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The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it's time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2015-16.
As with all things Kevin Garnett seems to do, this is just about unprecedented.
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Seemingly on his way to a sad ending to a brilliant career in Brooklyn last season, the notoriously averse to change Garnett signed off on a deal that sent him back to Minnesota to join the Timberwolves franchise he played for from 1995 through 2007. The Wolves had the worst record in the NBA at the time of the deal, they had given up their best healthy veteran at the time (whom they had dealt a first round draft pick for) in Thaddeus Young to re-acquire KG, and it was assumed that the team would trot Garnett out for 20 minutes a night to the delight of fans that can remember what life was like before 2004.
Minnesota would “earn” the worst record full stop, Garnett would retire, and he would get to enjoy his first summer in two decades without the affiliation of an NBA team listed under his Wikipedia bio. Scratch that, actually, because Wikipedia wasn’t around in 1995.
(My browser seriously froze when I typed ‘wikipedia’ into the search bar at Wikipedia and hit ‘Enter.’ I thought I’d broken everything.)
Instead, Garnett played just 98 minutes spread out over only five games with Minnesota. And before opposing teams could start ordering up farewell ceremonies for the future Hall of Famer, rumors abounded that Garnett wasn’t done playing, and that he might be interested in a future ownership stake in a re-sold Timberwolves franchise.
Garnett then signed a two-year (!) $18 million (!!) free agent deal in July to stay with the Wolves. He’ll be 39 on opening night, working on a roster that features seven players that were born after Garnett’s first day of high school, looking to pull itself up out of the NBA’s cellar while developing a team with ten players born in the 1990s.
Again, this is unprecedented. And while we’re now in the clear about Minnesota’s intentions moving forward – working with the NBA’s last three top overall draft picks – we’re still not sure just how well KG is going to pan out.
Kevin Garnett will always be the smartest guy in the arena, but at this stage it is hard to tell whether he’s more Charles Jones than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: KG has averaged just under 12 points per 36 minutes over the last two seasons.
Kareem turned 42 right before his final playoff run and did well to work nearly half a game and average double-figure points for a Lakers team that made it to the Finals, but he was a horrendous rebounder in his final years and at times a liability. Garnett has aged well, his defensive rebounding rate the last three seasons is comparable to the mark that was tops in the NBA in 2007 and 2004, but his overall rebounding rate and block percentage is fading.
Here is the part where you would rightfully argue that this hardly matters in the grand defensive scheme. The reason that Kevin Garnett was (at worst) the second-best player of his generation was his ability to pair no-stats All-Star-level positioning defense with the gaudiest defensive stats in the league. His lost athleticism means the stats have gone away, but that movement and presence alone in the no-stats realm should be enough to help what was the NBA’s worst defensive team in the league last season.
KG was a monster on that end in his prime, with his smarts and athletic gifts receiving a wicked boost when the NBA lightened restrictions on zone defenses in 1999 and again (to the significant degree we see today) in 2001. Then and current Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders literally wrote books on zone defense prior to his time with the team, and both led what should have been awful (considering the personnel) defensive Timberwolves team to respectable defensive marks and the West’s best record in 2004.
Saunders might be the team’s current coach, but sadly an interim coach is leading the show right now. Flip is taking time off from the sidelines to focus on his fight with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and Sam Mitchell will run the team in his absence. You are right to be wary of Mitchell’s up and down tenure with Toronto as head coach, but for this team in this current state the former Garnett teammate comes straight out of central casting.
KG credits Mitchell above all for not only helping him see the game right way during what was a caustic and troubled Wolves locker room all the way back in 1995-96, but also having the confidence to play the game as he saw fit. In an era when teams wanted to force players to conform to positional norms, or ask players like Shawn Bradley or Joe Smith to wolf down 5,000 calorie breakfasts, Mitchell encouraged Garnett to seek out his own fortune as a hybrid of what was great about every position on the basketball court.
Mitchell and Garnett are now charged with encouraging a new generation of versatile Timberwolves talents to take the same path. Garnett is charged with having the elasticity to play alongside them, and Mitchell is charged with doling out minutes and missed practices for his aging former teammate. The situation is, say it with me, unprecedented.
That’s what KG has always been about, though. It’s a setting as odd and unique and as ultimately compelling and possibly productive as the man’s career has always been.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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