Kevin Garnett, The Big Ticket, is back in Minnesota.
Never in a million years would any Timberwolves fan have been able to peg such a reunion as more than just a pipe dream. At least not until Wednesday night, less than 24 hours before the NBA trade deadline, when the rumor began to float around the Twitter-sphere.
By Thursday morning, it seemed like some sort of cruel joke, then a star worth wishing on and then, suddenly, it was true.
But why would Garnett waive his no-trade clause to return to the Land of 10,000 Lakes (all of which are frozen solid this time of year), to the long-stumbling franchise that squandered his youth?
And why would the Timberwolves, mired in yet another promising-and-nothing-more rebuild, trade Thad Young (one of their "prizes" from this offseason's Kevin Love auction) for a 38-year-old man formerly, affectionately, simply known as "The Kid"?
Was this merely a bold-faced public relations move? A chance to sell some tickets at the altar of nostalgia while deflecting attention from what surely will be another 20-or-fewer-win season?
Actually, the future was already bright in Minnesota before KG suddenly reappeared for a sequel. But this final chapter in an amazing legend could turn out to be the best of all. It's worth paying attention to because of the new stories it's sure to spark.
Leader of the Pack, Lone Wolf
Kevin Garnett arrived to the Minnesota Timberwolves courtesy of the fifth pick in the 1995 draft. He was selected by former Celtics legend Kevin McHale and was to be led by another native Minnesotan: former CBA coach Flip Saunders, who took over 20 games into the season for a fired Bill Blair.
No one really knew what Garnett would be, much less what position he played. He was just some gangly kid straight out of high school, technically the first since Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby in 1975.
He was joining a franchise that had never made the playoffs in its six-year existence, that had lost more than 60 games five times already, that was nothing more than a punching bag for real NBA teams.
The early years had been a sideshow, even for the few basketball diehards who remained in the Gopher State, despite having lost the Lakers to Los Angeles 35 years prior.
Sure, golden boy Christian Laettner and bad boy J.R. Rider were recognizable names around the league, but the former clearly never wanted to play in Minnesota, and most seemed to want the divisive and immature latter gone in equal proportion.
Then Garnett put on a uniform, and this started to happen.
And this: With Laettner's bad aura and Rider's bad influence quickly shipped out, Garnett was flanked with talented young point guard Stephon Marbury and veteran scoring forward Tom Gugliotta.
By KG's second season in 1996-97, they were all averaging over 15 points per game, scraping .500 and headed toward their first playoff series. It was all up from there.
But Garnett was perhaps even more ably helped by lesser contributors. Flip Saunders and the T-Wolves front office made sure to provide their budding superstar with a wealth of NBA experience via journeyman Sam Mitchell (who inconceivably had signed up for a second tour of duty in Minnesota after having played there from 1989-92).
Doug West was a lifer, and typically a starter, getting by on his length and work ethic versus a suddenly declining athleticism. Terry Porter had been to two failed Finals with the Portland Trail Blazers but was another steady presence and voice.
Flip Saunders has often talked about how important it was to have that foundation for KG. Similarly, Garnett has never shied away from the huge respect he still has for those who showed him the way...
There was rarely enough depth, though, and never a consistently competent big man. No, Cherokee Parks, Andrew Lang, Stanley Roberts and the immortal Stojko Vrankovic don't count.
The endless deck shuffling began during the 1998 offseason, when Gugliotta was cut loose in order to sign Marbury to a massive deal, only to see the point guard demand a trade 18 games into the next campaign. Wanting his shot at playing the lead man elsewhere, "Starbury" was shipped to the New Jersey Nets in a three-way deal with the Milwaukee Bucks that brought made-of-glass point guard Terrell Brandon northward to Target Center.
So, just when it seemed as if the Wolves were about to crack that first-round glass ceiling, the roster became a revolving door of not-ready-yets such as Chauncey Billups and Rasho Nesterovic, and miscast "second stars" such as Wally Szczerbiak and Joe Smith.
That's not even mentioning all the failed picks such as Ndudi Ebi, Will Avery and Paul Grant, much less all the picks that were lost when Taylor, McHale and Saunders apparently tampered with Smith to re-sign a contract without actually signing a contract.
Still, Garnett carried the Wolves on.
Every campaign became a sheer force of will: KG versus the NBA, getting only modest help on a third-rate franchise.
There were plenty of incredible stats, career accolades and the kind of impact that B/R's Adam Fromal broke down so finely here. But the only time most people outside of Minnesota saw him play was during the All-Star Game or when their favorite Western Conference team was stomping the Wolves in the first round.
Even when McHale finally went all-in during the 2003 offseason, bringing aboard talented-yet-tainted near-stars such as Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, then rounding out the bench with halfway respectable players, one could still sense a ticking time bomb.
KG won NBA MVP that year. His team went 58-24, won the West, got to the Conference Finals and initially gave the dream-team-lite L.A. Lakers all they could handle, only to see Cassell and Troy Hudson go down with injuries.
Kevin Garnett wound up playing point guard because Darrick Martin was the only other one left. He averaged 23.7 PPG, 13.5 RPG, 4.5 APG, 1.2 BPG and 1.2 SPG for the series.
And the Wolves lost 4-2.
It was all downhill from there, and not surprisingly so.
Saunders was fired two-thirds into 2004-05, less than a full season after having reached the Western Conference Finals. McHale, Dwayne Casey and Randy Wittman all took turns attempting to coach the team during the next 195 games, winning only 43 percent of them.
Garnett watched his Wolves miss the playoffs while swinging for desperation plays such as Ricky Davis, Mark Blount, Eddie Griffin, Rashad McCants and Marko Jaric.
He had had enough, and no one blamed him.
I grew up a Timberwolves fan in Minnesota, fanatically following every move KG made and eventually covering the team as a locker room reporter from 2004-2008. Those final years were dark days for Garnett.
There was never a trade demand, but it was obvious to anyone who had watched him long enough: He still was maniacal on the floor, pouring out every ounce of it into Sisyphean efforts.
But the joy was gone.
The Kid was no longer smiling. Sure, he had stopped opening up to the media after getting skewered a few years before while being admittedly too hyperbolic, but now he didn't even talk to them.
He was barking at teammates, trying to spur them on to no avail. You could see it in his eyes: He no longer believed he could win. But he never stopped trying.
The rumors began, and the rest is history.
As Flip Saunders recalled just this past offseason, KG's exit was bittersweet for both sides.
Garnett didn’t want to leave. Garnett was here for 12 years, signed three contracts, had no trade clause, actually turned down trades early at first. But then when he found out this was going to be a total rebuild, anyone that knows Kevin, Kevin wants to win. He wanted to be in a winning situation. ...
(Garnett) loved it here and he gave a lot to this organization and wanted to stay here and be here. Like I said, anybody that’s here for 12 years, it shows his commitment to the organization.
There were never any jersey-burnings in Minnesota, never any real talk radio vitriol, nothing more than the usual, frustrated foot-in-mouth from owner Glen Taylor.
Everyone, including myself, just seemed to accept what was true: Kevin gave us everything he had, and we couldn't give him enough back. He deserved more elsewhere. We were happy for him that he got his chance.
He won his championship that season with Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Doc Rivers and a truly elite supporting cast. He reminded the world that anything was possible.
Garnett chased another ring the following year, struck fear in the Eastern Conference for four more seasons after that and faded into living-legend status before being traded to the Brooklyn Nets with Pierce in 2013 on what was assumed to be a fools-errand coda.
The Wolves never made the playoffs again.
Time Is a Flat Circle
Twenty years in the NBA is a long story. This is a long story. But you need to know all that if you're to see why this next surprising chapter is so much more than just an epilogue.
Garnett will presumably start at power forward as a nice, low-minute, shot-blocking, occasional jump-shooting pairing that fits better next to Nikola Pekovic than the undersized Thad Young did. With Ricky Rubio healthy and Kevin Martin remaining past trade deadline day, the Wolves will have a reasonably competitive starting five.
Garnett will get his standing ovations, the sort of truly thunderous cheers that haven't consistently been heard in Target Center since 2004. He might even give us one or two "he's still KG" plays. He'll surely improve what's been the league's worst scoring defense with his communication and positioning.
But it's not really even about any of that. If you want to see the whole picture, look back one more time, and you'll see the future.
The Kid came into the league as an untapped talent, a Hall of Famer-in-waiting who just needed to learn the ropes on a frighteningly bad team in a tough guy's league.
This week, he's joining the Timberwolves again, a team that has last year's No. 1 pick, Andrew Wiggins, a 19-year-old kid so athletic, yet sometimes so raw, that no one seems to know just how good he'll be.
The roster is littered with talented question marks elsewhere:
- Can Ricky Rubio (24) stay healthy and develop that jump shot (it's coming along, by the way) enough to be a top-tier point guard?
- Can Zach LaVine (19) become a secondary star, not just a high-flier?
- Can Gorgui Dieng (25) tap into all those different skills?
- Is Shabazz Muhammad (22) ready to utilize that newfound work ethic for an entire career?
- Does Anthony Bennett (21) have a motor or much less something to prove he's an actual NBA player?
This is a team whose parts may actually far outweigh the individual sum of those that KG brought in 1995. They could honestly be that good.
Flip Saunders is the coach again. Sam Mitchell is an assistant. Glen Taylor still owns the team.
The West is tougher than ever, and the Wolves are as low in the standings as they've basically ever been.
Garnett probably won't help them win all that much when on the floor. If he does stay on for a couple of extra years, as rumored, his minutes and production will continue to decline precipitously.
Martin and Pekovic are fine professionals, and the recently departed Mo Williams did a lot to help the youngsters weather another injury-induced storm earlier this year, but no one holds a candle to the cache Garnett still has within the organization.
Yet, some may seriously question whether a rabid, sometimes dirty dog such as KG should be let anywhere near impressionable youth.
And maybe rightfully so.
But that's only on the surface. That was the Garnett that the mainstream NBA fan came to know in Boston, but there's strong reason to believe it was merely a black-hat part being played.
Minnesota fans know The Big Ticket was never really like that before he left for Beantown. Not at all, in fact.
We sometimes didn't even recognize him when he was there. And if we were all suddenly Celtics admirers due to his presence, we were also Garnett apologists due to his antics.
But watch what Garnett did with Mason Plumlee this season while on the Nets. Listen to Mason talk about him, as he did with Bleacher Report's Fred Katz earlier this year.
You see guys laughing; that's on purpose. KG makes a point to come in here and make sure guys are still enjoying it, because if you aren't enjoying coming in here, you're definitely not going to figure it out. Kevin, he controls the mood of the locker room.
You never have to worry about defensively where he's going to be. He's so verbal about it. If you do have a doubt, he's right behind you talking to you. So, you don't have to worry about him, and that gives you a lot of confidence in your own position as a helper.
He's a very giving dude with his knowledge, his time and his possessions. We were out in LA. He told me, look, if you ever need my house, if you ever need a car, whatever. He's just very generous. ... We go out to dinner every now and then or hang out.
The real KG is still in there, and he's been starting to re-emerge a little bit more as the facade cracks with age.
Garnett isn't playing for championships in Minnesota this time. He'll likely never raise a banner in Target Center, unless he somehow remains on as a coach (highly unlikely, just ask him) or becomes a minority owner with Taylor (much more likely, as surprising as that relationship would be).
But he wanted to be north again; he wouldn't have waived his no-trade clause if that weren't the case. And just like you don't experience a Minnesota winter (you survive it), Garnett's return is both as welcome and as telling as it was improbable just a few days ago.
"In my 17 years of coaching, I've never seen a team so excited,” Saunders said during Thursday's announcement.
It's not only water under a bridge that leads back to the "glory days"—if this franchise can even claim such a thing—it's a sign that there can be a real hope for better days yet again.
If KG believes in Flip and the Wolves and what they're doing today, after all this, then everyone else probably should too.
The state's most famous Kevin will soon saunter onto that tree-lined floor again and stalk the practice court with probably more than the initial "am I really here?" out-of-body feeling he's sure to experience.
He'll surely see some shadows.
If you squint and look closely enough, you'll see them too...
An already graying Sam Mitchell pushing a young Kevin Garnett hard in practice, then cheering him on during every single game as Flip Saunders looks on, smiling.
You'll see a young star truly believing in his destiny because sage veterans already do, and because they've proved they'll go to war with him anytime. That 19-year-old kid will learn the tricks of the trade, both in survival and supremacy, and then he'll demand, by example and with his newfound edge, that the other youngsters follow suit.
When you open your eyes all the way again, it will be Garnett, perhaps around for even the next couple of seasons, paying back the mentors before him, patiently pushing Andrew Wiggins and Co. to the stratospheric levels he once reached, and that hopefully they'll reach beyond someday as one hell of an ensemble.
Maybe he'll even really smile again for the first time in years.