July 30, 2007
I could not be more thrilled about this trade, one of the biggest in the NBA over the last decade, and one which completely blindsided me (in terms of timing, at least). As frequent readers know, that’s coming from the perspective of a Timberwolves fan, a Celtics fan and a huge Kevin Garnett fan. I’m ecstatic for the guy, who finally has a legitimate cast of characters around him to succeed. I’m thrilled for the Celtics and their proud, loyal fans. And I’m happy for the rudderless Minnesota franchise and fans who finally have a plan and a future to be excited about.
I’ve been glued to my laptop all afternoon, itching to write this piece. First it was Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff and a No. 1 pick to Minnesota to acquire Garnett. Then it was Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff and two first-round picks to the Timberwolves for Garnett. After that, scuttlebutt had the Celtics sending Jefferson, Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff, and two first-round picks to the Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett. According to an anonymous Celtics official, it’s now a done deal, could be announced this evening, and looks like this: Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff and two future first-round picks to the Timberwolves for Garnett.
I consider myself to be a bigger Kevin Garnett fan than a Timberwolves fan. He has done everything within his power to earn my loyalty over the years, something that cannot be said of Glen Taylor and Kevin McHale. I’ve always believed that KG is a consummate professional who plays a brand of basketball that makes everyone around him better and should lead to winning. Sadly, over the last few years the latter has not been the case and Garnett has fallen out of public favor. Though he has always been considered a stellar player, critics from all corners have begun to question his ability to win.
Perhaps they have been fair given the records Minnesota has posted during lean years and the crushing playoff defeats in winning seasons. The problem is, this warrior has never had a supporting cast befitting of his considerable talent, skills and efforts. It would have been one of the great tragedies in NBA history if his career had quietly wound down in Minnesota, his fate forever tied to the incompetence of Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders. Forever a loser. At the very least, Garnett deserved a chance to prove that he could be a winner somewhere. He now has that chance. If he fails, then let the critics speak. But Kevin Garnett deserved a shot.
“Garnett is a throwback superstar, a Bill Russell for the modern age. When some people conjure up Russell they visualize the consummate winner, a man who led his teams to 11 NBA championships. But I link the two men by personality. By all reports, Russell shares Garnett’s intelligence, grace, and intensity. And, in his defense, Garnett has never had a Cousy or a Havlicek.
Unfortunately, it could be that the modern age has no use for Bill Russell. One of Garnett’s greatest strengths—his loyalty—is laughably out of place in the superstar-focused NBA . . .
Garnett has never complained about the mediocre supporting casts he’s been given . . . Garnett has embraced the state of Minnesota like a taller, darker version of Prince. Even this year, with his team in a tailspin and his own game under scrutiny, Garnett did nothing to shift the blame.” – Paul Shirley
Feeling Minnesota: This is the first time that Kevin McHale has pulled off a trade since acquiring Sam Cassell that didn’t immediately elicit a groan for even casual fans. I still consider him to be the worst general manager in basketball, but McHale deserves credit for getting this much value in return for Garnett. It’s been time to acknowledge the fact that Minnesota was not going to win a title with KG in his prime for over two years, and this summer management finally grasped that concept. Garnett could have opted out of his contract after this season, which would undoubtedly have been another disheartening campaign for the 31-year-old star, and Minnesota was in serious danger of getting nothing besides salary cap room in return. To be honest, I’m shocked that the Wolves will receive this kind of value at this stage in the game.
Al Jefferson was perhaps the most promising power forward in basketball after the All-Star break last season. During the stretch run he put up an exceptional line: 19.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, 1.1 steals, 55.4% FGs and (most importantly for the foul-prone youngster) just 3.0 fouls per game. He finally came into his own in his third year after being the 15th overall pick out of Prentiss High School in Mississippi. Coming out of high school, he was a 2004 McDonald’s All American and averaged an incredible 42 points, 16 rebounds and 9 blocks during his senior season. Make no mistake about it, Jefferson will be an All-Star in this league more than once in the next decade. His defense could use a little work, but he’s learned to clean the glass and possesses exceptional polish on the offensive end for a player his size and age. His success a year ago is no accident: Al is finally committed to doing what it takes to succeed at this level. He’s been putting in the hours at the gym and showed up last season 30 pounds lighter than the previous year.
The loss of KG is going to leave a massive hole in the interior scoring, rebounding and interior defense categories that no player in the NBA could fill, but for a rebuilding franchise Jefferson is as good a candidate as any. And he’ll have help from Craig Smith, a diamond in the rough selected in the second round last season. Speaking of rebuilding, it says here that Baby Al will be a better power forward than KG in five years. That’s what the Wolves and their fans should be concerned about: the future. They actually have one now.
That future is now in the hands of an extremely exciting young core of players, something that hasn’t been the case in T-Wolves Country for over a decade. The franchise has been living a day-to-day existence, so consumed with patching the holes in today’s ship that there has been no time nor opportunity to chart a long-term course towards success. As regrettable as it is that Minnesota could not reward Kevin’s tireless work ethic in impeccable loyalty with a deserving supporting cast, the removal of KG frees the Wolves from a biological clock that threatened to bring an extended and bitter era to Minnesota basketball as he wore down and after he retired. In the place of such moribund eventualities lies a future of possibility.
In addition to the aforementioned Jefferson, the Wolves core also features this year’s 7th overall draft pick SF Corey Brewer, last year’s 7th overall pick PG/SG Randy Foye, last year’s Slam Dunk Champ and ETB favorite Gerald Green, 2004′s 13th overall pick Sebastian Telfair (a potentially worthless player, and also a potential future starting PG), at least one first-round pick (either two first-rounders or one and super-sub Ryan Gomes), the extremely underrated PF Craig Smith and the expiring contract of Theo Rattliff (Which will kick in for “the most intriguing months of free agency in the history of the NBA“).
I project Randy Foye and Al Jefferson as future All-Stars. Foye is a beast in the backcourt who has a knack for clutch play, and if you look at their per minute averages, he posted nearly identical stats to ROY Brandon Roy last season (per 48 minutes: 21.3 points, 1.7 threes, 5.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.4 steals for Foye; 22.7 points, 1.3 threes, 5.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.6 steals for Roy). He just needs to figure out if he’s a PG or SG. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Gerald Green is as athletically thrilling as any player in the NBA today and possesses a feathery shot (36.8% 3-pointers, 80.5% FGs). He could be a household name within three years. Corey Brewer was the best outside defender in this draft. While he needs to bulk up, he has the tools on both ends to be an excellent player. I’m not going to talk about Sebastian Telfair, suffice it to say I’m not a fan.
Down low the Wolves will now start Mark Blount and Al Jefferson, two players who are relatively soft on D. Enter Craig Smith, an absolute bull. Smith is a box-out in a box. A Menacing, muscular 6’7″ power forward who is as strong as anybody underneath. He can guard powerful centers and power forwards, Jefferson can guard tall centers and power forwards. Jefferson is a scorer who needs the ball, Smith is a scrappy player who makes good things happen without it. They’ll be a nice pair.
The problem now is that Minnesota fans were so attached to Garnett, and rightfully so, that the burden placed on these youngster’s shoulders could be too much. If the Wolves go 32-50 this season (not an unlikely scenario in the West) people will be quick to condemn the trade, stop buying tickets and leave the franchise adrift. I urge all loyal Wolves fans not to take that course of action. This is a promising young core, a nucleus of future success. Embrace these young men as you did Guggliotta, Marbury and Garnett ten years ago. It will pay off. The next step for the franchise is to rid itself of the diabolical duo that runs it: Glen Taylor and Kevin McHale. I have no faith in those two to show the patience and foresight necessary to capitalize on this opportunity that has fallen into their laps. As long as they remain, the team will always be on the verge of peril. Despite them, Minnesota basketball fans should be optimistic for their own team and happy for their departed superstar who gave them so much the last 12 years.
Boston’s Pride Again: Perhaps I owe Danny Ainge an apology. I was less than glowing in my review of the Ray Allen Acquisition. At the end of last season Boston had one of the most impressive collections of young talent in the NBA and I thought this was a team that needed to plan for the next decade, not to fill the seats in 2007-08. Apparently Ainge had a plan though. He has converted a stable of ‘could be great’ and ‘should be good’ players into a collection of sure-fire, veteran superstars whose games are, in fact, complementary. They now have the three essential forms of scoring in the NBA: a post-up threat, a deadly outside shooter and an exceptional penetrator. They also have three players who have been All-Stars in the last two years, all three of them professionals whose egos should have no problem gelling. Going into the coming season, there is no trio in the NBA that is more skillful and complete than Allen, Pierce and Garnett. While the Pistons and Suns clearly have superior auxiliary players, I would take these guys over Nash, Marion and Stoudamire; over Billups, Wallace and Prince; over Kidd, Carter and Jefferson; over McGrady, Yao and Francis; over Iverson, Anthony and Camby; over Williams, Boozer and Okur; over any trio out there.
We all remember what KG did with Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell on the perimeter, leading them to a difficult defeat in the Western Conference Finals at the hands of the Lakers. Those are two players who, at that stage of their careers, couldn’t hold a candle to the duo of Ray Allen and Pierce of today. For my money Ray Allen is still the NBA’s best perimeter threat. His pure outside shot is a thing of beauty and he should be able to make any team pay for double-teaming Garnett. The commonality among these three stars is their versatility and selflessness, exemplified by their passing ability. Ray Allen has averaged 3.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 4.6 rebounds a game for his career while being the primary scoring option on every team he’s been on. Paul Piece has averaged 3.9 assists, 6.5 boards and 1.3 steals despite being his team’s go-to-guy for nine years. Garnett has put up a remarkable 11.4 boards, 4.5 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.7 blocks while carrying the offensive load for Minnesota lo these many years. These guys all know how to play basketball beyond simply putting the ball in the basket.
It’s an odd twist of fate for Garnett and Allen. They are reunited after Kevin McHale traded Ray for Stephon Marbury on draft night in 1996. Eleven years later, they still make as much sense together as they did then. In my darker, more inebriated moments as a Wolves’ fan, the potential of these two still together causes painful and extended bouts of ‘What if . . . ‘ I can’t imagine two quiet superstars who play the game the ‘right way’ more than Garnett and Allen, in every aspect of the sport. With Pierce, there will be no way to defend these three together. Garnett can beat any power forward in the East, outside of Rasheed Wallace, one-on-one. If teams decide to collapse on him he’ll have two options. He can feed the most prolific outside shooter of this era in Ray Allen (2.4 3-pointers on 39.7% from long range) or he can find one of the best slashers around, Paul Pierce, on his way to the hole. Either way, you know KG is not going to force the issue himself. He’s a team player who prides himself on finding the open man. He’s generous with teammates, sometimes to a fault in Minnesota. But where he might have been punished for not being more selfish with the Wolves, here he will be rewarded with accomplished and competent running mates.
In all late-game situations, my hat goes off to the team that can keep all three of these stars in check. None can be defended one-on-one. All can and will pass when necessary. All can break down defenses. And considering they will be the only guys to handle the ball, you can’t foul. Ray Allen is a premier free throw shooter (88.8% Career), Garnett has been stellar from the line over his career (81+% the last three years, 78% overall), and Pierce is a known clutch player who will make his (79.1% career). While Garnett has been lacking in late-game heroics over his career, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are as clutch as they come in pressure situations. If they get a lead late, what does an opposing team do? If an opposing team doesn’t blow them out, what do they do in a close game? I don’t want to be the coach who has to deal with these savvy, ringless, motivated veterans in any fourth quarter, let alone the playoffs.
There will be two complementary pieces in the starting lineup alongside these three giants, and it would be tough to find young, affordable options who would fit in much better. In Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins the Celts have scrappy players who can do all the dirty work inside and outside. Perkins is purely a defensive center who’s only buckets will come in mopping up for the Big Three, but he’s a big body who can rebound, block shots, give up some fouls and defend post players reasonably well. He should also be better this year in staying out of foul trouble. Most importantly, he doesn’t need the ball to be effective. Rajon Rondo is a great talent who has massive hands in the passing lanes, a nose for the ball, great penetration-and-dish skills and good ball-handling ability. He, too, doesn’t need the ball to be effective. In addition, they have Tony Allen. He’s a major question mark right now, but he has all the makings of a defensive stopper near the arc and is capable of scoring 15 points himself. Still, depending on how the final package shapes up they will need to find about 4 players just to reach the NBA’s minimum roster size of 12. And they’ll be depending on three guys around or over the age of 30 to play huge minutes night in and night out. I’m not worried.
“Celtics radio guy Sean Grande announced Minny games during KG’s initial ascent and argued KG’s merits as an underrated superduperstar ever since. I asked him for a one-sentence description of KG and here’s what he e-mailed back: ‘All out, every night, heart and soul — Game 13 in Atlanta, Game 61 on a Monday night aganst Charlotte, Game 6 of the Conference finals, doesn’t matter.’”
- From Bill Simmons’ Take
Aside from the fate of either team, this trade is going to be especially informative on Kevin Garnett as a person. For a long time, I’ve found Garnett fascinating on a level that transcends the basketball court. He’s a paragon of excellence, professionalism and loyalty. More interesting, he’s emblematic of a psychology that is no less impressive than it is painful to empathize with. Garnett is unlike any athlete I have followed in my years as a sports fan. At the risk of sounding cliché (and 60 years old), today’s superstar athlete is becoming epitomized by the eccentric punk and becoming more and more difficult for the average sports fan to understand and support. Garnett is the antithesis of this movement: a man who cares deeply about his performance, about his team, about his fans, about his community, about consistent excellent, about winning. As Paul Shirley recently wrote in his excellent column, “Kevin Garnett is one of the most impressive humans I’ve ever been around. Kobe Bryant isn’t.”
Garnett is throwback. A man whose overactive conscience allays any concerns over his excessive salary. He is selfless to a fault, willing to pass to a teammate when he should force a shot himself and harder on himself than any crass columnist ever could be. He is always willing and painfully able to subjugate his Id with a Super Ego that we can understand. I have never watched a Timberwolves game and felt that Garnett cared less about the outcome than I did. Perhaps most interesting, I have never thought that his greed or hubris was catalyst for his performance. Meanwhile, I have watched countless star athletes achieve greater success when it was obvious that they had been motivated by such greed and hubris. Garnett’s conscience has handcuffed him to failure for years, but was it merely due to the sub-par teams he was on? Could a selfless and conscientious player who cares more for the game than himself succeed in this game? Perhaps we have the rare opportunity to find out.
After the Wolves passed on the deal with Chicago last season that would have netted Tyson Chandler, Luol Deng and LaMarcus Aldridge I was crushed. As a Wolves fan and, more powerfully, as a Garnett fan. Then my hope was renewed this offseason, after all the hype had me convinced he would be moved on draft night. Again, I was crushed. I was cautiously optimistic about talk out of the Bay Area that a deal was in the works with the Warriors, and patiently waiting until Brandon Wright could be moved on the 8th of August. Then I saw the headlines today.
After all of the bad publicity the NBA has received over the last week because of the Tim Donaghy scandal, basketball fans everywhere finally have cause for celebration. Far from being embarrassed over the state of the NBA and feeling the need to coddle the casual fan in the face of allegations of widespread impropriety, because of today’s news I am next to giddy and can’t remember a time when I was more interested in the league at this time of year. I’m excited for the Celtics. I’m excited for the Timberwolves. I’m excited for Kevin Garnett. I can’t wait to see Garnett don the Celtic green. I can’t wait for opening night.