|Posted by shawn cassidy on August 9, 2011 at 3:45 AM|
Kevin’s rookie season was a learning experience that began in training camp. Two-a-day practices under coach Bill Blair were much more taxing than anything he had ever encountered. According to McHale’s plan, Blair wasn’t going to rush Kevin along. He used the rookie off the bench to spell forwards Christian Laettner and Tom Gugliotta.
The first half of Kevin’s rookie season was more tumultuous than McHale wanted it to be. With the team performing far under expectations, he fired Blair and replaced him with Phil "Flip" Saunders. A college teammate of McHale’s and a two-time CBA Coach of the Year, Saunders injected new life into the T-Wolves. In Laettner’s mind, however, Saunders directed a little too much attention Kevin’s way. When the former Duke star popped off to the press, he forced McHale’s hand. Laettner was traded away in the second half.
Laettner’s departure created an opportunity for Kevin. He had been scoring six points and pulling down four rebounds a game. After the All-Star break, Saunders started using him more and Kevin responded. Over one 10-game stretch, he averaged nearly a double-double while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor. By year’s end, Kevin had boosted his season averages to 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds, good enough to earn him a spot on the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. Though the T-Wolves finished 26-56, the year was considered a success. Their record was the second-best in team history, and Kevin was already exhibiting the earmarks of a young NBA superstar.
In the 1996 draft, McHale hoped to find a complimentary player for Kevin. Marbury, who had just completed a remarkable freshman season at Georgia Tech, was an interesting option. His explosiveness off the dribble was startling, and his range from the outside was excellent. Kevin lobbied hard for Minnesota to take his phone pal. On draft day, McHale arranged a deal with Milwaukee which made Ray Allen a Buck and Marbury a T-Wolf.
The 1996-97 season was a revelation for Minnesota fans. The team improved by 14 games, going 40-42 and making the playoffs for the first time. Gugliotta topped the squad in scoring and rebounding, Doug West provided valuable leadership, but Kevin and Marbury were the big stories. The chemistry between the two energized the franchise.
Kevin, still several months shy of his 21st birthday, served notice that he was ready to assume a leadership role in training camp. He chewed out center Stojko Vrankovic for banking in a layup instead of throwing down a dunk, letting his teammates know it was time to start asserting themselves. Kevin also led by example. Through the first three months, he was doing it all, averaging nearly 15 points, nine rebounds, three assists, and three blocks. Though slowed in December by a sprained ankle, he was named to the Western Conference’s All-Star squad. He was the youngest to play in the contest since his idol, Magic Johnson, in 1980.
Kevin and Marbury were also making headlines as a duo. Their inside-outside presence drew comparisons to Utah’s Kevin Malone and John Stockton. As Minnesota prepared for its opening-round playoff match-up against the Houston Rockets, people wondered whether the young pair could engineer an upset. But the T-Wolves crashed back to earth, as Charles Barkley and company swept them in three games. Afterwards, the veteran pulled Kevin aside and told him to keep his head up.
Despite the first-round exit, the ’96-97 campaign was a major step for Kevin. He thrived under his increased workload, raising his production in every statistical category. Kevin was clearly the special franchise player Minnesota needed.
The question was whether the franchise was willing to pay for him. NBA rules allowed Kevin to request a contract extension, but he shocked the basketball world by turning down a six-year deal at $102 million.
Kevin maintained it was smart business. As a free agent, big-market teams like the Lakers and Knicks would wave even more lucrative, multi-faceted deals at him. McHale ultimately agreed and inked Kevin for $18 million more than his original offer. The $120 million was more than the estimated value of T-Wolves, marking the first time am athlete in a major sport was owed more by his team than the team was worth.
Overnight, the pressure on the third-year star intensified. Vilified as a poster boy for greed and selfishness, Kevin was now expected to win and win big. McHale, a member of the great Celtic teams of the 1980s, knew it wasn’t that simple: a star needs complimentary players and a deep supporting cast. He surrounded Kevin and Stephon with veteran role players, including newcomers Tom Hammonds and Terry Porter. They meshed with returnees Chris Carr, Sam Mitchell and Tom Gugliotta to form a solid nucleus.
After an up-and-down start, the T-Wolves won 14 of 16 to put them on track for a return to the postseason. Gugliotta was elevating his game to star status, giving the T-Wolves their coveted third go-to guy, and the team was getting solid contributions from reserve centers Stanley Roberts and Cherokee Parks. In January, Kevin led the Timberwolves to a franchise-record seven victories in a row. He notched his first career triple-double against the Denver Nuggets, going for 18 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. Kevin also became the first player in franchise history to start in the All-Star Game.
Behind Kevin, the T-Wolves continued to surge in the second half, despite a season-ending knee injury to Gugliotta. McHale traded for Anthony Peeler, who replaced some of the lost scoring punch, and Minnesota ended the regular season at 45-37. At 18 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 4.2 apg, Kevin was the primary reason for the franchise’s first winning campaign. He broke the team’s single-season records for rebounds (786), point/rebound double-doubles (45) and minutes played (3,222).
The next challenge was a postseason duel with the Seattle Supersonics. Earlier in the year, the T-Wolves had snapped a 26-game losing streak to the Sonics on the strength of eight three-pointers by Marbury. But the franchise’s overall record versus Seattle was a dismal 4-32. Minnesota reversed history by winning two of the first three games. Then Gary Payton caught fire, and the Sonics escaped in the best-of-five series.
Kevin had a long time to think about Minnesota’s collapse. A lockout by the NBA owners—triggered in no small part by the enormity of Kevin's contract—suspended the start of the following season until January 1999.When the dispute was finally settled, the T-Wolves featured a different look. Gugliotta left for Phoenix via free agency, and McHale replaced him with Joe Smith, one of the four players chosen before Kevin in the 1995 draft.
More changes would come. Most notable was the trade of Marbury, who had grown increasingly unhappy playing in the shadow of Kevin’s contract. It was a three-way deal with the New Jersey Nets and Milwaukee. in which Minnesota received two draft choices and point guard Terrell Brandon, a skilled playmaker who, like Marbury, could score from the perimeter.
The season’s late start and short schedule prevented the T-Wolves revolving-door roster from meshing as McHale had envisioned. The team split its 50 games and was ousted in the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs, the eventual NBA champs.
For his part, Kevin enjoyed another stellar year, increasing his output for the fourth straight season. Despite missing three games with the flu (which snapped an ironman streak of 181 in row), he led the Timberwolves in scoring (20.8 ppg), rebounds (10.4 rpg), and double-doubles (25).
Kevin’s effort earned him a spot on the All-NBA Third Team—not to mention the Dream Team, joining the likes of Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd and Vince Carter. He traveled with the U.S. Olympic squad to Puerto Rico in July for a three-game tournament, where he thrilled fans with his enthusiasm off the court and his performance on it. The Americans won all four of their games easily and qualified for the 2000 Summer Games in Australia.
Kevin looked forward to the 1999-2000 season. Brandon would be in uniform all year, and rookie forward Wally Szczerbiak was deemed NBA-ready by most scouts. When Minnesota got off to a rocky start, Saunders fiddled with the lineup until he found the right chemistry. His most inspired move was promoting bench player Malik Sealy—picked up during the 1998-99 campaign—to the starting lineup in December. Sealy, one Kevin’s favorite players a kid and now one of his best friends, proved the missing ingredient.
Kevin led the T-Wolves to three wins Christmas week and was named the NBA Player of Week. The day after receiving that award, he scored 26 points and hauled down a franchise-record 23 rebounds against the Orlando Magic. Kevin started for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second year in a row and tallied 24 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.