In 1998, the Minnesota Timberwolves signed Joe Smith to a two-year deal below the going rate at the time for a productive power forward. After that contract expired, Smith and the T-Wolves agreed on a new seven-year, $86m contract. However, it was determined that in an effort to circumvent the league's salary cap, Smith only agreed to the initial two-year deal with the promise of the later seven-year deal.
Signing below market value would allow the team to add additional players in the short term.
The NBA was not happy, and much like The Incredible Hulk, you "won't like him when he is angry." The him in this case is league commish David Stern.
Stern voided the new seven-year deal, fined the team $3.5m, and forced them to surrender their next FIVE first round picks (after some negotiation, the team was "only" forced to surrender three of those five in 2001, 2002, and 2004).
My question: what would have happened to the Wolves if this "secret" deal had never been made or discovered by Stern?
Aside from the fact that Joe Smith would be about $50m richer (he went on to earn about $36m during the time he would have been under contract for $86m), the Wolves might have avoided the doldrums they find themselves in today.
In 2001, the players available when the team should have picked in the first round (18th overall) included Zach Randolph, Brendan Haywood, Gerald Wallace, Samuel Delambert, Jamaal Tinsley, Tony Parker, and Gilbert Arenas.
In 2002, the players available when the team should have picked in the first round (24th overall) included Nenad Krstic, John Salmons, Roger Mason, and Carlos Boozer.
In 2004, the players available when the team should have picked in the first round (29th overall) included Anderson Varejeao, Chris Duhon, and Trevor Ariza.
Now, it is impossible to think that the Wolves would have hit on all of these picks (especially considering the fact that they selected Ndudi Ebi in the first round of the 2003 draft when they did not have to surrender a pick), but it is fun to play the game.
Let's assume the Wolves hit in two of the three years with Tony Parker and Trevor Ariza. Pair these two and Smith with Kevin Garnett and the Wolves would have been a threat to win the NBA Finals. After all, without Parker, Ariza and Smith the Wolves made it to the 2004 Western Conference Finals (lost in 6 to the Lakers).
In 2006, Smith was shipped from the Nuggets along with Andre Miller to the 76ers for Allen Iverson. Less than two years later, Iverson was shipped from Denver to Detroit for Chauncey Billups in a deal that built the foundation for the Nuggets' recent successes. Without the Joe Smith saga, neither of these deals occurs.
In the summer of 2007, a disgruntled Kevin Garnett forced a trade to the Boston Celtics, who went on to win the 2008 NBA Finals. With Parker, Ariza, and Smith, this deal doesn't happen and the Celtics never win it all (no way they make the Ray Allen deal without KG).
Ironically, using part of the package acquired for Garnett, the Wolves selected Johnny Flynn, their new PG of the future. A small, small consolation prize, I know.
Amazing how much changed because of Joe Smith, a player that had a bigger impact off-the-court than he did on it.