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Steve Aschburner

Someone will unluckily mirror the '99 post-lockout Wolves

Posted Dec 8 2011 12:12PM

Somebody somewhere goes to the worst doctor in the world, as the late comic George Carlin logically deduced. And some team, among the NBA's 30, is going to do the worst job of navigating the great lockout of 2011 and its aftermath.

We won't know for a while, but one team will bungle worse than the others its handling of the standard post-lockout "to do" list: interview and sign free agents, explore and consummate trades, weigh the pros and cons of amnesty, assemble a roster, react on the fly and ramp up for a belated season.

One thing we do know is which team "lost" the lockout the last time they all went through this. Back in 1998-99, no team fared worse in the mad scramble to salvage a 50-game season than the Minnesota Timberwolves.

They remain a cautionary tale for teams in 2011.

The irony, of course, was that Minnesota owner Glen Taylor's decision to offer a $126 million contract extension to 21-year-old Kevin Garnett one year earlier essentially triggered the lockout in the first place. It was audacious, it was dangerous -- this decision to hand over a fat nine-figure deal to a largely unproven player who would have been a junior in college -- and, in the other owners' view, it had to be stopped.

So the league went dark, canceled games for the first time ever and narrowly averted a lost season.

When the NBA re-opened for business 204 days later, all 29 teams faced the same frantic turnaround time, the frenzy to flesh out rosters and sign or retain players without contracts. Minnesota faced some special challenges, coming off its most successful season ever (45-37 in 1997-98) with one of the top free agents in power forward Tom Gugliotta and a budding Malone-Stockton tandem in Garnett and point guard Stephon Marbury.

Then, faster than they could have imagined, in a matter of days and weeks that felt like minutes and hours, the Timberwolves basically unraveled.

In rapid succession:

• Gugliotta left as a free agent, signing with the Phoenix Suns.

• Marbury forced his way out of Minnesota in a sign-and-trade with New Jersey.

• Forward Joe Smith, the former No. 1 pick brought in as Gugliotta's replacement, was found to have signed a series of illegal deals, costing the Wolves two forfeited first-round draft picks, a $3.5 million fine that still ranks as the heftiest in NBA history and, for a time, Smith's services.

Tom Gugliotta said he felt the pressure of a severly condensed free agency period before bolting Minnesota for Phoenix.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

It was a mess, chaotic and dizzying and seriously regrettable. The Timberwolves' status as an up-and-coming franchise took hits with each domino that fell, and it all was directly related to the rush job of getting back on the court.

Gugliotta, remember, was Minnesota's first All-Star, a player who had averaged about 19 points, eight rebounds and four assists in the previous two seasons. At 29, he was in his prime, considered one of the top free agents along with Phoenix's Antonio McDyess and Chicago's Scottie Pippen.

Instead of having two or three weeks in July to sift through Gugliotta's options, though, he and agent Richard Howell had mere days. The Timberwolves quickly offered an $86 million maximum contract but Gugliotta wanted to go through the process. Also, he and Howell were talking to the Lakers about a sign-and-trade that would send center Elden Campbell and guard Eddie Jones to the Wolves.

"You had people on one side like Jerry West and Shaq telling you, 'Hold on, they're going to do this, you've got time.' Then you've got deadlines set by other teams," Gugliotta said in a phone interview this week.

"[Free agency] didn't work out like I thought it would. Once that bell rang, it felt like we had 72 hours to try to figure things out. By the time it was over, I was exhausted. I don't think I had slept in 72 hours."

Wolves vice president Kevin McHale, perhaps reluctant to trade Gugliotta within the conference, nixed any Lakers deal. Meanwhile, coach Flip Saunders -- who held the title of general manager at that time -- and Taylor had been in talks with agent Eric Fleisher, who represented Garnett and his pal Smith, about a backup plan to Googs. Taylor, it should be noted, was undergoing heart surgery at that time, so his involvement was spotty.

"They had three people trying to do things," Gugliotta recalled. "I don't think each one knew what the other was telling us. We got three different versions, not on purpose -- unintentionally. I'd have gone back to Minnesota."

The Phoenix deal, a year shorter and about $26 million lighter, was Gugliotta's third choice. And it nearly got scuttled when the Suns dispatched players Jason Kidd, Rex Chapman and George McCloud to Denver in an attempt to dissuade McDyess from signing with the Nuggets. Which would have been OK, since Gugliotta had decided to re-up with the Wolves.

But there were two problems. First, Fleisher had pushed through the illegal contracts that were prohibited under salary cap rules and, in theory, would have paid Smith close to a maximum salary, even though he was eligible only for a one-year, $1.75 million deal. And by the time Gugliotta and Howell got back to Minnesota at its alleged deadline, the offer no longer was on the table. The Wolves had gotten scared and blinked. They also had lost veteran Terry Porter during all the uncertainty, with Porter grabbing a firm offer from Miami.

"I don't know if anybody even knows this," Gugliotta said, "but when I tried, Kevin had told Mr. Taylor that if I would have come back, [Taylor] would have had to let him [McHale] go. Because he [McHale] had the under-the-table deal with Joe Smith."

That's how Gugliotta heard it, anyway. McHale -- who was suspended for a year when the Smith fiasco came out in an agent dispute between Fleisher and former partner Andy Miller -- always denied making the illegal deal. "I didn't speak to [Fleisher] for two years [after the Garnett extension talks] so I couldn't have done it," McHale said recently.

Set to be a formidable tandem of the future, Stephon Marbury left Kevin Garnett's side before they could reach their peak.
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Smith time bomb blew up before the 2000-01 season. NBA commissioner David Stern came down hard on what was termed "cap circumvention," initially stripping Minnesota of its next five first-round picks. He eventually rebated the 2003 and 2005 picks, but losing three No. 1s crippled the team's foundation. (Drafting prep player Ndudi Ebi with the 2003 pick with Josh Howard, Kendrick Perkins and others on the board didn't help, either.)

In between, of course, there was Marbury's power play. The new CBA rules adopted in January 1999 instituted maximum salaries and put a glass ceiling between what Marbury could be paid ($71 million) and Garnett's deal. And that, McHale said, caused the young point guard to "lose his mind a little."

Said Saunders at the time: "He said, 'Right now, whether it's right or wrong, I have a tough time playing with KG when he's making the amount of money he's making and I'll be making only $71 million.

"I tried, No. 1, to explain the idea of, 'Only making $71 million' to him. And two, we shouldn't be penalized because of the system. But if a guy doesn't have his heart in the right place, then we have to move on."

Because Marbury and agent David Falk had leverage in only the player's third season that he could leave outright (compared to five years on rookie deals now), Minnesota blinked again. Just 18 games into the post-lockout season, they went for a three-team deal that sent Marbury close to home with the Nets, moved Sam Cassell to Milwaukee and brought back point guard Terrell Brandon and a 1999 pick that would become Wally Szczerbiak.

As Marbury said his goodbyes at the team's hotel in Oakland, Saunders had a sense of what was being lost. He told the brash point guard: "I just hope that, in 25 years, that you and KG and I aren't at an All-Star Game, having dinner and looking at each other and saying, 'Geez, did we screw up.' "

The Wolves went 25-25 that shortened season but made their third consecutive playoff appearance. They made eight in a row, in fact, losing in the Western Conference finals in 2004 as Szczerbiak developed and McHale and Saunders worked to put help -- Chauncey Billups, Cassell, Latrell Sprewell -- around Garnett.

But the lack of draft picks, and overpaying role players, caught up with Minnesota. Saunders was fired in February 2005. McHale had two brief coaching stints but was fired by replacement David Kahn in 2009.

Garnett stuck around for 12 years, grew increasingly frustrated and couldn't elevate the Wolves into the playoffs his final three years there. In 2007, he finally accepted a trade to Boston and won an NBA championship in June 2008. Marbury, though twice earning All-Star status, washed through three more teams -- Suns, Knicks, Celtics -- before exiting the NBA at age 31 in 2009 and carving out an unexpected niche in China.

Said Gugliotta: "I didn't think he'd leave [Minnesota]. I thought him and KG would be together for 10,12 years. ... He always said he wanted to go East. But he overshot JFK."

Gugliotta never appeared in more than 57 games for Phoenix in six injury-marred seasons. He had a near-fatal seizure in reaction to using a dietary supplement in December 1999, then tore two ligaments in his left knee four months later. He played briefly with Utah, Boston and Atlanta before retiring in 2005.

"I look back on it, I'm disappointed in the way it turned out," Gugliotta said. "Minnesota was a great place to play. We had a good coaching staff and we finally had gotten some talent together. I was there for a few thin years, then KG turned it around and, boom, then you had him and Marbury.

"It was the most fun experience I ever had in the NBA, by far. I'm sure it was hard on all sides. But there was a two-week process that was given 72 hours. It was a bit of a nightmare."

Woe to the team that finds itself repeating Minnesota's flawed history, 13 years later in another crazed, desperate lockout aftermath.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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