Contracts and financial minutia aside, one month later it’s still sort of unbelievable that the Minnesota Timberwolves traded a still-in-his-prime Thaddeus Young for an overpriced, creaky Kevin Garnett. The decisions that define how professional sports teams are structured exist in an emotionally frigid universe, but this was something narratively concise and irrefutably heartfelt.
Weeks before the trade deadline, Garnett was expected to end his career as a mercenary, the 11th man chasing his second ring. Instead, he’ll occasionally crack the starting lineup (on days his body can take it) on a rebuilding team that’s years away from true contention. But the particulars of this situation aren’t akin to any in recent memory because the subject is seemingly of a different era. Garnett is unique in a billion different ways: the star, writer, director and executive producer of a career that deserves its own 25,000-page oral history. But now that we know where it’ll end, what’s left to be written?
It’s impossible to discuss Garnett’s responsibilities as a player without mentioning the role he plays as a mentor to inexperienced teammates, or the subconscious ability to implant his relentless energy throughout an entire organization. He instills culture by showing up to work, and passes on life lessons that go beyond the game of basketball.
“What I love about him is he tries to teach the young guys how to be professionals first,” Garnett’s former head coach, Doc Rivers, tells me. “One day he brought them in [my office], and he had a tailor. He bought them suits. The [next] day he had a money manager. And he did a lot of neat things like that. I’m telling you now; that’s the only reason people will ever know.”
Garnett’s attitude is contagious, and there’s no doubting how revered he still is among players and coaches throughout the league.
“I never had to tell our young guys about being on time,” Rivers adds. “You had him doing it.”
But a somewhat unanswerable question hangs overhead: At 38, to what degree does Garnett’s positive off-court effect get negated by his inability to play no more than 20 minutes a night? This is exactly why Minnesota is a perfect fit. Not only are expectations in the basement, but its roster is filled with wide-eyed, blooming prospects who will eat everything he cooks.
According to Timberwolves sophomore Shabazz Muhammad, a one-and-done lottery pick from the 2013 Draft who would’ve bypassed college if the NBA still allowed it, Garnett is a monumental locker-room presence, and on the floor he’s like a second coach.
“He’s the guy who tells you your mistakes,” Muhammad says. “He doesn’t sugarcoat or walk around anything. He helps on setting screens, being in help position and helping other guys. We’ve already seen a big difference in our team. I wish he could’ve been here a lot earlier.”
Due to sore knees, Garnett’s appeared in just five of Minnesota’s 12 games since the trade. But in his debut, the Timberwolves beat the Washington Wizards by 20 points. They then lost to the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers by a combined nine points, and defeated the Portland Trail Blazers by eight.
We’re only dealing with a 98-minute sample size, but when Garnett’s on the floor Minnesota outscores opponents by 10.8 points per 100 possessions, boasting above-average offense and elite defense. In the 478 minutes he’s sat out, they’ve been outscored by 10.0 points per 100 possessions – meaning they’ve looked like the Timberwolves.
It’s a virtual guarantee those on/off numbers settle down as the season nears its end, but we’ve seen enough to know that Garnett is a good fit in Minnesota’s frontcourt rotation. Head coach Flip Saunders’ offense relies on post-ups and running guys off pin-down and baseline screens, but neither strategy has been very successful this season, in large part because they don’t have any shooters. Garnett’s days of battling on the block are all but over, but until both his legs disintegrate, his midrange jumper (one of the most reliable weapons the sport has ever known) can give Minnesota’s offense a little bit of breathing room.
Here’s his shot chart so far.
Again, the sample size suggests Garnett won’t knock down 58 percent of his long twos forever. But whether he’s lights out or not, opposing bigs still go out there to guard him more aggressively than they do Gorgui Dieng, Adreian Payne or Nikola Pekovic. It allows those three to operate with more room down low, and theoretically creates driving lanes for Minnesota’s attacking wings.
When Garnett is on the floor with Andrew Wiggins (which has been all but one minute of Garnett’s time since joining the team), 45.1 percent of Wiggins’ field goal attempts have come in the restricted area. Without Garnett, that number drops to 36.2 percent. Same goes for Pekovic: Since February 19, 93.8 percent of his baskets are in the paint when Garnett’s beside him, and that falls to 82.8 percent when Garnett is not.
“I’d like to play him 30 minutes,” Saunders says with a smile. “He’s still effective on the court, look at his efficiency.”
Shifting over to defense, here’s a neat fact from Garnett’s career: For five consecutive seasons (from 2002-03 to 2006-07) he led the NBA in defensive rebounds. And guess what? He’s still good at it! Though he hasn’t logged enough minutes this season to qualify for the NBA leaderboards this season, the only two players grabbing a higher percentage of the opposition’s missed shots when on the floor are Hassan Whiteside and DeAndre Jordan. Garnett is no longer capable of holding down an elite unit – or even defending the rim at a high level – but he can neutralize one-on-one match-ups and bark out instructions to teammates who don’t quite know where to be. He’s more linchpin than anchor.
Garnett chomps air when he talks. If he’s in a good mood, advice patters down like gentle rainfall on a thirsty flowerbed. Otherwise, it’s better received gritting teeth behind the walls of a bomb shelter. On the floor he’s an all-timer. (To borrow a hypothetical scenario from all-time NBA historian Bob Ryan: If the human race was at stake and you could hand-pick five guys from any era to compete against a team of aliens trying to enslave us all, who would you go with? Garnett’s name gets heavily discussed here, but he’s probably passed over.) To describe him as intense is akin to saying light bulbs get hot.
It’s a good thing Garnett landed with the Timberwolves, because his stint with the Brooklyn Nets was getting dark. That team had expectations, but self-combusted before sniffing any of them. They filled their roster with veterans who never wanted or needed Garnett’s advice. His intangible fit never made sense. There was no future for him there. But in Minnesota, who knows how much longer he’ll play?
At heart, Garnett is a teacher, a guardian of basketball information and a self-nourishing philosophy sustained by few. Do his words directly affect what occurs on a basketball court? Who really knows? How do you quantify a private heart-to-heart that takes place inside a locker room?
But coaches and players buy what he’s selling, and that’s all that really matters. “It’s too bad you don’t get to know the real Kevin, because he’s terrific,” Rivers says. “He’s actually very funny. But he’s very serious about basketball. He looks at it as a job, and a very serious job.”
Everything else is a mystery.