The Timberwolves showed Kevin Garnett how much they love him in the last month by giving up salary-cap space for a new backcourt of Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, who will make a combined $18.8 million next season and give Minnesota one of the five highest payrolls in the league. But that $70 million tab—not to mention the $20 million in additional penalties and lost refunds that the T-Wolves may incur for surpassing the $55 million luxury tax—will be worthwhile if it gives Garnett enough confidence in the team's direction that he re-signs as a free agent next summer.
After Minnesota lost for the seventh straight time in the first round of the playoffs, Gannett made it clear to owner Glen Taylor that he wanted an improved supporting cast. Turns out that Taylor and KG were on the same page. "I'm 62, so it's not like I want to wait 15 years to rebuild either," says Taylor. "[G.M.] Kevin McHale believes we're dam close. And I can tell you that Kevin [Garnett] is very excited too."
A big reason for the optimism is that coach Flip Saunders is able to incorporate new players quickly, a talent he developed while managing the ever-changing rosters of the CBA He welcomes the team's emotional makeover. "For the last few years we've been trying to get players who were more aggressive," says Saunders. "We've always overachieved, and because of the way we play and move the ball, we'll continue to do that."
While Sprewell earned notoriety by choking P.J. Carlesimo in 1997, then missed eight games at the start of last season after failing to inform the Knicks that he'd broken his right hand in mysterious circumstances, McHale finds no fault in his behavior on the court. Sprewell should improve Minnesota's defense—at 6'5" he can cover the best shooting guards and small forwards—and joins Cassell, Wally Szczerbiak and new center Michael Olowokandi (who averaged 12.3 points and 9.1 rebounds last season) in providing Garnett with a multitude of passing options when he's double-teamed.
Though improved, the T-Wolves could still lose ground in the Western Conference. Last season they finished fourth before losing to the Lakers in six games, but the Spurs, the Kings and the Mavericks remain hard to pass, and Los Angeles has added Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Minnesota still needs backups at the two, three and four positions, and concerns about Garnett's fellow starters linger. Can Cassell, who turns 34 in November, and Sprewell (33 next month) keep up with the faster pace in the West? Will Olowokandi blossom away from the negativity of the Clippers franchise? And how many shots will be available for Szczerbiak, whose primary value is as a scorer?
The biggest question is how well the strong on-court personalities of Cassell and Sprewell will mesh with Garnett's. "Everybody says you have to acquire the most talent, but they've got it ass-backwards," says McHale. "You can have all the talent, and it doesn't mean anything if you don't play the right way."