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Wednesday, October 23
Timberwolves would be wise to trade KG

By Sam Smith
Special to

Kevin Garnett is great. All-league the past four seasons, three times all-defensive first team. Averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game the last four years, career scoring and rebounding averages higher in the playoffs than in the regular season. Perhaps the ideal of the 21st century player, a 7-footer who can play any position on the court, guard everyone from playmakers to centers, who can shoot and pass with equal proficiency, an unselfish player who comes up with highlight-reel moments.

Kevin Garnett truly is a local basketball treasure in Minneapolis, though the question is whether the team should trade him now.

It doesn't seem to make sense, and, frankly, trades of superstars have never worked for the team losing the superstar. But Garnett, entering his eighth (already!) NBA season, is on the brink of becoming a loser. For the past six years, his Minnesota Timberwolves -- and they are no one else's -- have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Last season, they were swept in the first round even as Garnett averaged 24 points, 18.7 rebounds and five assists. So the halo that was floating over the captivating Garnett became a noose: If he's so great, why can't the team win just one playoff series?

Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett, right, has great numbers, but the T-Wolves' playoff record hasn't been anything to boast about.
Bad supporting cast? Garnett seemed to suggest that for the first time, oddly, in a TV commercial he made and then in a summertime interview with GQ magazine. And it is hard to argue. The Timberwolves earned the harshest team penalty in league history for their illegal signing of Joe Smith, who remains a backup player, at least in production. Their trade for All-Star point guard Terrell Brandon has been a disappointment with Brandon frequently injured and out again to open this season. They've never been able to get a top center, and incumbent Rasho Nesterovic wants to leave after signing only a one-year deal. Shooter Wally Szczerbiak and Garnett have feuded, sometimes openly, about shots and their place with the team, almost coming to blows on at least one occasion.

So it's not the ideal team makeup. But don't great players make other players better? If that's true, Garnett's teammates must be horrible.

The fact is, the Timberwolves have been an entertaining, well-coached team and Garnett is one of the elite players in the NBA. But he may never get beyond the first round of the playoffs in Minnesota.

Still, sometimes you want to hug Garnett. Like when he showed up in training camp after a miserable summer in which the Timberwolves lost Chauncey Billups, missed out on Ricky Davis after giving him an offer sheet, failed in attempts to get point guards Andre Miller and Jeff McInnis, saw Brandon take himself out again, Smith get hurt and Szczerbiak get hurt and reach at an impasse in contract negotiations.

So in comes Garnett and declares: "I'm ready. I can't even describe it. You've got to get an X-ray machine and look inside me. 'Cause I'm ready. I feel like it's rookie season all over again, with the energy I have. You guys (the media, for focusing on his playoff failures) have been talking all that bull, so I'm ready to prove all you wrong.

"I'm here. Hey, when stuff got tight, when Steph (Marbury) left, I'm here. When we went through the draft-pick (forfeitures), I'm here. When we got put out six years in a row, I'm here. I'm going to be here until they don't want me anymore. If we can't find a (middle ground for the next contract), then you do what you've got to do. But I'm not going to put my foot in my mouth. This is where I live, 365 days -- or in leap year, 366 days -- of the year. I'm here. Life is tough. You can't run from everything."

How can a team think of trading a guy like that?

Teams have. Wilt Chamberlain was traded. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was traded. Charles Barkley was traded. The common thread running through all the deals was that the team that traded them usually didn't recover for years. And the team that got them usually went on to a championship, or at least the NBA Finals.

But what made those deals successful for the teams getting the stars was that they had stars. That's the problem -- if you can call it one -- with Garnett. He's not Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. Not that they did it all themselves, but Garnett is not a finisher. He's more like Grant Hill, who is trying to regain his luster with the Orlando Magic. And he has a chance to now that he's with a player, Tracy McGrady, who can finish the game for him.

Hill and Garnett are the kind of players to get a team to the last few minutes. They don't take you the rest of the way. Perhaps it's no coincidence Hill never got beyond the first round of the playoffs as the Detroit Pistons' star, and he was every bit the star Garnett is. But Hill averaged fewer than four points in the fourth quarters of all his playoff games. Garnett, likewise, isn't a finisher.

It's why the trade of Stephon Marbury, which was forced by Marbury and not Timberwolves management, was a crushing blow for Garnett. He can get a player like Marbury to the 45-minute mark of the game, and from there Marbury can take over the scoring. Garnett doesn't have anyone like that, though the bigger problem is how the franchise ever gets someone like that.

Minneapolis isn't exactly the prime destination for NBA free agents. The T-Wolves do finally get a first-round pick next year, but not the year after because of the illegal Smith signing. But having Garnett virtually guarantees that they'll never get a star in the draft. He's good enough that Minnesota should make the playoffs and miss the lottery, or just get in the lottery and be at the bottom.

Perhaps the answer for the Timberwolves is to cash in Garnett while they still can. He's a star teams long for. Perhaps they can send him in a big package to Dallas for, say, Steve Nash, a point guard, Raef LaFrentz, a center, and Michael Finley, a scoring guard.

Szczerbiak is looking for a big-money extension, but once Garnett re-signs, the Timberwolves will be stuck with the team they have. Garnett makes about $25 million this season and will be paid $28 million in 2003-04 in the last year of his contract. He has the right, signing before the maximum ceilings went into place, to sign for a five percent raise on top of his $28 million. He has said he's willing to take a paycut, but to what? To $25 million? Or $22 million? Once the Timberwolves pay Garnett, they'll be over the salary cap for the remainder of his deal.

But what if the Timberwolves are eliminated in the first round once again, which seems likely, with few prospects of getting better? Maybe Garnett just plays out his contract and walks away, taking another team's $14 million maximum. Maybe a chance to play for a winner is worth it. You still can pay your bills on $14 million a year, and Garnett is only 26 years old, anyway. He could play another 10 years and earn more than $10 million a year with just abouty any team.

There has always been the thought that the T-Wolves will deal Szczerbiak. He's popular in Cleveland, and the Cavaliers have loads of young talent and draft picks. Perhaps they'll need an attraction like Szczerbiak at some time. However, if the Cavs' plan to lose and get high school sensation LeBron James works, he'll be their attraction.

So perhaps the answer for the Timberwolves is to cash in Garnett while they still can. He's a star teams long for. Perhaps they can send him in a big package to Dallas for, say, Steve Nash, a point guard, Raef LaFrentz, a center, and Michael Finley, a scoring guard. And Dallas still has Nick Van Exel and Dirk Nowitzki and Garnett, which might give them a better chance in the Western Conference.

Without a true point guard -- and with talk of Brandon retiring -- the Timberwolves are talking about a motion, equal-opportunity offense like the Lakers use. So are the Pacers. Neither the T-Wolves nor Pacers has Shaquille O'Neal, though. Minnesota, which has imported Troy Hudson from Orlando to play the point, is taking a chance on Kendall Gill if Anthony Peeler can't shoot better and hoping Smith recovers, Marc Jackson gets his game back, Loren Woods gets stronger and Nesterovic isn't too good and leaves.

"If they can add something to that unit -- if they can keep Brandon healthy, they're a team that can play basketball," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "They're really a good team. People haven't really given them credit. They beat us a couple of times. But they seemed to peak during the year sometime."

But then Brandon got hurt, and Smith didn't do much and neither did Jackson and ...

Garnett does make other players better. Without him, the Timberwolves would be drifting on the shoals of lottery land. Perhaps that's better with James considered a sure star. But the Timberwolves won't get there thanks to Garnett. He's a fabulous, exciting player who seems destined to be the Ernie Banks of basketball.

Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to

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