The Kevin Garnett era still stands as the Minnesota Timberwolves‘ most successful period of basketball. However, it is often seen as its most disappointing, as well. Because while the team made the postseason eight straight years, only once did they advance past the first round.
Minnesota ultimately failed to surround Garnett with a championship-caliber supporting staff. One major reason why stems from the steep ramifications of signing a former first overall pick in a rather shady manner.
The Minnesota Timberwolves surprisingly landed Joe Smith
The T-Wolves spent their first seven seasons in existence losing … a lot. It wasn’t until Kevin Garnett arrived in 1995 that their fortunes started to turn around. In 1997, Minnesota snuck into the playoffs at 40-42 while finishing above .500 the following year for the first time in franchise history. With the 1998-99 season approaching, the Wolves aimed to further improve by signing Joe Smith.
Smith was the first overall pick out of Maryland in 1995. Taken four spots ahead of Garnett, Smith averaged 15.3 points for the Golden State Warriors his rookie season. He upped it to 18.7 his sophomore campaign, which ultimately ended up being his career high.
With plans to hit free agency after his third year, Smith turned down an extension of around $80 million with Golden State. Fearful of losing him for nothing, the Warriors traded their top pick to the Philadephia 76ers during the 1997-98 season.
The 23-year-old’s decision to enter free agency wasn’t a good one. He received no offers along the lines of what Golden State proposed as an extension. Not to mention, his free agency came just after the lockout ended in 1999. So in a shocking twist, Smith joined the Timberwolves on a one-year, $1.75 million contract.
With a promising young player to pair with Garnett, Minnesota now had hope for the present and future. But it came at a steep price.
Smith and the T-Wolves were busted for their illegal contract agreements
It seemed odd at the time for Smith to sign for under $2 million in Minnesota. As it turns out, there was a reason why — a reason that wound up being against NBA rules.
Owner Glen Taylor and general manager Kevin McHale organized a secret plan with Smith. The Wolves would sign the 6-foot-10 forward to three below-market one-year deals, maximizing cap space and allowing the team to build around Garnett. Then, following his third season in Minnesota, the franchise would take advantage of his Bird Rights in order to sign him to a large contract extension worth up to $86 million.
The plan was seemingly on track to succeed. After Smith’s debut in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, he re-signed in the summer for one year and $2.1 million. Then, ahead of the 2000-01 campaign, he re-upped for another $2.5 million. But soon after, the wheels came undone.
Minnesota’s plan was thwarted after agents Eric Fleisher and Andrew Miller broke up. Miller left Fleisher’s firm, taking both Smith and Garnett as clients. That prompted Fleisher to sue Miller, which ultimately led to a rainfall of documents being unearthed. Among them were documents revealing what the Wolves were doing with Smith.
When commissioner David Stern discovered Minnesota’s secret salary arrangements with Smith, the punishments were extraordinary. First, the veteran’s upcoming one-year contract was voided. His previous two deals with the Wolves were also nullified, meaning he would need another three seasons with the Wolves in order to secure Bird Rights. In addition, Minnesota was fined $3.5 million and stripped of its next five first-round picks.
The Timberwolves never recovered and wasted the Kevin Garnett era
Stern’s punishments were some of the stiffest the NBA had ever handed out. As a result, the Wolves were unable to help Garnett as much as they could have.
While their first-round picks in 2003 and 2005 were eventually returned, Minnesota still lost three picks in a five-year span. It cost them an opportunity to draft Zach Randolph in 2001, John Salmons in 2002, and Beno Udrih in 2004. While Z-Bo was the only All-Star among the bunch, Salmons and Udrih also played 13 seasons as serviceable role players.
Garnett was still able to lead the Timberwolves to the postseason for the majority of that era. But only once, in 2003-04, did the team advance past the opening round. Afterward, Minnesota’s lack of young talent kept them from reaching the playoffs for the next three years, prompting KG to demand a trade. In 2007, the franchise icon was shipped to the Boston Celtics, where he would win a championship in his first season.
As for Smith, the disappointing big man wound up returning to the Timberwolves in 2001 on a six-year, $34 million deal, far less than the $86 million he was in line for initially. But just after two seasons, the veteran was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for Sam Cassell. He would move several more times throughout his career, ultimately playing for 12 teams across 16 seasons.
If the Wolves had those first-round picks to use as draft capital or trade pieces, the team’s outlook could have changed enough to win more. Perhaps enough to keep Garnett happy, as well.