8 Minnesota Timberwolves A Tale of Twin Cities: tragedy, reunion and a hopeful newcomer with very large shoes to fill

October 30, 2000

Back in April 1995, Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups stood in
the St. Louis airport awaiting their flights home after the
McDonald's High School All American Game. While preparing to
board the plane, they discussed their plans for after graduation.
"We talked about going to the same college, playing together,"
says Billups. "There was a certain bond we had." It wasn't to be,
though. Billups committed to Colorado; Garnett went straight to
the NBA.

In the five years since, their careers have followed drastically
different paths. Garnett has become a mainstay in Minnesota,
putting himself on the Next Jordan shortlist while turning the
Timberwolves into a perennial playoff team. Billups has been
vastly more peripatetic: After two years in Boulder he has played
for four NBA teams in three seasons. While choosing his fifth
team as a free agent this summer, he thought about the
conversation he and Garnett had in St. Louis. The two of them
also had a few fresh talks in which Da Kid told Billups what he
could expect in Minnesota. "He kept it real," says Billups. "He
said, 'Of course I want you to be here. But what's good for me
might not be good for everybody.'"

When Billups met with the T-Wolves, he immediately felt something
he hadn't felt in years: wanted. He signed a three-year deal,
which, in the first season, is worth just $2.25 million. It's
less money than he could have gotten elsewhere--say, in Utah or
Orlando--but he feels as if he's finally found an NBA home.

The reunion of Billups and Garnett doesn't come under the
happiest of circumstances, though. Billups replaces shooting
guard Malik Sealy, whose death in a car accident in May left a
gaping hole in the Timberwolves' organization. Sealy was a quiet,
steadying presence off the court; the team has covered his old
locker with Plexiglas, and most players touch it on their way
onto the floor. The third choice in the 1997 draft, Billups is
more of a three-point threat than Sealy, and his ability to
handle the ball should make life easier for point guard Terrell
Brandon.

Billups, however, is just 6'3"; Sealy was 6'8". "[Malik's]
defensive presence with his size is going to be sorely missed,"
says 6'7" Wally Szczerbiak, who expects to spend more time at the
two than he did last year. As a rookie playing mostly small
forward, Szczerbiak shot the ball exceptionally well, but he
says, "I'm hoping the coaches will lighten up the reins."

At coach Flip Saunders's urging, Szczerbiak has worked on his
left-handed dribble and his three-point shooting, though surgery
to realign his right kneecap in July slowed him a bit in training
camp. As for being matched up against quicker guards, Szczerbiak
doesn't foresee a problem. "I think I play very good position
defense, where I'm not going to overly pressure those guys and
just let them dribble around me," he says. "I'm going to make
them earn everything they get by shooting over me."

Szczerbiak, though, may find himself back at the three if
Minnesota loses Joe Smith. On Monday an arbitrator ruled that
commissioner David Stern has the authority to void Smith's
current deal (one year, $2.4 million ) because Smith signed an
undisclosed agreement with Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. The
agreement, which was in violation of league salary-cap rules,
reportedly started in 2001-02 and paid the 25-year-old forward
$40.6 million to $86.6 million over seven seasons. By voiding
Smith's current contract, Stern would make Smith a free agent.

With or without Smith, the T-Wolves will lean heavily, of course,
on Garnett, who by improving his passing became just the second
player in the last 15 years to average 20 points, 10 boards and
five assists in a season. (Charles Barkley, in 1992-93, was the
other.) But without Sealy's leadership Garnett will have to curb
some of his trademark enthusiasm. "Kevin is a big-time leader,
although his head is sometimes here, there and everywhere because
he gets so emotional," says Szczerbiak. "Malik was really good at
calming him down."

Garnett won't be the only one struggling to make up for Sealy's
absence. Says Billups, "This town lost a great player and a great
person for the community. But as sad as that is, I feel that they
are gaining one also."

--Mark Bechtel

COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER/NBA ENTERTAINMENT HEAD GAME With the huge emotional loss of Sealy, Garnett has to work hard to keep his team, and himself, in control.

In Fact

The Timberwolves led the NBA with 26.9 assists per game last
season. Terrell Brandon (8.9) and Kevin Garnett (5.0) also
formed the league's best one-two punch.

Projected Lineup

STARTERS 1999-2000 KEY STATS
PVR*

SF Kevin Garnett 22.9 ppg 11.8 rpg 5.0 apg 1.56 bpg 1.48 spg
2

PF Joe Smith 9.9 ppg 6.2 rpg 1.09 bpg 46.4 FG% 75.6 FT%
105

C Radoslav Nesterovic 5.7 ppg 4.6 rpg 1.04 bpg 47.6 FG% 57.3 FT%
168

SG Chauncey Billups[1] 8.6 ppg 3.0 apg 2.6 rpg 33.7 FG% 17.1 3FG%
128

PG Terrell Brandon 17.1 ppg 8.9 apg 3.4 rpg 1.89 spg 40.2 3FG%
32

BENCH 1999-2000 KEY STATS
PVR*

F Wally Szczerbiak 11.6 ppg 3.70 rpg 2.8 apg 51.1 FG% 3FG% 35.9 3FG%
113

G Anthony Peeler 9.8 ppg 2.8 rpg 2.4 apg 43.6 FG% 33.3 3FG%
180

F LaPhonso Ellis[1] 8.4 ppg 5.0 rpg 1.0 apg 45.0 FG% 69.5 FT%
216

F Sam Mitchell 6.5 ppg 2.1 rpg 1.7 apg 44.7 FG% 88.0 FT%
242

G William Avery 2.6 ppg 1.5 apg 30.9 FG% 28.6 3FG% 66.7 FT%
269

[1]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 113)

THE BOOK
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Timberwolves

"They're one of the tougher teams to prepare for because Flip
Saunders doesn't settle for running the same offensive sets as
everybody else. In a playoff series you can prepare for them, but
in one regular-season game they can give you headaches.... Kevin
Garnett is hard to contain on the offensive boards because you
never know where he's coming from. Most guys his size only go to
certain areas of the floor, but he can come knifing from the
corner to the top of the key and anywhere in between.... I like
Terrell Brandon a lot. He's a very good pull-up jump shooter,
makes good choices on the pick-and-roll and mixes it up well
between setting other guys up and looking for his own shot....
Wally Szczerbiak is a smart player for someone so young. He uses
good ball fakes to free himself up for shots, and he's got a
really quick release.... They don't stretch a defense very well
because, unless Garnett is posted up, there's no one you have to
double-team."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)