With Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell by his side, Kevin Garnett got the MVP award and went deeper in the playoffs than ever before.
Yet he finished another season still unsatisfied.
"It's like Spree said in the locker room: It doesn't mean anything if you don't win it all," Garnett said Monday after the Timberwolves lost Game 6 of
the Western Conference finals in Los Angeles and watched the Lakers celebrate a return to the NBA's championship round.
This was, however, a huge success for Minnesota and Garnett. After winning a franchise-best and conference-high 58 games, the Wolves finally deleted
that bedeviling line from their postseason dossier -- seven straight first-round eliminations -- and wound up six wins short of the gold trophy.
"You always have to try to grab some kind of positive from a negative, and that's something that we'll have to do," said Garnett, who posted
career-high averages in points (24.2) and rebounds (13.9) during the regular season and topped those in the playoffs.
"This is a nice foundation for the future," he said, "and we just have to add a couple more pieces to move on."
Including the injured list, 10 of Minnesota's 14 players were new. Clearly, acquiring Cassell and Sprewell was the catalyst for progress.
Early injuries to Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson and Michael Olowokandi -- three players expected to be in the Wolves' top six -- and a 9-8 start
suggested a not-so-smooth transition.
But once December came, they began to click and the Garnett-Cassell-Sprewell trio became perhaps the league's best. Bargain free agents Trenton
Hassell, Fred Hoiberg and Mark Madsen took on important roles, coach Flip Saunders deftly adjusted to the missing players and there was no shortage of
"I'm proud of what they did," Saunders said. "We've come a long way."
Owner Glen Taylor's willingness to increase the payroll and endure a hefty luxury-tax hit was also a critical step.
"In an age when salary cap issues and a lot of those things determine who is on your team versus who is the best basketball player for your team,"
Saunders said, "Glen made a commitment that it was more important that we do what we need to do to make this team get to the next level."
Though the West should be just as tough next season, the Wolves figure to be a top contender as long as Garnett is around. He starts a new five-year
contract next fall.
Cassell is signed for two more seasons at a below-market rate for an All-Star point guard coming off a career season, and Sprewell can exercise a
$14.625 million option to come back.
Same goes for Hudson, who might be better off choosing to make $2.8 million next season than opting out of his deal and testing free agency since he's
recovering from ankle surgery.
The only key players that Minnesota must re-sign are Hassell and Hoiberg, two journeymen who capably filled in when Szczerbiak was hurt. The season's
biggest disappointment, Olowokandi, is under contract for two more years and doesn't have much trade value right now.
Though injuries didn't hurt much in the regular season, the health problems caught up with the Wolves in the end.
Hudson, their best 3-point shooter who lit up the Lakers in the playoffs last year, was on crutches. Cassell succumbed to a hip problem that caused
severe pain in his lower back and kept him out of the last two games against the Lakers. Minnesota dearly missed his clutch shooting down the stretch
and his careful ballhandling at the point.
It just wasn't the same with CBA veteran Darrick Martin, Garnett, Sprewell or Hoiberg running the show: The Wolves turned the ball over 19 times in
Monday's 96-90 loss.
Could they have beaten Los Angeles with Cassell at his best?
"That is something that will remain a mystery," Garnett said. "The fact that we didn't have our general out there with us sure took us off a little
bit, and guys were asked to do things they don't normally do."
The Lakers were laughing by the end of Game 6, but winning that series was anything but easy.
"We were right there, in a great position," Sprewell said.
Minnesota's biggest lament was letting a draining second-round match with Sacramento drag on. Two days after an emotional Game 7 win over the Kings,
the Wolves lost Game 1 to the Lakers -- and their homecourt advantage.
"That came back to haunt us," Hoiberg said.