Minnesota Timberwolves: What If Joe Smith Didn’t Sign An Illegal Contract?

What If….The Minnesota Timberwolves never signed Joe Smith to a contract under the table?

In the spirit of Sport’s Illustrated’s What If series, Dunking With Wolves will launch our own What If articles, Timberwolves style. Today we start with a dark time in Minnesota Timberwolves’ history.

Imagine a world where Minnesota Timberwolves’ owner Glen Taylor did not make an illegal agreement with then free-agent Joe Smith. Say the Timberwolves weren’t fined $3.5 million and were allowed to keep four of their next five first-round draft picks.

Joe Smith was a free agent going into the 1998-99 season. After being drafted number one overall by the Golden State Warriors in the 1995 draft, Smith had turned down an $80 million extension with the Warriors before they subsequently traded him.

He was a wanted man in free agency before the lockout-shortened season of 1999. That made it very peculiar when he signed a one-year $1.75 million deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The following season he signed another one-year deal with the Wolves, this time for $2.1 million.

Finally, Smith signed yet another one-year deal with the Timberwolves in the summer of 2000 for $2.5 million.

However, Smith’s final contract with the Timberwolves would end up being voided by the commissioner after he found out what was going on.

The under the table deal came to light when Smith’s two agents ended their working relationship and went their own separate ways. This resulted in a lawsuit, and eventually a league investigation.

The league found that the Timberwolves were guilty of making an under the table deal with Smith. The illegal agreement stated if Smith were to sign three one-year deals, Minnesota would sign him to an extension up to $86 million once they retained his bird rights at the end of the third deal.

Unless the Timberwolves made this arrangement with Smith, they would have been unable to sign him to a market level deal because it would have put them over the salary cap. By agreeing to this deal they would have retained his bird rights, then allowing them to go over the cap to sign him.

The league came down hard on the Timberwolves. They fined the already cap-strapped team $3.5 million and suspended Taylor and Vice President Kevin McHale.

If that wasn’t enough, David Stern forced the Timberwolves to forfeit their next five first-round draft picks. Although, the Wolves would eventually get their 2003 selection back.

For a team that already had no cap space to work with, the punishments handed out by the NBA was effectively a death sentence. It gave the Timberwolves no flexibility to improve their roster moving forward.

What if the Timberwolves would have never agreed to an illegal contract with Joe Smith, a player, who in every measurement of basketball, was average during his time in Minnesota?

While Smith was playing in Minnesota for those two seasons on illegal deals he was far from a difference maker. He never showed the same ability he did during his first two years in the NBA with the Warriors.

He didn’t put up spectacular numbers with the Timberwolves. Smith’s PERs of 16.6 and 14.4 respectively, hover right around the average NBA player of 15.0. I’m sure Smith’s play resulted in owner Glen Taylor regretting his under the table signings.

What if the Timberwolves would have retained their draft picks, giving them the ability to support superstar Kevin Garnett?

The Timberwolves made the playoffs three of the four years they lost their first round picks. Even though their picks those years would have been in the twenties, there would have been plenty of opportunities to add good, quality, cheap depth to the team.

In the end, the Timberwolves gambled on a player who turned out to be nothing but average. In turn, it cost them a chance at an NBA Championship with what appears to be their best roster in franchise history. Thus, it effectively led to Kevin Garnett’s departure from the team and agony for Wolves’ fans ever since.