Wolves What-If: The Joe Smith Debacle


A week ago, Nolan Schmidt wrote a piece here at DWW about some Timberwolves-related “what-ifs.” It’s always interesting to go back and look at how different this franchise could be if a small decision was made differently, so that piece had me thinking about some other things the Timberwolves could have done in other ways. The biggest “what-if” I came up with was this: what if the Joe Smith debacle had never happened?

After the NBA lockout ended in January 1999, Joe Smith became a free agent. His career started with the Warriors after being selected with the number-one overall pick in the 1995 draft, so even though he hadn’t been a star through his first few years in the league, many teams still saw plenty of promise in him.

Smith had turned down an $80 million extension with the Warriors in 1998, so it was a little strange when he signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal with the Wolves following the lockout, especially considering that a number of teams were interested in him.

As it turns out, the Wolves had a secret deal in place, where Smith would sign three one-year contracts to allow the Wolves to obtain his Bird rights. After the Wolves had those rights, they would be allowed to go over the salary cap to retain Smith, which would then allow them to lavish a much larger, $86 million deal on him. This would make it worth it for the Wolves, who had much greater short-term flexibility due to Smith’s smaller contracts, and also for Smith, who would eventually get the huge payday he was looking for.

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However, entering Year Three of that plan, the cover was blown as the NBA conducted an investigation and severely punished the Wolves. They were fined $3.5 million (a lot of money, but not a big deal for the franchise), Glen Taylor and Kevin McHale were suspended until the following summer (also not that big of a deal), and Smith’s previous contracts were voided (kind of a big deal, as the Wolves would no longer get his bird rights after the year).

Oh yeah, and the Wolves lost their next five (5!) first-round draft picks. All for the opportunity to hand Joe Smith a giant contract that was sure to be an overpay.

The 2003 first-rounder was eventually given back to the Wolves, but it was used on Ndudi Ebi, so the Wolves still basically lost five first-round picks. From 2000-2004, as Kevin Garnett was becoming one of the best players on the planet and taking the Wolves deep into the playoffs, the Wolves were unable to provide him with the cheap, young talent from the draft every great team needs.

If the Wolves still had their draft picks in those years, they could have drafted Tony Parker, Samuel Dalembert, Gerald Wallace, or John Salmons before KG’s MVP season in 2003-2004. Parker likely wouldn’t have turned into the player he is today without Gregg Popovich’s tutelage, but it would have been much better to have him backing up Sam Cassell than Troy Hudson. Ditto if the Wolves had Dalembert as a defensive wall at center rather than starting the immortal Michael Olowokandi.

The Wolves wouldn’t have even had to use those first-round picks for them to be valuable. They could have packaged one or two in a trade for immediate veteran help. Looking at the roster for that ’03-’04 team, it’s incredible that the Wolves were able to take a loaded Lakers team to six games in the Western Conference Finals. Just think about what could have been if there had been one more competent player around KG.

And then think about this: that player wasn’t there because of Joe Smith.

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