ONE FOR THE ROAD?
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor should be euphoric. His frisky
team stretched the heavily favored Sonics to five games in the
opening round of the Western Conference playoffs, even though
Minnesota's best player, forward Tom Gugliotta, was sidelined
with bone spurs in his right ankle. Taylor's coach, the
underrated Flip Saunders, was terrific, deploying a small lineup
that flummoxed Seattle. Taylor's $120 million forward, Kevin
Garnett, came up big, and his point guard, Stephon Marbury, was
at times so dazzling that fans in the Twin Cities are salivating
over the team's future.
So why isn't Taylor smiling? Because he now must make some of
the most critical decisions in the nine-year history of the
team. Gugliotta, 28, will become a free agent on July 1; he
wants at least $12 million a year to re-sign. Marbury, 21, has
one season left on his deal but can negotiate an extension this
summer; he told SI in January that he believes he's worth
Garnett money, around $20 million a year.
So should Taylor sign the proven scorer and consummate pro
(Gugliotta) at the risk of losing the player with the bigger
future (Marbury)? Or should he let Googs walk and focus on
keeping his playmaker, who would be far more difficult to
replace? "I'd like to retain both," Taylor says. "What I'm
hoping is they will see we have something worth building on, and
endorsements and other positives will make it worth it to them
to sacrifice some money for a winning team."
Don't count on it. The posturing has already begun. Gugliotta's
agent, Richard Howell, says his client will test the free-agent
market, and the Timberwolves will be merely "a candidate" to
sign him. Marbury's agent, Eric Fleisher, says his client is
amenable to signing an extension "if there is an agreement that
makes sense for both parties." But Marbury's early-season
comments about abhorring Minnesota weather and preferring to
play in a bigger market still ring in management's ears. Taylor
says he has no pecking order for the negotiations, but he adds,
"In a sense, Tommy is a priority, because he's up now. We'll be
a little more cautious with Stephon."
Though Marbury has only scratched the surface of his potential,
his one-on-one tendencies have frustrated his teammates and
coaches. Then there is Fleisher, who handled Garnett's long and
acrimonious negotiations last summer. Minnesota vice president
of basketball operations Kevin McHale vowed never to sit across
the table from Fleisher again. Indeed, McHale will give way to
Taylor's attorneys in the Marbury contract talks this summer,
which will take place later rather than sooner.
"Last year Eric told us, 'Let's do it early,'" Taylor says. "So
we came out with an offer, then watched the whole summer go by
without any solution. We were left pretty vulnerable. So maybe
we need to sit back and see how it goes for someone like [free
agent] Damon Stoudamire, who has more experience. We set the
market with Kevin Garnett. I don't think the Timberwolves want
to do that again."
That strategy will not sit well with Marbury, who believes that
he--not Garnett--is the team's best bet in crunch time.
Minnesota has no intention of paying Marbury $120 million, even
though he has hinted that he should be overcompensated to stay
in a city he doesn't like. Taylor warns that Marbury's
complaints should not be taken too seriously: "I've been with
Stephon when he says, 'Gosh it's cold,' and then two days later,
after a big win, he's saying, 'Wow, this is great.' He's young.
For instance, he says he wants to play in New York, but the
Knicks are so far over the cap, they never could afford him. He
might find there are only about three teams that can pay him."
If Marbury doesn't sign with the Timberwolves this summer, it's
likely that Minnesota will ship him elsewhere. According to
sources, the T-wolves have already explored possible trades and
have informed Marbury that he can forget about being moved to
New York. "Minnesota will not be held hostage by Fleisher
again," a Western Conference source says. "They'll deal Stephon
before that happens."
Taylor has no regrets about making Garnett the centerpiece of
his team. "Kevin is a person you can build a franchise around,"
he says, "not just because of his skills but also because of his
leadership and character." The unspoken message here: Garnett
was a reliable investment; Marbury isn't.
Deal with Derrick
WILL THE 76ERS KEEP COLEMAN?
You run the 76ers. You saw immensely talented yet perpetually
underachieving power forward Derrick Coleman resurrect his
career this season. He averaged 17.6 points and 9.9 rebounds,
but, more important, sat out only 23 games after missing an
average of 40 the previous three seasons. In March, your coach,
Larry Brown, declared that the 30-year-old Coleman was his kind
Here's your dilemma: Coleman is to make $13 million next season.
You'd like to keep him but not at that price. You have an option
to buy him out for $5.6 million, which will be counted against
your salary cap. But if you buy him out and renounce his rights,
you're likely to lose him. (You can't negotiate with him until
late December; any other team can sign him right away.) Your
other choice is to buy him out and not renounce--and try to
strike a new deal. Until that deal is struck, however, he's
counted on your books at a whopping $17.6 million: 150% of his
1997-98 salary, which was slightly more than $8 million, plus
the $5.6 million buyout.
So here's a guess at what Philadelphia vice president of
basketball operations Billy King will do: Buy out Coleman by
July 1, not renounce him and then try to re-sign him for, say,
$5 million, so the Sixers can keep him at a cap cost of $10.6
million. Don't expect this, however, if the Sixers get lucky at
the May 17 draft lottery and get a pick high enough to make
Coleman expendable. "We'll know more after the lottery," says
King, who's hoping for a choice in the top three.
AROUND THE RIM
Sources say the Kings are close to signing 6'9" forward Predrag
Stojakovic, 20, whose contract with PAOK in Greece expires on
May 24. Vice president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie was
overseas again last week tracking Sacramento's No. 1 pick in
1996, who totes a Kings gym bag wherever he goes and is
considered the best prospect in Europe....
Wizards forward Chris Webber says that his relationship with
teammate Juwan Howard has suffered in the wake of a sexual
assault complaint lodged against the two players following a
party at Howard's home in April, but sources say the two former
Fab Fivers have drifted apart since Michigan....
The Nets would love to bring Sherman Douglas back as their
backup point guard next season, but unless the NBA collective
bargaining rules change, they can offer him only the minimum....
Rockets center Charles Jones, at 41 the NBA's oldest player, has
decided to hang it up. That makes 40-year-old Knicks center Herb
Williams the league's senior citizen, although he does not have
a contract for next season. Houston guard Eddie Johnson, 39, is
also expected to call it quits....
This week's sign that the Apocalypse is not upon us: Yugoslavian
forward Milan Gurovic demanded that Peristeri, his team in
Greece, renegotiate his contract. Just because Gurovic dared to
be so uppity, Peristeri has refused to pay him for eight months,
until January 1999.
For more NBA news from Jackie MacMullan and Phil Taylor, go to
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH POINT BREAK If Marbury fails to sign an extension, his future in Minnesota will be up in the air. [Stephon Marbury in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH LET'S MAKE A DEAL The 76ers want to hold on to Coleman (right), but not at $17.6 million. [Derrick Coleman and opponent in game]