Everybody knows the Los Angeles Lakers were busy last summer, retooling their roster by adding Karl Malone and Gary Payton in hopes of making another championship run.

More pronounced was the Minnesota Timberwolves' makeover.

More successful too.

Building around Kevin Garnett, General Manager Kevin McHale made wholesale changes and pieced together a team that rolled up the best record in the Western Conference, which is why the Timberwolves have home-court advantage in the conference finals against the Lakers that started here Friday night at Target Center.

Whether the Timberwolves can take the next step and advance to the NBA Finals is still to be determined, of course, but so far, so good.

They'd never made it this deep into the playoffs before this season, their six-game exit against the Lakers last season their seventh consecutive first-round defeat, but they eliminated the Denver Nuggets in five games and, after a pulsating victory Wednesday night, the Sacramento Kings in seven.

And so here they are, just as they drew it up last June.

Well, sort of.

Their original plan actually fell by the wayside, but Plan B has worked out pretty well. Their biggest-name acquisitions, guard Sam Cassell and swingman Latrell Sprewell, combined with Garnett to form the NBA's highest-scoring trio. The Timberwolves won the Midwest Division title, ending the three-year reign of the San Antonio Spurs. They won 58 games, a franchise record. They won 27 on the road, another club record.

And they did all this after a fairly thorough personnel turnover. Nine of the 12 centers, guards and forwards on their playoff roster, among them four starters, were playing elsewhere when the Timberwolves were eliminated by the Lakers a year ago. Besides Troy Hudson, who is on the injured list, the only holdovers are Garnett, Wally Szczerbiak and Gary Trent.

Still, McHale is loath to take credit for the transformation.

"Everything's clear in hindsight," he said Thursday. "When you put a team together, you hope it's going to work. I never put a team together that I think is going to be crappy. At least you try not to. And anybody who tells you, 'I knew this and I knew that,' they're [kidding] you. You don't know. You hope.

"The guys have worked hard. It's them. They're the ones doing it. No one sitting in the 12th row's doing anything. It's about the guys on the floor."

But it was McHale, of course, who put them on the floor.

The key pieces came together rather quickly, starting with a trade for Cassell and Ervin Johnson the day after the draft last June.

The original plan was to lure forward Juwan Howard to Minnesota and retain center Rasho Nesterovic. But when Howard signed with the Orlando Magic and Nesterovic with the Spurs, McHale had to change course.

The day after he got word of Nesterovic's plans, McHale joined owner Glen Taylor and Coach Flip Saunders on a plane to California, where they wooed free agent center Michael Olowokandi. The former Clipper signed July 16.

A week later, Sprewell came aboard via a four-team trade that also allowed the Timberwolves to dump Terrell Brandon's contract.

In less than a month, McHale had put together potentially the most talented collection of players in franchise history, a blend of experience and athletic ability that could take the Timberwolves deep into the playoffs. Cassell and Sprewell had played in the NBA Finals, Cassell winning two championships with the Houston Rockets, and Sprewell was a four-time all-star.

But it also was a group that might have imploded. Cassell, despite a wealth of talent, is viewed by some as a divisive figure; he has been traded five times. Sprewell, to casual fans, probably is best known as the player who grabbed his coach around the neck when he played for the Golden State Warriors. And Olowokandi, the top pick in the 1998 draft, was viewed as an underachieving malcontent.

Saunders, though, bought into the program right away.

"It's really kind of funny," the coach said Thursday after practice. "I told people, 'This is as close to a CBA team as I've ever had [in the NBA].' Not only because we've got 10 new guys, but also the personality of the team.

"We brought a whole new personality to the team. Our teams in the past, outside of K.G., a lot of people had the same personality, and I think in order to be a strong team you have to have a lot of different personalities. It makes you stronger, so when one guy's down, another guy's up. Everyone can kind of help each other out. And the people we brought in, I felt, were what we needed.

"I had no problems. People said right away, 'How are you going to coach Cassell and Sprewell?' I survived in the CBA with those types of personalities. That's why we had success down there: getting those personalities to play up to their potential.

"I always took a lot of pride in taking guys with those types of fiery personalities and trying to find a happy medium."

He seems to have done it again. He coaxed a defining season out of Cassell, who averaged a career-high 19.8 points on a career-best 48.8 percent shooting and made his all-star debut, at 34, in February. Sprewell, who had restored his reputation during five solid seasons with the New York Knicks, averaged 16.8.

Olowokandi, bothered by knee injuries, never did come around, but Garnett was better than ever, averaging career highs of 24.2 points and 13.9 rebounds and supplanting Tim Duncan as the NBA's most valuable player.

Said Garnett, who in October had said the Timberwolves' influx of talent played a part in his decision to sign a five-year, $100 million contract extension: "Our chemistry here came really fast. It was through a lot of communication, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of willingness. We knew that if we put our hearts and everything into it, we would get [a stellar season] out of it, so we've been on the same page, through thick and thin, sticking together. You're going to have some interactions and some confrontations, but it's nothing personal."

Not that all was smooth.

Because of a foot injury, Szczerbiak sat out the first 53 games, but that opened a spot for Trenton Hassell, a solid defender. Olowokandi sat out 39 games, but the Timberwolves were 37-10 with Johnson, 36, in the starting lineup.

They started slowly, trying not to get in each other's way, and were 9-8 after blowing a late lead and losing at Dallas on Nov. 29.

Walking off the court that night, Saunders engaged Garnett.

"I said, 'We played like a glorified AAU team,' " Saunders said. "He said, 'You're exactly right.' So when we got to the locker room I said a few things, and I said, 'K.G., what have you got to say?'

"And he said, 'No one in the league cares that we've got 10 new guys. All they care about is whether we win or lose. I've got to quit worrying about what Spree's going to do. Spree, you've got to quit worrying about what I'm going to do. Sam, you've got to quit worrying about what I'm going to do. Everyone's got to play their own game, not worry about stepping on each other's toes.'

"And from that point on, we went on a roll. We played with an extreme amount of confidence and moved forward from there."

All the way through to the Western Conference finals.

The Lakers are next.

Guards Latrell Sprewell (8) and Sam Cassell are in their first season with the Timberwolves, who won a franchise-record 58 games during the regular season. Ervin Johnson is among the many players who joined the Timberwolves this past offseason. Minnesota is making its deepest playoff run.