Jeffrey Denberg

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Wednesday, October 25
Updated: October 29, 8:52 PM ET
Wolves got what they deserved

By Jeffrey Denberg
Special to

David Stern handed the Minnesota Timberwolves the death penalty Wednesday afternoon.
Joe Smith
Joe Smith may or may not be with Minnesota this season.

That's a victory for the other 28 teams in the NBA, at least a few of which try to play fair.

The team that blatantly cheated by signing Joe Smith to secret contracts suffered a devastating blow with the loss of five first-round draft picks, a $3.5 million fine and the voiding of Smith's deals with the Timberwolves.

And Stern isn't through, yet.

In very short order you can expect that Stern is going to slap down owner Glen Taylor and vice president/basketball operations Kevin McHale for a full year because that's the most he can do under the rules.

They deserve it. They spit in the face of the league and their 28 partners by breaking the rules and depriving everyone else at a fair chance to land the services of a pretty good player. That they eventually wanted to pay him $80M or so speaks to their judgment as basketball people.

And this is only the start. The NBA office is invigorated by Stern's hard line stance and you can expect that the league will go after the wink-wink deals that have become prevalent in the league.

If Jerry Colangelo and Pat Riley and Mark Cuban aren't paying attention, God help them. Beware, the God of the NBA is doing a "Pulp Fiction" Samuel Jackson who pulled the trigger and cried, "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord."

Remember when Taylor did his mea culpa, taking all the blame for the whole deal? The league knows he was covering for McHale. Hey, McHale stopped fishing long enough that day in 1998 to come in and add his name to contracts that gave Smith specified wages in years four through seven of the illegal deal.

Apparently, there are other Minnesota staff people involved and there is a chance that Stern will offer to accept their guilty pleas in return for reduced draft sanctions. The commish wants the perps front and center, folks, standing under the gallows, their signed confessions around their necks, examples for others not to flaunt their disobedience.

Stern's anger is most reflected on two counts in which he had discretionary powers.

First, the arbitrator gave the commissioner the right to determine the degree to which draft picks would be forfeited. In Minnesota they prayed for one, hoped for two and were at their most pessimistic over four. Stern took five. This kills the future for the Wolves. They can never get out from under the cap so long as they are living under Kevin Garnett's $120 million contract.

In the second step, Stern not only nullified Smith's contract for this season and beyond, he also ruled his first two years at Minnesota as null and void. They didn't happen. He never played in Minnesota as far as the NBA is concerned.

That means Smith has been stripped of his Larry Bird rights, unless he gets them back on appeal. Right now, he can only play for the Wolves at a minimum paycheck. Provided these teams care, he can go to Chicago for as much as $6 million or to Miami for $3.88 when the Heat are granted relief for losing Alonzo Mourning. There are teams that can pay $2.5 million for the year.

But if Joe Smith wants to stay in Minnesota he's going to have to through a heavy appeals process. That's his punishment.

And while Smith has a stated preference to remain in Minnesota, you can bet neither he nor new agent Dan Fegan are willing to swing in the wind over this one, hoping that an arbitrator rules in their favor while the season slips slowly away.

You know what? That's a heck of a day's work by the commissioner of any league.

You know what? He did good.

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

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