Exchange: Whither the Wolves?

Categories: Timberwolves

Exchange: After a rotten season, whither the Wolves?

And, heresy of heresies: why not trade KG?

by Britt Robson and Steve Perry

Perry: Your column today pretty much nails the Wolves' season, but there was one thing it left me wondering: Besides the addition-by-subtraction of getting shut of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, what else can the team do to make for a steeper, faster rebuilding curve? I can see two possibilities: firing Kevin McHale, not only as coach but altogether, or unloading Kevin Garnett's contract.

Speaking as a pretty coarse and casual fan, I'm inclined to say: why not both? I know it's heresy to talk of trading a franchise player and MVP in the modern NBA; what I'm not so sure about is whether that verdict reflects sound tactical judgment or the imperatives of modern sports marketing.

Consider: For years now, the Wolves have had in Garnett both a) one of the two or three best and most complete players in the game, and b) a very large obstacle to building a competitive supporting team around him, in view of the very large hit against the salary cap that his salary comprises. What have they got for the foreseeable future? Certainly b), but not necessarily a).

Garnett will be 29 years old next month, and he's begun to have leg troubles. I know guys his size have good-to-excellent longevity in the NBA, but he isn't your typical 7-footer, and it's by no means assured Garnett will be a top-tier player through the duration of his contract. His game puts a lot of accent on versatility and physical mobility, and it would seem that his size actually augurs *against* his retaining those attributes into (relative) old age. To put it another way, haven't the Wolves already enjoyed the benefits of KG's best years--and gotten past the first round of the playoffs exactly once for their efforts?

Also consider this: Since we are now seeing that, if anything, *last year* was the great anomaly in this team's performance, not this year, how patient do you think Garnett will be for a rebuilding effort? Isn't it plausible that within a year or so, he'll decide the mess is too big and intractable and he wants out of here in time to win a ring somewhere?

Last question--is this even a meaningful discussion? I mean: How tradeable *is* Garnett for practical purposes, given the league's salary cap structure?

Robson: Well, you've certainly thrown me plenty of meat. Let's dispense with the easiest thing first: McHale will fire himself as coach at the end of this season. Before taking the job, he was a wise-crackin', rule-breakin' grumpy old man who set his own schedule. Coaching has scraped against his temperament and circumscribed his natural behavior. As for continuing on as VP of Player Personnel, I'd say the odds are almost exactly 50-50 on whether he stays or goes. For drama's sake, I'll say he's gone within the next six weeks, at his instigation and with only a little surprise and a little more protest from owner Glen Taylor.

And I think McHale's departure would be a good thing. He made a great early splash drafting Garnett and Marbury. He's had some nice finds in the past couple of years, especially the pair of Chicago plucks, Hoiberg and Hassell. The Sprewell and Cassell trades look a lot worse today than a year ago, but still ultimately worth the risk, if only because they got the monkey of never advancing past the first round of the playoffs off the Wolves' back.

That wouldn't have happened if Joe Smith, Anthony Peeler, Marc Jackson were still around instead of Sammy and Spree. But as someone whose balletic footwork in the low post is generally regarded as second only to Hakeem Olajuwon in NBA history, McHale sure has endured a string of failures with theoretically promising big men, from Stoyko Vrankovic to Michael Olowokandi. Will Avery and Ndudi Ebi were disastrous draft picks, for a franchise that couldn't afford to make those kinds of mistakes, in part because McHale was either colluding or looking the other way when Taylor was making an illegal deal with Smith. And I think it was wrong for him to make Saunders the scapegoat this year. Put it this way: If Saunders deserved to get fired, McHale should be right behind him.

The only way I'd trade Garnett is if he was absolutely determined to force a deal out of town. Some of the things you say about KG are true--he's at or close to his prime, and yet he's only been able to lead his team out of the first round once, a statement that may stand into his 30s, given the rebuilding task that awaits the Wolves. But I think he is amazingly durable, and although the various minor injuries he is almost sure to accrue may bump him off his game a little bit more than before, I'd take my chances on his health and his grit every time.

Besides--and this is really the bottom line on the subject--KG is the only thing separating the Wolves from a return to the NBA gulag, the frozen tundra where nobody wants to play. It's instructive to look at what happened to the Lakers--based in a city that would be nirvana for many players, especially compared to MPLS/SP--when they moved Shaq. They still had an existing superstar in Kobe, received three pretty good players (Odom, Butler, and Grant) in the deal, and will finish behind the Wolves in the playoff hunt this year. Who is the best existing Timberwolf if you trade KG--Szczerbiak? Even if you got pretty good three starters for Garnett, would any of them provide the sort of character leadership and outstanding talent that molds a team?

A KG trade makes sense only if you can make a gamble pay off--say swap Garnett to Indiana for Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest and have O'Neal stay healthy and Artest become sane. The other, far less preferable, alternative is to unload KG for $20 million worth of short-term contracts, creating a massive salary dump that enables you to start from scratch. But then you're on the tundra peddling the merits of a franchise whose only claim to fame is that KG once played there... a gulag with Szczerbiak, Hassell, and Hudson eating more than a third of your salary cap for the next four years.

Would other teams be willing to deal for KG and his monster salary? Sure. While he wouldn't have the short-term impact of a motivated Shaq, or the long-term value of a Lebron, I'd rank him right up there in that next tier, alongside Duncan and Amare Stoudamire, in terms of players best able to flip a franchise into championship contention. Landing that kind of a player requires luck and ingenuity and once you have him, you keep him, as the Lakers now know. KG is crucial to the Wolves chances of success in the near future. The question is whether they can rebuild around him before he gets too impatient or old to seriously contend again.

Perry: Okay, that all seems compelling to me; you certainly know more than I do about what a team can and cannot expect to get in return for a franchise player like Garnett.

So, next question: What can they do to maximize their chances of returning to competitiveness sooner rather than later? What should be the team's highest priorities this off-season? I'm not asking what you think they will do; I'm asking what you think they should do, whether it's a matter of upcoming free agents they should go for, or principles they should adhere to.

Robson: It sure as hell won't be easy. The two most important positions on the court, point guard and center, are big question marks. As I said in today's column, I think Cassell needs to be dealt or, worst case, released. He's entering the last year of a deal he already believes is unfair, and Taylor isn't about to extend him after the dysfunctional circus he helped ringlead this year.

Hudson has never had point guard instincts--the one year he started, KG led the team in assists--and his incredibly chronic ankle woes only add to the uncertainty. At center, after seven years in the league, what you see out of Michael Olowokandi is what you're going to get, and that's boneheaded, foul-prone, black-hole pivot play mixed in with rare, teasing bouts of brilliance. I'd love to see Minnesota keep Eddie Griffin, but there's no telling what he'll get on the open market. If the Wolves had to burn the mid-level exception to get him that would be a tough decision, given how many other needs they have. Besides, EG, who is friends with Cassell, may not want to stick around. I really liked Jackie Butler during the preseason and the Wolves would be wise to give him another shot if he's still available.

And if they can keep Mark Madsen--who has the highest positive plu/minus in point differential per 48 minutes played of all the Wolves this season--that's a no-brainer. I think I'd make my top priority a big, rugged point guard, somebody who could defend and dish, enabling the Wolves to deploy Hudson as a designated scorer (a two-guard mostly) off the bench. Jason Kidd would be perfect, of course, but there's nothing on the roster that could pry him from NJ. I'd structure the offense around KG and Wally, in that order. One way the Wolves can improve next year is by having a point guard who looks for Szczerbiak, and by not having Spree sucking up those minutes (and shots) that should go to Wally. I'd ask Hassell to lose a little weight, get ready to defend the two-guard spot and become a bigger part of the offense, which, with Cassell hopefully gone, should include more fast breaks and exploitative points in transition.

The draft picks in both the first and second round are vital to the team's mid-term future. Ditto for the mid-level and $1 million exceptions, because they don't have enough cap space to go after the high-profile free agents. A shrewd and lucky personnel guy, be it McHale or his replacement, could get this team back in the playoffs next year. But barring a stupendous trade or some other masterstroke, I think the club will be back to first-round losses in the post-season.


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