the defense was flimsy, the offense was stagnant and reigning MVP Kevin Garnett was overburdened during a 2-9 streak that dumped the Timberwolves--preseason title contenders--to 19-17 at week's end. They hit bottom with an 87-80 home loss to the Magic on Jan. 12, an anemic showing against the league's worst defense. "I'm going to keep fighting and work and get out of this thing," says Garnett, who was so enervated by a 25-rebound, 19-point performance that he went scoreless in the fourth quarter.
But Garnett admits that many problems are beyond his control, starting with the carping of three star teammates, which got Minnesota off on the wrong foot. While small forward Wally Szczerbiak was making clear that he wanted to start, point guard Sam Cassell and shooting guard Latrell Sprewell were demanding contract extensions. "I felt like those were situations that should have been taken care of in the summer," Garnett says. "Management should have taken care of those situations and not let them [spill over] into the season."
Sprewell thumbed his nose at Minnesota's offer of $21 million for three years while infamously complaining that he had "a family to feed," making him Minnesota's leading candidate to be dealt before the Feb. 24 trade deadline. The alternative is to risk losing a $14.6 million starter this summer with no means to replace him other than the mid-level exception, which is currently valued at $4.9 million. Yet the market for 34-year-old Sprewell is limited now that owner Glen Taylor has ruled out acquiring Heat swingman Eddie Jones. (Would the Pacers want Sprewell--as a one-year replacement for Ron Artest--for Austin Croshere and Jonathan Bender?) KG warns that trading Sprewell might do more harm than good to a team that desperately needs to fight its way back. "Spree's mad because of the business side of the league, but when he touches that floor, he's a demon," says Garnett. "He gives your team a swagger."
Other options would include unloading Szczerbiak or the 35-year-old Cassell. Garnett claimed to have a better idea, which he shared with coach Flip Saunders in a heart-to-heart last week: Bench Szczerbiak and center Michael Olowokandi and return to last year's lineup, which included defenders Trenton Hassell and Ervin Johnson and helped the T-Wolves rank third in field goal percentage defense. (Through Sunday, Minnesota was 13th.) Apparently Saunders was listening because on Friday he inserted Hassell for Szczerbiak and started recent signee John Thomas at center. The T-Wolves won 93-83 at Denver to break a seven-game road losing streak.
It's hard to imagine that Saunders--who has averaged 51 wins over the last five years--won't come up with other answers, especially with Garnett producing a career-high 6.3 assists and 15.1 rebounds through Sunday to go with 23.3 points and 1.6 blocks. "When you're losing, you have to focus a lot more and collectively figure a way to get out of it," says Garnett. "Our talks on the plane, the way we communicate with each other, talking about what we see is wrong and how we need to come out of it--all of that has definitely brought us closer."
On Nets point guard Jason Kidd, who at week's end was averaging 10.9 points and 6.6 assists since returning from left knee surgery:
"I wouldn't want to trade for him right now, because you can tell he doesn't have a lot of faith in his knee. He's still the tough guy who wants to take the big shot and guard the best player, but he's not playing fearlessly and putting himself in predicaments that only he can get out of--splitting the defense, attacking the basket. And when he's not pushing it hard and forcing the help defenders to come stop him so he can hit the open guy, they're not a dangerous team."