historians, an absence of Garnett can only evoke thoughts of Pooh, not to mention other four-letter synonyms.

Six years ago, the Timberwolves signed Garnett to an outrageous six-year, $126 million contract extension, the final year of which will pay him $28 million. The combination of that deal and the current collective bargaining agreement has hindered the Timberwolves' ability to improve the team within the parameters of league rules. (The outside-the-rules signing of Smith hurt, too.) That has been the crutch the Timberwolves have leaned on in explaining to fans -- and to Garnett -- why the team could not get better. If the salary cap is $43 million and Garnett makes $28 million, then the team has no choice but to sign the likes of Gary Trent and Reggie Slater.

Give credit to team Owner Glen Taylor for tossing that crutch aside and for recognizing how critical this moment is for the future. Taylor is taking a huge financial hit. Because of his injured knee, Brandon will retire, but his $11 million will come off the Hawks' payroll instead of the Wolves'. Minnesota already is over the luxury-tax threshold, and there was speculation that the Timberwolves would sit on Brandon's contract and take the money off their own bottom line. By trading Brandon to Atlanta -- and Jackson to Philadelphia -- and landing Sprewell in a four-team trade, the payroll will be in the $70 million range. That means Taylor will have one of the five biggest payrolls and could be responsible for $15 million in luxury-tax payments.

Through all of this, Garnett has been frustratingly silent. But management has done its part. Now it is Garnett's turn. He should agree to a reasonable contract extension. Under NBA rules, he can start his next contract with a 12.5 percent raise on the final year of his old contract. That would be $31.5 million. In a league in which the maximum salary normally is capped at $13 million, that number is out of whack. If Garnett leaves the Wolves, he will have to start a contract at $13 million, so the free-agent market does not offer him much leverage. The sides should meet somewhere in between -- a deal starting at $18 million or so would be more than fair.

Garnett is, arguably, the best all-around player in the league, and the Timberwolves obviously are aware of it. The team has given him a strong supporting cast, for big-time money. Garnett should see the moves for what they are -- a commitment to him and a commitment not to return to the pre-Garnett, bad old days of Timberwolves basketball.

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