Crime in the sports world has ceased to shock. Punishment, on the other hand, can still surprise us, at least when the discipline is as severe as the blow administered to the Timber-wolves for their artless attempt to circumvent the NBA salary cap. To entice forward Joe Smith to sign as a free agent for below market value in January 1999—a time when Minnesota had little room under the cap—the T-Wolves made an illicit side arrangement that would reward Smith with a reported seven-year, $86 million contract beginning next year. On Oct. 23 an arbitrator ruled the deal violated the cap. Two days later commissioner David Stern fined Minnesota $3.5 million and stripped it of its first-round draft choices until 2006, the harshest penalty in league history.
Stern is still considering disciplining team owner Glen Taylor and vice president Kevin McHale, and he has asked the NBA Players Association to decertify Smith's former agent, Eric Fleisher. Stern also voided Smith's Larry Bird rights, which allow a player who has spent three seasons with a team to re-sign with that team for any amount Smith has appealed. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 2.
While the NBA's dirty little secret is that arrangements like the Smith deal are far from uncommon, in Smith's case the Timberwolves put the deal in writing, which turned the affair, says Stern, into "a fraud of major proportions." Stern's message is clear: Don't mess with the cap.
Why did the T-Wolves leave the paper trail? League sources indicate that Taylor's heart problems—he had a triple bypass in 1999—were among the "unusual circumstances" he says led to the deal. Whether Taylor wanted to make sure his promises were kept in case he was incapacitated or whether Fleisher wanted to make sure a future owner couldn't wriggle out of an oral agreement isn't clear. Either scenario would have caused one side to push for something more ironclad than a handshake.
Taylor has admitted his involvement and apologized, and he seems certain to be suspended. The role of McHale is murkier. He has denied knowledge of the deal all along. It does seem odd that McHale, who has a longstanding antipathy toward agents, would become a coconspirator with one—particularly Fleisher, with whom he had acrimonious negotiations over Kevin Garnett's six-year, $126 million contract.
While Stern declared Smith an immediate free agent, the good news for Minnesota is that despite the penalties, Garnett, its biggest star, seems willing to ride out the storm. "I am a loyal cat," says Garnett. "I don't just jump ship when stuff gets bad."
That loyalty could be rewarded, because the loss of the draft choices doesn't necessarily doom the T-Wolves. The Heat and the Knicks, two of the leading contenders for Smith's services, have contended for at least five years without much help from the draft They've restocked their rosters with savvy trades and free-agent deals. To duplicate that success, Minnesota will need a creative, aggressive front office. The Timberwolves' brain trust has shown those qualities—just in all the wrong ways.