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Cursed Timberwolves continue to monkey around

Bruce Strand on December 28, 2015 - 6:19 pm in Reflections & Columns

Written in 2003

By Bruce Strand

Following the tribulations of the luckless Minnesota Timberwolves over the years, one wonders if we are watching a basketball team or the latest production of that old play “The Monkey’s Paw.” The Wolves are so cursed that even when something good happens it always backfires for them in the end.

For most of their first decade they were the worst team in the NBA, but, unlike cellar-dwellers in other pro leagues, they never got to draft the best college player. That’s because in the 1980’s the Houston Rockets were suspected of tanking games so they could draft Hakeem Olajuwon, so the NBA switched to a ping-pong lottery for the worst eight teams. Minnesota had to pay the steepest price for Houston’s perceived misdeeds as the Wolves have never had much luck in that lottery. The highest they’ve ever drafted was third, and of course that was the year there were only two can’t-miss guys, Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning. The Wolves kept floundering for years with mediocre No. 1’s like Pooh Richardson, Felton Spencer and Luc Longley.

Over time the Wolves did manage to collect some talented players but most turned out to be blue-chippers only from the neck down. How good could the Timberwolves have been, one wonders, with a starting five of Kevin Garnett, Tom Gugliotta, Stephan Marbury, Isaiah Rider and Christian Laettner if all of them had been grownups? Unfortunately for the Wolves, only Garnett, just 18 when he was drafted, had a head on his shoulders. Gugliotta and Marbury forced trades because they were jealous of Garnett. Rider was an incorrigible two-year-old, could not follow rules and had to be traded. Laettner, too fragile to endure a couple years of losing before things got better, sulked his way to a trade, too.

The club’s own bad judgement produced another disaster in 200 when the made under-the-table payments to sign a good but not outstanding player, Joe Smith. It’s a maneuver rumored to be commonplace among NBA tams but of course the Wolves were the ones who got caught, by leaving a paper trail, and the incensed commissioner fleeced them of three No. 1 picks.

In “The Monkey’s Paw,” a man and wife find what seems to be a good-luck charm, but when their wish is granted, it comes with a gruesome price. The Wolves must have stumbled unto that monkey’s paw somewhere.

In 1995, they had the No. 6 pick, after another lousy draw from the barrel of ping-pong balls, but used it to take a high school kid named Garnett, who quickly blossomed into an NBA superstar. The Wolves, starting in their ninth year, began to qualify for playoffs.

Unfortunately for the Wolves, Garnett’s contract renewal after two seasons came at an optimum time for a player, and the then-20-year-old was able to demand and receive $21 million per year for six years. The stunned league changed the rules after that to curtail superstar salaries but it was too late for the Wolves.

So the Wolves’ greatest asset, Garnett, is also the reason they can’t improve beyond a team that loses n the first round of the playoffs every year, because they can’t fit another big star under the salary cap. Bill Russell had Bob Cousy, Larry Bird had Kevin McHale, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal has Kobe Bryant, and Garnett has … Wally Szczerbiak. That’s why K.G. will always have plenty of free time in May to spend his money on the golf course.

The Timberwolves should have thrown that monkey’s paw into a landfill, but apparently they still have it.

This year, they finally earned home-court advantage in the playoffs, overcoming key injuries to win a club-record 51 games and finish fourth in the Western Conference, riding a magnificent season-long effort by Garnett, and had high hopes of reaching the second round for the first time. But of course, we’re talking about the Timberwolves here, so this would be the year the Los Angeles Lakers dilly-dallied to an 11-19 start before getting serious, and as a result wound up the No. 5 seed, facing the Wolves.

Only our Woofies could have luck like that: their “home-court advantage” morphing into a date with the three-time defending NBA champions who slaughtered them in two of the three games at the Target Center on the way to their 4-2 series conquest.

Maybe now that the season is over and the Wolves are cleaning out their desks they should locate that monkey’s paw and ship it off to, oh, let’s say Jerry Buss in Los Angeles or George Steinbrenner in New York, or better yet, to that football team in Green Bay.

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