In the winter of 2006, the Minnesota Timberwolves were foundering. They were two years removed from a Western Conference Finals run on the strength of the best Wolves roster ever assembled and they were in disarray. The 58-24 record that had won them their division and earned them the first seed in the playoffs had given way to a 44-38 finish the next year and 33-49 the year after that. Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell had been replaced by Ricky Davis and Randy Foye. Wally Szczerbiak was gone. The team was paying Mark Blount $7.2 million. Kevin Garnett was 30 years old and unhappy. If something dramatic was not forthcoming, all signs were pointing to Garnett leaving.
In the present day, things look much different. Last season, the Wolves were threatening to sneak into the playoffs after a seven-year absence until Ricky Rubio went down with a torn ACL in early March. For all of Kevin Love’s testiness about his contract, he had an incredible season and only looks to be getting better. So far in the offseason they’ve jettisoned what Love termed the “bad blood” in the locker room and made major upgrades to their rotation, specifically on the wings, and look poised for a solid year and possibly the playoffs.
But something the 2006 and 2012 teams have in common is missing out on a player who might have turned the tide or pushed them over the top, respectively. Strangely enough, both have the initials A.I., both were drafted and became stars for the Philadelphia 76ers, and both ended up going to the Denver Nuggets instead of the Timberwolves.
In the winter of 2006, something was rotten in the City of Brotherly Love. If Kevin Garnett’s big moment had come two years earlier against the Lakers in the Conference Finals, Allen Iverson’s had come five years before when his Sixers had squared off against L.A. in the NBA Finals and lost 4-1. The intervening years had not been kind, with Philadelphia never advancing further than the Conference Semifinals and twice missing the playoffs altogether. Seventeen games in and wallowing in the basement of the Atlantic Division at 5-12, the team was in trouble and Iverson demanded a trade. Never known for his easygoing personality and now increasingly problematic, he was sent home and ruled out of the team’s next two games on December 8.
At the time, it seemed like there was a shot at him coming to Minnesota. The contractual kerfuffle with Sprewell and Cassell had torpedoed the 2004-05 season and ended with Sprewell gone and Cassell on the Clippers in exchange for … well, you know how that worked out. But maybe those last two seasons had just been a stumble, a speed bump towards another playoff run with Garnett if the Wolves could get him a sidekick who was every bit the crazed competitor Garnett was.
There were concerns about Iverson’s ball-domination (not knowing then that the platoon of guards the Wolves had—Troy Hudson, Mike James, Marko Jaric, and Randy Foye—weren’t people in whose hands you wanted the ball anyways) and concerns about how he would fit with Garnett (not knowing that Garnett would go on to lead the Celtics to an NBA championship as a defensive alpha dog, not an offensive one). There were even concerns about what the Wolves would have to give up. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, it’s tough to imagine fans were concerned about giving up on Randy Foye, Ricky Davis, Marko Jaric, and Mike James.
But Iverson didn’t come to Minnesota. Instead, he went to the Denver Nuggets, where his tenure was not an unabashed success. Two first round exits and a full serving of the attitude problems that dogged him in Philly later, he was shipped to the Detroit Pistons for Antonio McDyess and Chauncey Billups.
Would Iverson have turned things around in Minnesota, though? Well, probably not, or at least not without a lot of other moves. Garnett made $21 million that year, and Iverson was owed $17.1 million plus $19.1 million and $20.8 million in the next two years. And given what the Wolves would have had to give up, they would have been sending out some mishmash of Garnett, Iverson, Craig Smith, Rashad McCants, and Trenton Hassell to start.
And yet given how Garnett left after the 2007 season in exchange for a package that eventually yielded (I believe) Chase Budinger and a bag of hammers, and how awful and dark the Wolves’ roster got for a while there—their top seven highest paid players in 2007-08 were Theo Ratliff, Antoine Walker, Juwan Howard, Marko Jaric, Troy Hudson, Greg Buckner and Michael Doleac—I can’t help but think how it might have been fun. I mean, we’re talking about the guy who wanted to know why we were talking about practice. We’re talking about the guy who did this stuff.
Maybe that’s all the dream of Iverson on the Timberwolves was: a highlight-filled Band-aid that might have only staved off an inevitable post-Garnett swoon. But when the trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers and Bynum to the Sixers also sent Andre Iguodala to the Denver Nuggets, the Wolves might have missed out on an A.I. that genuinely could have taken them to the next level.
Strangely enough, when Iverson was moved in 2006, part of the reason was to clear the way for third-year player Iguodala to step up and become the new face of the franchise. But Iguodala—about as underrated defensively as Iverson was overrated offensively—never quite turned into the centerpiece that Philadelphia wanted. Despite solid numbers, outstanding defense, and regular playoff appearances for his team, Iguodala has never looked like a superstar in the manner of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Kobe Bryant. But that’s precisely why he could have been so valuable on the Timberwolves.
With Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love already in place, Iguodala wouldn’t have had to be the face of the franchise. He wouldn’t have had to distribute the ball, hit 3-pointers, and create his own shot. He could have played lockdown defense, run the floor in transition, knocked down the occasional jumper, and gotten to the hoop and the stripe when defenses collapsed on penetration. He would have provided a fantastic all-around game to go along with Rubio’s passing, Love’s shooting and rebounding, and Pekovic’s rebounding and post game.
But as it was with Iverson, salary was a major concern with Iguodala. Next season he’s owed $14.7 million and the season after, $15.9 million, should he exercise his player option. By comparison, Andrei Kirilenko (including his player option) is owed $20 million over the next two years—$10.6 million less than Iguodala will make.
Maybe Iguodala going to Denver won’t matter. Maybe Kirilenko will play like he has in the Olympics and maybe Alexey Shved and Kirilenko will become the shadow to the the Rubio/Love tandem that clicked into place last season. And maybe Iverson in 2006 wouldn’t have mattered either. Getting him then would have been a huge gamble for a player who was, at 31, about to enter the downslope of his career. Maybe Garnett was already done in Minnesota and wouldn’t have been able to push his hard-nosed work ethic on Iverson the way he did with the Celtics in 2007.
No team is immune to the what-if game of trades, draft picks, and free agency. But the Timberwolves and their fans seem somehow highly susceptible to the near-miss or the nearly great move. What if the team hadn’t traded Ray Allen for Stephon Marbury? What if Sam Cassell’s back had held up into the Western Conference Finals in 2004? What if they hadn’t taken Jonny Flynn with the sixth pick in 2009 and instead taken Stephen Curry? Or, I don’t know, a Starbucks Gift Card? Allen Iverson likely wouldn’t have saved the franchise in 2006. Here’s hoping we never have to conclude the same about Andre Iguodala.