As the clock continues to tick on Kevin Garnett's career, the wheels continue to spin for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Thursday's trade of Wally Szczerbiak, Michael Olowokandi and Dwayne Jones to Boston for Ricky Davis, Mark Blount and Marcus Banks and Justin Reed signified an admission from the Wolves' organization that the latest effort to build a team around Garnett wasn't working.
Minnesota was 19-21 following its blowout loss Wednesday to Memphis, and general manager Kevin McHale had seen enough. Szczerbiak, who had been the subject of trade rumors for years, finally moves on, and in the process, the Wolves become a bit more athletic as a team. But if you're a Minnesota fan, the question is not so much whether this move makes the team better, but where the franchise is headed.
Garnett is in his 10th season and in his prime, but he clearly doesn't have enough help around him. The players arriving from Boston may improve the team some, but it isn't about to put the Wolves over the top. Ultimately, Davis, Blount and Banks can't change the fact that one bad personnel choice in 1999 doomed this franchise and relegated it to its current state of mediocrity.
The signing of Joe Smith.
The Wolves appeared to be a team of the future when Garnett quickly rose to stardom just out of Farragut High School in Chicago. Minnesota made the playoffs in Garnett's second season, and teaming with a young Stephon Marbury and Tom Gugliotta, K.G. appeared to give the Wolves the franchise player to someday become an NBA power.
Even after Marbury wanted out – not willing to play second fiddle to his teammate – McHale netted Terrell Brandon, an excellent point guard in his own right. But it was the Smith signing that changed everything for the Timberwolves. McHale agreed to the illegal, handshake deal with Smith's agent on a maximum contract extension before Smith was free to sign one with the team.
Nevermind that signing Smith to a max deal was preposterous to begin with. But to do so illegally, and to get caught, cost McHale and the Wolves dearly. Commissioner David Stern cracked down on the organization harshly, suspending McHale for a year and forcing the team to forfeit three first-round picks. At a time when the club desperately needed to add young talent and depth to its roster, Minnesota was left without first-round choices from 2000 to 2002.
Of course, it is pure speculation as to whom the Wolves would have selected with those first-round picks, but in theory they would have had chances at players such as Desmond Mason, Tony Parker, Zach Randolph or Tayshaun Prince. Instead, the team was forced to try to add to its roster through trades and free agency.
Ironically, given the size of Garnett's mammoth contract, McHale was limited with his salary-cap space and found it difficult to be a major player in the free-agent game. Without picks and cap room, McHale was forced to make some risky signings and trades. And without financial flexibility and first-round picks playing under moderate rookie-scale contracts, the Wolves weren't able to establish a solid foundation for the future.
The result was that, as Garnett blossomed into one of the best players in the league, his teammates came and left Minnesota as if they were going through a turnstile. Smith, incredibly, was re-signed – legally this time – before being shipped off to Milwaukee.
Olowokandi, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell all made their way in and out of the Twin Cities. Brandon was forced into early retirement due to injury. Troy Hudson and Szczerbiak were signed to big deals but weren't good enough to change the fortunes of the team.
Other than one good playoff run, when Minnesota made the Western Conference finals in 2004, McHale and the Wolves have been like the mouse running on the wheel – racing fast but going nowhere.
So where do they go from here? It's difficult to see this latest trade making a dramatic difference. The Wolves are in need of a dynamic point guard, some outside shooting and a big man to put next to Garnett. More than anything, they need another star to complement and take the pressure off of K.G.
Ricky Davis is a solid player, but he isn't good enough to lift the team to new heights. And Minnesota, for all its troubles, is tangled in salary-cap hell.
So assuming the Wolves don't improve dramatically, the next logical step – as crazy as it might seem – would be to move K.G. and start from scratch. They could unload some unwanted contracts, maybe gather some good young talent and draft picks and try to start all over.
After all, they've been playing catch-up ever since the Joe Smith debacle, and it's gotten them nowhere. Maybe it's time to cash in their chips.