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 Monday, September 11
Wolves find themselves in trouble
By Jeffrey Denberg
Special to

 There is nothing more critical to the prosperity of the NBA than cost control. That means a salary cap and rules that are enforced.
Joe Smith
Joe Smith's future in Minnesota is in doubt because of illegal dealing.

This was reason enough for NBA commissioner David Stern to risk the wrath of fans, players and TV executives when he shut down his league in 1998.

Stern saw his mission as saving the owners from themselves and they backed him by near-unanimous vote. In return, he tied up the players association in a web of steel, slapped a padlock on it and dared anyone to defy him.

Inexplicably, an owner did and in the most naive way possible.

Minnesota owner Glen Taylor, a hugely successful businessman and a former minority leader in the Minnesota state senate, has admitted that last year he signed forward Joe Smith to a very detailed, highly illegal secret contract.

He got found out. Now Taylor is in serious trouble.

To the league and to his fellow owners Taylor could have hardly committed a more serious breach of trust. The brethren can only look upon Taylor's flagrant violation of the rules as an act of fiscal treason.

"What I was trying to do was keep a player on the same team, in a small market, over a period of time and pay him a competitive wage," Taylor said Friday at a press conference. "I thought that was what the spirit of the collective bargaining agreement. ... [Stern] said he disagrees with that."

No kidding.

The matter now goes to an arbitrator and here is what Stern can ask him do to Taylor: suspend him from active participation with the franchise, fine him as much as $3.5 million, strip the Timberwolves of unspecified draft picks, negate Smith's secret seven-year deal and declare him a free agent right now. Presumably, he could deny the Timberwolves a chance to re-sign him. Having lost Malik Sealy in a fatal auto accident, this would leave an already dangerously thin team in dire circumstance.

To digress, Smith was dealt from Philadelphia to Minnesota on Feb. 17, 1999 (during the lockout season). After finishing his three-year rookie contract, he agreed on Aug. 17, 1999, to a series of one-year deals for the middle-class exception. He would make $2.35 million this season and get a 12 percent bump next season when he becomes a six-year man and eligible for a deal of about $70 million.

Smith readily signed the secret agreement while he was represented by Eric Fleisher. That deal is probably dead. Smith has joined the other Minnesota players who fired Fleisher, who is embroiled in a legal action against former employee Andy Miller, Smith's current agent. But Fleisher's situation is worsening. He stands in jeopardy of being decertified now.

Unrepentant, Taylor argues that "I thought it was a righteous thing. My intent was to help the team and resurrect Joe's career here and keep him here."

That's not how the brethren see it. They see that Taylor cheated them out of a chance to sign a nice player. Taylor only got Smith's name on the one-year deals because he gave him the seven-year lollapalooza. In so doing, he denied his competition a chance to bid for Smith's services.


The puzzle is why Taylor committed the egregious sin of signing a document. Verbal under the table promises are made all the time. They are almost impossible to legislate against. Recall the Danny Manning affair in 1994. Manning bolted Atlanta and its $35 million offer to take a one-year, $1 million deal with Phoenix. Although he suffered a second devastating knee injury midway through that minimum-dollar season he was rewarded with $40 million by Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, a man who keeps his word, although he plays with rules.

Derek Anderson (San Antonio) and Maurice Taylor (Houston) took it on the cheap for $2.25 million this season with the clear understanding that they would sign big deals next August. Howard Eisley was prepared to take the exception from Dallas in return for thinly veiled promises before Utah agreed to a sign-and-trade.

But while the league can't very well sniff out verbal agreements, it does act when it knows of wrong doing. As an example, the Suns were prevented from acquiring Dikembe Mutombo in a three-way deal in 1996 because there was evidence of illegal negotiation.

Now of course the stakes are even higher and the cheating more wide-spread. Only a few weeks ago we saw Kendall Gill back out on an agreement with the Lakers and Greg Anthony renege on a deal with Atlanta. In each case, an agent was the facilitator, but the player was hardly an innocent bystander.

By putting the hammer to Taylor, Fleisher and Smith, the league can send a strong message.

It can do more, at least symbolically, by ruling out such duplicitous entities as the three-man injured list, often comprised of players who have nothing much wrong with them.

A number of NBA teams go so far as to make up a 15-man roster, activating and deactivating as the need occurs. General managers and coaches make the call. Agents are involved because they must be consulted before a healthy player goes to the list. Doctors wink at their Hippocratic oaths and sign papers certifying the players as sufficiently injured to be unable to perform.

The answer is a true 15-man roster with three inactive players but some owners (i.e. Donald Sterling) don't want to pay the money and the players association doesn't want to see players lose freedom of movement.

There's always an excuse for not doing the right thing. In the NBA it's becoming epidemic.

Jeffrey Denberg, who covers the NBA for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a regular contributor to

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