Will that turn out to be enough to keep Garnett with the Timberwolves? Or will the lure of a glitzier, big-market club be too tempting to him? (Unlike other suitors, who will have to deal with salary cap limitations in trying to lure Garnett from Minnesota, the Timberwolves will have the advantage under league rules of being able to pay any amount they want to keep him.) "We feel very good about our chances of signing Kevin," says McHale. "We've tried to allow him to succeed at a healthy pace. We've provided him with a team that has a bona fide chance to win the championship. If we haven't convinced him we're doing the right things, that we're going in the right direction, then this league is in a world of trouble."
McHale says that if Garnett doesn't re-sign this summer, Minnesota must consider trading him. "We can't put ourselves in a position where we've nurtured and developed a high pick and three years later have nothing to show for it," he says. Free agency isn't the only reason high draft choices hit the road. Often, a team misjudges or mishandles talent. From 1987 through '90, the Los Angeles Clippers' lottery picks were, respectively, a No. 4, forward Reggie Williams, who was a bomb; a No. 1, forward Danny Manning, who repeatedly asked for a trade and was finally granted one, to the Atlanta Hawks, in '94; a No. 2, forward Danny Ferry, who played a season in Italy rather than don a Clippers uniform and was eventually traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers; and a No. 8, Bo Kimble, who was a bust and played only 105 career games before falling out of the NBA.
There are a few teams that have chosen well in recent years, most notably the Lakers, who drafted three of their current starters—forward-center Elden Campbell with the 27th pick in 1990, guard Nick Van Exel with the 37th pick in '93 and guard-forward Eddie Jones with the 10th pick in '94—although it was free agent O'Neal who made them contenders. Cleveland has created a nucleus that includes guard Terrell Brandon (11th pick in '91), forward Chris Mills (22nd in '93), guard Bobby Sura (17th in '95) and forward-center Vitaly Potapenko (12th in '96).
Most general managers believe this year's draft pool is one of the weakest in history—and worse classes are on the horizon. The player almost certain to be taken first next week, Tim Duncan of Wake Forest, is not only considered far superior to the rest of his class but also might be the only topflight big man available for the next several years. "People ask me who the next great big man will be behind Duncan, and I'm racking my brain to give them an answer," says new Celtics general manager Chris Wallace. "I've been to all the major high school and college camps, all the all-star games, and there's just nobody out there. By default, teams are going to have to play small in the future."
Unless a last-minute trade alters its thinking, San Antonio will take Duncan with the No. 1 pick, adding him to a frontcourt of Robinson and forward Sean Elliott. Such high-powered teammates should provide Duncan with instant on-court gratification. However, the Spurs are a small-market franchise in need of a new arena. Like Garnett and Minnesota, Duncan and San Antonio have two years to decide if their union will last a professional lifetime.
As Pat Williams and Allan Bristow, the former coach and vice president of basketball operations for the Charlotte Hornets, will surely tell the folks who draft Duncan, enjoy him while you can. When Bristow made forward Larry Johnson the first pick of the 1991 draft and center Alonzo Mourning the No. 2 pick in '92, he was certain his franchise was set for the decade. But in '95 Mourning determined he would not get his asking price from the Hornets in future contract negotiations and demanded a trade. Even as Charlotte fans voiced displeasure toward team management, Mourning was shipped to the Miami Heat in a six-player swap that brought the Hornets forward Glen Rice. Beginning in December '93, injuries diminished Johnson's effectiveness, and he was traded to the New York Knicks last July for forwards Anthony Mason and Brad Lohaus. "Charlotte did it better than any of us," says Williams. "The Hornets were vilified for trading Mourning, but they got an All-Star, Rice, in return. That's all you can hope for. People ask why we didn't do the same thing with O'Neal. I'm telling you, if we had announced before the 1995-96 season that we had traded Shaq, the city would have gone up in flames."
Charlotte has prospered despite its purges, making the playoffs last season, it's first without both Johnson and Mourning. In February, Bristow, who was fired by the Hornets in April '96, moved to Denver to become vice president of basketball operations of the Nuggets, who have the No. 5 pick next week. His hope, despite past experiences, is to draft a franchise player who will spend his career in Denver. "I'm optimistic," Bristow says. "I have to be. Otherwise, all this stuff we're doing is purposeless."
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