MINNEAPOLIS -- NBA commissioner David Stern said Thursday that ''shocking'' fraud by the Minnesota Timberwolves forced him to inflict record punishment over a secret contract for star forward Joe Smith.
Stern stripped the Wolves of five first-round draft choices and fined the team $3.5 million for the agreement, which an arbitrator found was intended to circumvent the NBA salary cap.
''The fact is, we gave this a lot more thought than the parties in the Minnesota franchise who risked their future by engaging in one of the most far-reaching frauds we've seen,'' Stern said.
''This was a fraud of major proportions. There were no fewer than five undisclosed contracts tucked away, hoping they'd never see the light of day. This is fraud that ripped to the heart of the (collective bargaining) compact. The magnitude of this stuff is shocking.''
Stern's punishment of the Wolves could include one-year suspensions for owner Glen Taylor and anyone in the organization who took part in the deal.
Stern said he hoped to schedule hearings within the next two weeks with Taylor and other Timberwolves officials, possibly including vice president Kevin McHale and coach Flip Saunders, to determine whether they will be suspended.
At halftime of Minnesota's exhibition game with Detroit on Thursday night, Taylor apologized to Minnesotans and accepted full responsibility. He said he did not realize when he made the agreement that he was breaking rules of the collective bargaining agreement and said unusual circumstances were involved that he would not reveal.
''There are always reasons why things happen,'' Taylor said. ''They're not as simple as they seem.''
The NBA said the fine was the stiffest ever imposed by the league on any franchise, player or other individual and the maximum allowed. Spokesman Brian McIntyre also said he could not recall any team being stripped of multiple draft choices.
It's the loss of draft choices that is particularly damaging to a franchise that will be at or near the top of the salary cap as long as it is carrying forward Kevin Garnett's $126 million contract through 2004. Without draft picks or the ability to pursue high-priced free agents, management will have little room to bulk up the roster around Garnett.
''We'll still want to field good teams,'' Taylor said. ''It'll be harder, more difficult. We always recognized we were in a small market and it would always be more difficult to attract good players. We'll have to be lucky. I understand that.''
The job might be tougher than Taylor suggested.
''I was reading across the page and the draft picks just kept going,'' New York Knicks general manager Scott Layden said. ''The money is probably the least of the penalty, but collectively it shows that the commissioner is not soft on circumvention.''
At a team shootaround Thursday morning, Saunders said the Wolves were used to dealing with adversity.
''We've been through a lot in the last five years,'' he said. ''We were written off when we lost Googs (Tom Gugliotta) and Stephon (Marbury). We won 50 games when a lot of people didn't think we could.''
Saunders said he didn't know whether the Wolves would appeal the penalties.
Garnett said the ruling would not affect whether he stays with the Wolves when his contract expires.
''It's very, very easy to jump ship when things get hard,'' Garnett said. ''It's very, very easy to start thinking differently. I'm not that type of person. I'm a loyal cat. I do know that running from your problems will not solve problems.''
NBA arbitrator Kenneth Dam ruled Monday that the Timberwolves signed a secret agreement with Smith in January 1999 that was worth as much as $86 million over seven years. With the NBA, meanwhile, the Timberwolves filed a one-year contract worth $1.75 million, allowable under the salary cap.
Stern said he abided by the arbitrator's ruling when he voided Smith's current $2.5 million contract and his past two contracts with the Timberwolves, preventing Smith from signing a lucrative contract with them after this season.
Though Smith has said he would like to re-sign with the Timberwolves, NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said the arbitrator's ruling also would allow Stern to void a contract if Smith re-signed.
Smith's future remained uncertain Wednesday, though teams such as Dallas and the Knicks have expressed interest.
Though he has said he would like to re-sign with the Timberwolves, their salary-cap limitations would limit him to $611,000, about one-tenth what the Chicago Bulls could offer.
His agent, Dan Fegan, did not return telephone calls Thursday.
''Everyone here's main concern is for Joe and that he does what's right for him,'' Garnett said. ''We still love him. He's still our man.''
Stern denied that the Timberwolves were being made an example for under-the-table deals that supposedly are common. Though Stern said the NBA actively pursues all ''wink-and-a-nod'' deals, many turn out to be rumors.
''I think we all were shocked at the level of what went on here,'' Granik said. ''David and I have been around long enough not to be shocked by very much. I would be shocked to learn that something of this level has happened before. I think this is a totally different level.''
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