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5 Minnesota Timberwolves The re-signing of Terrell Brandon and Joe Smith brings stability and depth

Joe Smith had been playing power forward for the Timberwolves for
less than a month last season when he told VP of basketball
operations Kevin McHale that he wanted to re-sign with the team,
even though it would mean accepting far less than he could make
on the free-agent market. While McHale thought Smith was being
sincere and he appreciated the sentiment, he had reason to doubt
that Smith would follow through.

After all, forward Tom Gugliotta had repeatedly told McHale that
he wanted to stay in Minnesota before signing with the Suns
after the 1997-98 season. And McHale had occasionally heard
encouraging words from point guard Stephon Marbury until Marbury
demanded--and got--a trade to the Nets last March. Having
watched the departure of the two stars he hoped to blend with
forward Kevin Garnett into a title contender, McHale was so
disheartened that he contemplated leaving the business. He ended
up staying, but with a heightened sense of skepticism.

Then a funny thing happened: Smith remained true to his word. He
turned down deals with at least three teams, including the
Bulls, any of which would have paid him at least $5 million, and
instead took Minnesota's one-year, $2.2 million offer. He wasn't
the only one to re-sign, either. Point guard Terrell Brandon,
acquired in the three-way deal that sent Marbury to New Jersey,
stayed with the T-wolves for $58.3 million over six years after
what proved to be smooth negotiations for a change. Suddenly
Minnesota was no longer the rejected franchise but the
rejuvenated one. "No question there's a difference," says Flip
Saunders, the most underrated coach in the league. "We had a
great training camp. When you have guys who want to be here,
they're bound to be more effective."

Although Smith's preseason playing time was limited because he
was recovering from a broken left foot--his cast was removed in
early October, and he should be ready to play when Minnesota
opens the season with a pair of games against Sacramento in
Tokyo--he did attend two-a-days to work on his conditioning. The
No. 1 pick in the 1995 draft, Smith put together two tantalizing
years with the Warriors (16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds a game)
before a spotty start in the '97-98 season earned him a ticket to
Philadelphia. He cites the uncertainty in Golden State as the
main reason for his drop-off. "I played with 20 different guys
there," the 24-year-old Smith says. "I had two coaches in two
years. Things were always changing. I wanted to find a place with
stability where I could fit in."

That place proved to be Minnesota, where Smith helped fill the
void left by Gugliotta. It wasn't quite so easy for Brandon, who
joined a team that was still in shock over the departure of
Marbury. Both Brandon and the Timberwolves remained wary of each
other until season's end. He wasn't ready to commit to them
without testing the market first. They weren't ready to commit to
him until they knew he wanted to run the team, and they
understood the nature of the injuries he had suffered over the
last two seasons that had caused him to miss 43 games.

When the Timberwolves landed Duke point guard William Avery with
the 14th pick in the draft, they felt they had enough depth at
the position to avoid putting too much of the load on Brandon.
"The concern we had all along was not wanting to rely on Terrell
to play 40 minutes a night, because we felt that's when he breaks
down," says Saunders. In training camp Brandon's teammates
encountered a playmaker who was far more relaxed and confident
than he had been last season. "Terrell has been a lot more
offensive-minded," Saunders says. "He just may be the best point
guard in the league in terms of hitting the 18-to-20-footer. He's
reminded me a lot of when he was an All-Star in Cleveland."

While the addition of Avery helped the T-wolves to commit to
Brandon for the long haul, the rookie will have to beat out
third-year guard Bobby Jackson for playing time. Minnesota is
expecting more immediate returns from another rookie, Wally
Szczerbiak, the No. 6 pick, whose three-point range is a welcome
addition to a club that struggled on the perimeter last season.
Szczerbiak and Anthony Peeler give Minnesota depth at shooting
guard, while center Radoslav Nesterovic, the 7-footer who joined
Minnesota from Virtus Kinder Bologna in the Italian League in
time for the postseason, provides Saunders with options in the
middle. "Of all our guys, he's the one who, every day, continues
to get better," Saunders says of Nesterovic. "He's got great
hands, and he's added 20 pounds [up to 263]. He just needs NBA

How far the Timberwolves can go is ultimately up to Garnett, who
has already let his teammates know that merely qualifying for the
playoffs will not be sufficient. Saunders has used Garnett at
every position on the floor except point guard, and the coach
will continue to move him around. But for Garnett to be
successful, Brandon and Szczerbiak must knock down jumpers to
keep defenses honest, and Smith must take over most of the heavy
work on the boards.

Smith knows Minnesota will be counting on a number of young
players to do a number of big things, but he likes the team's
mix. "When I came here, it was my third team in two years," said
Smith. "I didn't want it to be my third team going on my fourth.
I want to show everybody out there I deserved to be a Number 1
pick. I love this team. We have guys who want to be here and want
to go to war together. We don't have to ask anymore, 'Are you
with us or not?'" --J.M.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK NOT ON MY WATCH Smith has shown that Garnett is not the only T-wolf who's big on rejection.


STARTING FIVE [3 1/2 stars]
BENCH [2 1/2 stars]
COACH [4 stars]
FRONT OFFICE [4 1/2 stars]
CHEMISTRY [3 1/2 stars]

By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 25-25 (tied for eighth in Western Conference)
Coach: Flip Saunders (fifth season with Timberwolves)

AVERAGES (rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)

TIMBERWOLVES 92.9 (11) 42.5 (23) 42.9 (9) 12.8 (1)
OPPONENTS 92.6 (16) 43.9 (16) 43.1 (24) 16.7 (4)

In Fact

The Timberwolves' road to .500: Their 18-7 record at the Target
Center was tied for seventh-best among home records in the NBA
last season, but their mirror-image road mark of 7-18 was tied
for eighth-worst.

Projected Lineup


SF Kevin Garnett 3 20.8 ppg 10.4 rpg 4.3 apg 46.0 FG%
Double-figure scoring streak is 129 games (second among active

PF Joe Smith 56 13.7 ppg 8.2 rpg 1.6 apg 42.7 FG%
Scored just 7.5 points per game on 29.7% shooting in '98-99

C Radoslav Nesterovic 211 4.0 ppg 4.0 rpg 0.5 apg 25.0 FG%
Had 13.5 ppg on 65.2 FG% in Italy before only two NBA
regular-season games

SG Wally Szczerbiak[#](R) 97 24.2 ppg 8.5 rpg 2.9 apg 52.2 FG%
Averaged 30.0 points to lead all scorers in '99 NCAA tournament

PG Terrell Brandon 62 13.9 ppg 3.7 rpg 8.6 apg 41.8 FG%
Led league in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.18 to 1) and was fifth
in assists


G Anthony Peeler 176 9.6 ppg 3.0 rpg 2.8 apg 37.9 FG%
Career lows in FG% and scoring; second worst year in 3FG% (29.8)

G Bobby Jackson 220 7.1 ppg 2.7 rpg 3.3 apg 40.5 FG%
Average minutes dropped from 30.0 as Nuggets rookie to 18.8 last

F Sam Mitchell 230 11.2 ppg 3.6 rpg 2.0 apg 40.8 FG%
Days as team's alltime leading rebounder numbered: Garnett is
293 behind

C Dean Garrett 252 5.5 ppg 5.2 rpg 0.6 apg 50.2 FG%
Consecutive-games streak snapped at 175 by coach's decision on
April 28

G William Avery[#](R) 265 14.9 ppg 3.5 rpg 5.0 apg 48.3 FG%
No. 14 selection was last of four Duke players drafted in first

[#]New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 102)