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What Now for the Wolves?
By William Wilcoxen
May 17, 1999
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Executives with the Minnesota Timberwolves are planning for next year, now that the team has been eliminated from the National Basketball Association playoffs. Saturday's 92-to-85 loss to the San Antonio Spurs signaled the start of an off-season during which the Timberwolves face several questions about who will play for the team next fall.

The Timberwolves have suffered first-round playoff defeats in each of the last three years. But last spring and the year before team members took pride in the progress they'd made and looked ahead to a bright future. This time around the Timberwolves looked back at a season fraught with problems and said very little about the uncertainties that lie ahead. Coach and General Manager Flip Saunders promised only that the Timberwolves would aim for a future more like 1998.

"I can guarantee that this off-season's going to be a big off-season for us and that we will do a lot of things in the off-season and we will put a spark back into our organization of where it was last year at this time with both expectations and with enthusiasm of where this team can go," Sanders said after Saturday's loss.

A year ago the Timberwolves' promising prospects revolved around a trio of top young players: Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury, and Tom Gugliotta. But the team was unable to sign two of those players to new contracts and now only Garnett remains. Gugliotta surprised Minnesota by signing with the Phoenix Suns just before the start of the season. And when Timberwolves' management realized in mid-season that Marbury also planned to leave, they traded him for guard Terrell Brandon and a first-round draft choice.

Franchise History

Season    W   L  Pct.
1997-98  45  37 .549
1996-97  40  42 .488
1995-96  26  56 .317
1994-95  21  61 .256    
1993-94  20  62 .244    
1992-93  19  63 .232    
1991-92  15  67 .183    
1990-91  29  53 .354    
1989-90  22  60 .268
The comings and goings compounded the peculiarity of a season marred from the outset by a labor dispute. A collective bargaining standoff between the NBA and its players' union nearly forced cancellation of the season. When play finally began in February, the league compressed as many games as it could into the remaining time. That made for an exhausting schedule with very little time between games to practice or recover from injuries. "We just need everybody for a whole full season," says Timberwolves center Dean Garrett. "We can't afford to have people leaving and coming in in the middle of a season. Because that definitely took a toll on us because when Steph left and then Terrell came in and had to learn the system and then he learned it and he got hurt and K.G. (Garnett) got sick."

A majority of the players who finished this season with the Timberwolves don't know if they'll be back for next year. Eight of the 15 are free agents, including Brandon and forward Joe Smith, who - together with Garnett - were the backbone of the team this spring. Both Brandon and Smith say they've enjoyed their time in Minnesota, but they will entertain offers from other teams during the summer. That means the only certainty in the Timberwolves' foundation is Garnett, the 22-year-old all-star who signed the game's most lucrative contract two years ago. His coach and teammates say Garnett developed more leadership during this season's turmoil.

Garnett brought a youthful exuberance to the Timberwolves four years ago when he skipped college and joined the team directly from high school. He has developed into one of the brightest stars in the game but along the way there have been reminders that the game is a business. A rocky summer of negotiations in 1997 eventually produced a $125 million contract which many people say led to The NBA's labor impasse. Garnett says a year ago he let himself imagine great accomplishments he might achieve alongside teammates who have since departed.

Now Garnett prefers not to think too much about next year. "At this point, man, I'm not getting my hopes up," he said. "I'm enjoying my summer. I don't know what's going to happen. I learned a long time ago that people have their own personal agendas and you can't ever be upset about that. You just have to roll with whoever's out there with you. I've learned that in my little young early career, I've learned that."

The Timberwolves hold a draft pick that will entitle them to one of the first half-dozen or so players taken in the college draft. The possibility of trading that pick is among a variety of trade rumors already circulating around the team.