Teams sweat it out when the future of a superstar is up in the air
Endless speculation about a star's future grows tiresome to his organization
The Timberwolves lived through years of chatter about Kevin Garnett's future
Timberwolves owner: "It's just one more dread that you worry about"
MINNEAPOLIS -- Long before the so-called class of 2010 was even a gleam in a lustful NBA general manager's eye, the Timberwolves had their class of 2001. And 2002. And 2003. And ... well, you get the idea.
The promise of the richest, most alluring group of free agents in league history all potentially hitting the market at once, less than 20 months away -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amaré Stoudemire, Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Joe Johnson, Tracy McGrady, Manu Ginobili among them -- already has some teams drooling and others quaking. Back when Minnesota was straining to build a championship contender around Kevin Garnett, it felt more like 28-1, droolers to quakers.
On a macro level, the summer of 2010 could goose interest in the NBA like no offseason since, well, the draft class of 2003, when James, Wade, Bosh and Carmelo Anthony first arrived. On a micro level, though, it means an endless river -- some would say deluge -- of rumors, misinformation and tea-leaf readings, targeting the very best players in Cleveland, Miami, Toronto, Phoenix and elsewhere to recreationally imagine them in other cities.
That's how it went for Minnesota for the better part of a decade, right up until the day Garnett -- the face of the Wolves' franchise, its cornerstone and its hope -- packed his bags for Boston.
"What you're asking is something I've thought about for the other owners,'' Minnesota team owner Glen Taylor said Wednesday night. "As someone who's been there.''
As the NBA's newly named chairman of the Board of Governors, Taylor has more empathy than usual for his fellow owners, particularly those in the smaller or more financially challenged markets who are striving now at what his franchise ultimately failed to do. That is: Get remarkably lucky in the draft, then construct a team around that godsend player who is good enough and lasts long enough to win one or more Larry O'Brien trophies. Miami did it quickly with Wade in 2006 but would love to do it again, knowing what it's been missing. Cleveland and James won three playoff series to reach the Finals in 2007 and ache to make it four. Toronto, with Bosh as its anchor, has made moves to win sooner rather than later.
But what do the fans, staff and owners of those teams see, hear and read, almost daily? Reports of their dream's imminent demise. James, it has been suggested time and again, will head to New York. Wade would be a perfect fit alongside Derrick Rose in Chicago, some say. "Bosh-to-the-Pistons'' speculation reared up within minutes of the news that Allen Iverson -- and the salary-cap space it will free up once his contract comes off the books -- had been traded to Detroit.
"I'll worry about that when it gets here,'' Bosh said, playing with the sudden interest one day after Iverson's trade from Denver. "If I [worry], I won't do well and they wouldn't want me.''
Funny stuff, except to the Raptors and fans in Toronto. Same thing with James rumors in Cleveland, where Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert finally lost it over the mounting pile of media "reports.'' Gilbert scolded the media, saying, "It's kind of an insult to the city of Cleveland in my opinion -- an insult to the Midwest.''
That brings us back to Minnesota, definitely fly-over land to vast segments of NBA followers. In a league long-suspected of "delivering'' Patrick Ewing to New York in the first draft lottery in hopes of resuscitating a charter franchise, with a commissioner who once said that his dream Finals matchup would be "Lakers vs. Lakers,'' the prospect of Garnett -- a special player in skills, charisma and intensity -- toiling fruitlessly in Minneapolis just seemed wrong. Wasteful, even. With seven first-round eliminations in eight playoff appearances, followed by three years out of the postseason entirely, the Wolves faced a drumbeat of questions, hints and unsolicited advice.
It began soon after the news of the Joe Smith salary-cap scandal broke in 2000, stripping Minnesota of multiple first-round picks, Smith's services and a considerable amount of optimism for its future. It lasted right through 2006-07, through one Garnett contract extension (with a too-brief run to the Western Conference finals in 2004 providing the only respite). Everywhere the Wolves and Garnett went, home or road, from the first day together each October to their last day together each spring, someone with a microphone, camera or notepad would ask Garnett if he wanted or expected to be traded, or thought about his options in free agency. Or they would ask his bosses the same sort of things.
It didn't much matter, either, that both the player and the team repeatedly shot down such talk. By the end of their affiliation, Garnett had succumbed to the chatter -- "Thank God for opt-outs,'' he had said in February 2007, after the trade deadline passed and the Wolves again failed to improve around him. That comment nudged Taylor and VP Kevin McHale to beat Garnett to the punch rather than lose him for nothing in 2008. But it only came after years of speculation.
"It's just one more dread that you worry about, that you have to talk about and that you don't want your players to have to be thinking about,'' Taylor said. "My sense is, when you get to that year, what you find out is that a lot of players stay home. But there's so much talk. ... It's one of those things where, you as an owner, you're always talking about whether someone was going to want to sign Kevin. So you had to think about [re-signing] him early, which put on a little pressure. That is a concern of your fans -- are you going to keep a team together? It's on the player's mind. Some players don't want to be playing in the last year of their contract. Some do, but some don't. It is something that they keep talking about.''
Eventually, the rumor-mongers were right. Garnett did get traded. He wound up in Boston, winning his long-sought NBA championship at the first possible opportunity and, in essence, emboldening everyone on these types of (ahem) stories.
When the Celtics face the Wolves on Friday night, Garnett will be back to play in Minnesota for the first time -- he was hurt when Boston made its lone visit last February, waving in street clothes during introductions, then retreating to the locker room. The way his timeline has played out only fuels the noise about the class of 2010: Without Garnett's trade to Boston, there would have been no 2008 title for the Celtics, and without all the trade speculation, there might have been no trade.
Certainly Cleveland, Toronto, Miami and the rest are on the clock now, two seasons out, in ways they would not be, if not for the focus on 2010. And the more affable a player is -- Jason Kidd, for instance, tried to say the right things to reporters at every stop the Nets made leading up to free agency in 2003 -- the more likely he is to have his words pounced upon: Hey, he said he would like to play in Denver! Or Chicago! Or Sacramento!
"That's a problem a lot of times,'' said Wolves assistant GM Fred Hoiberg, a teammate of Garnett's who witnessed many of the leading questions. "These players get words put in their mouths. Then they have to come back and say, 'No, I didn't mean it that way.' It's hard. You can take a little piece of what they said and spin it as, 'He doesn't like it here anymore.' ''
A big fan of the movie Dumb & Dumber, Hoiberg laughs at the similarity of the whole process to Lloyd's asking Mary what his chances are with her. Told "not good,'' he presses on. "You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?''
Mary: "I'd say more like one out of a million.''
Lloyd, after a pause: "So you're telling me there's a chance.''
Said Hoiberg: "Look at the whole [Stephon] Marbury situation. Every day, you read HoopsHype, it takes up half of the [Web page]. It's a daily thing. When is it going to get old? When are people going to stop talking about it? I think [media] people go in there and try to egg them into saying something that will be a front-page headline.''
If that's the direction in which so-called reporting has gone, how does a team navigate around it and avoid the distractions and possible ill will it can bring?
"I think it's on the individual player,'' Hoiberg said. "It's kind of hard to go to a superstar guy and say, 'Don't say that.' You have to hope that your player will eventually get sick of it and say, 'Hey, I'm not going to talk about it anymore. Please don't ask me again.' ''
Either that, or the teams currently employing the class of 2010 have 20 long, grim months of fun headed their way. Minnesota has been there, gritted through that.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.