I feel old pretty often these days. Sometimes I dwell on a vivid memory I have and then realize that that memory is from 20 years ago. For someone scratching their mid-30’s right now, that makes me feel old. And I felt it last week when I was having a conversation about how I felt when the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted a high school kid named Kevin Garnett in 1995. I was almost 14 at the time and that was the moment that I embraced the Timberwolves as my favorite Minnesota sports team. Up to that point I had been a Twins fan to the core (mostly due to the fact that the Twins had won 2 World Series in the last 8 years). However, the Twins had regressed since the ’91 series and the Vikings weren’t interesting yet. When Garnett was drafted, the buzz around the team really started building. Garnett was the player with the high ceiling who was going to push this team into the playoffs someday. It was just a matter of when.
Kevin Garnett came into the league raw. He was a tall, skinny kid with lots of potential but not much experience. In the early days he started slowly, averaging 10-18 points per game and 6-10 rebounds. But his competitiveness was obvious from the get go. This guy had the drive to win and the perseverance to work for it. The year after Kevin was drafted, the Wolves drafted who they hoped would become his long-term running mate: point guard Stephon Marbury. Together these two young stars-in-the-making made headlines around the NBA and the new dynamic duo who might take over the league when Jordan and the Bulls faded out. This was during the era of “NBA Inside Stuff” on NBC Saturday mornings and I remember watching all sorts of highlights from these two fun, young players! The two played together for 2 full seasons and made the playoffs both years before Marbury began griping. He wanted to lead the team and make more money than Garnett. The Wolves’ plan had backfired and they traded Marbury during his 3rd year.
Garnett continued toiling away, willing the Wolves into a low playoff seed each season and losing in the first round to more well-rounded teams. Garnett signed a massive contract with the team in 1998 and it looked like he would finish his career as a Timberwolf.
Somewhere in the early 2000’s, the fans started getting restless. Seven straight seasons the Wolves had made the playoffs and seven straight seasons they had lost in the first round. Following a 4-2 loss to the Lakers in 2003, Wolves management finally decided they needed to bring in some star power to run with KG. Their internal building schemes hadn’t worked and they needed to try something else. They went out and found two players who would change everything: Sam Cassell and Latrell Spreewell.
Armed with these two talented, but flawed players, the Wolves FINALLY won a playoff series in 2004 – beating the Nuggets in round 1. In the next round, they ran up against a very talented Kings team and battled them to a game 7. I remember watching games in this series at a bar on Grand Avenue eating potato skins with friends. It was amazing that the Wolves were actually good. Garnett was the league MVP. Spreewell was the salty sharpshooter and Cassell was the weird and effective slasher and distributor. That series was heart-poundingly good and the Wolves won game 7 by 3 points. It was on to the Western Conference Finals.
In the WCF, the Wolves met another re-tooled squad: the hated LA Lakers. The Lakers, after winning 3 titles in the early 2000’s, had decided to add more veterans and picked up Gary Payton and Karl Malone, two almost aging players in search of titles on their way out of the league. Garnett was primed for the series and averaged 23.7 points and 13 rebounds, but Spreewell and Cassell looked like they’d given all they had in the Kings series and had nothing left. Cassell’s legs were giving out and that ineffectiveness cost the Wolves dearly. They lost the series in 6 games.
This was the pinnacle. The run was amazing. It seemed like Garnett finally had his supporting cast the way it was supposed to be. This was the time to push for the title. But it was not to be. In the offseason, Spreewell went a bit crazy talking about needing more money to “feed his family”. Cassell wasn’t happy and backup PG Troy Hudson wasn’t either. The Wolves made the decision mid-season to fire beloved coach Flip Saunders who had presided over the recent success.
Soon, the familiar pro-sports trope emerged: the Wolves needed to trade Kevin Garnett now or risk losing him in free agency and getting nothing in return. In short, the window was closed and it was time to his the “reset” button on the team. Team GM Kevin McHale made the decision to trade Kevin to a team that he himself had history with: the Boston Celtics. The Wolves got a boatload of players in the deal, but the centerpiece was a promising young player named Al Jefferson.
The Celtics were in “win now” mode with superstar Paul Pierce in his prime. Beside acquiring Garnett, they went out and got sharpshooter Ray Allen. And guess what? They won the NBA Finals. Garnett, Pierce and Allen each won their first NBA ring. Amazing.
Meanwhile, the Wolves began probably the most painful stretch in franchise history. Jefferson didn’t work out. He was eventually traded. McHale was fired and replaced with the amazingly inept David Kahn. Kahn’s blunders were historic as he wasted high draft picks on bad players like Johnny Flynn and missed out on drafting Steph Curry. However, he did manage to get a hot Spanish point guard named Ricky Rubio to Minneapolis. We drafted Kevin Love and enjoyed his immense talent, but he eventually soured on the organization and fought it way out. That’s when things turned around.
It was none other than Flip Saunders, the once fired coach, who returned to the franchise as the GM and flipped Kevin Love to the LeBron-led Cavs for the #1 pick in the 2014 draft: Andrew Wiggins. Flip started building from the ground up with high upside players like Wiggins, Zach Lavine and others. It was time to hit “reset” one more time, but with more vision this time around. And that’s where Kevin Garnett re-enters the story.
Last week, Flip Saunders talked Garnett into allowing a trade to bring him back to Minnesota. Garnett had left Boston and played the last couple of seasons in Brooklyn, but there was no connection or future there. Now, he’s the veteran leader this team desperately needed for their young talent to learn from. He’s the no-nonsense competitor that will elevate the team, not by his MVP talent level, but by his sheer competitiveness and drive to excel.
On the night he first returned to the court as a member of the Wolves, the Target Center sold out. The crowd was in a frenzy. Video tributes were played, old friends were highlighted and Kevin stood in awe of the reception. He quickly realized that this community never stopped respecting him.
And why should we have? Kevin gave it his all here in his first stint. He never quit on the team, ever. And when he won with the Celtics, he even gave a shout out to his people back in ‘Sota! Are you kidding me?
And after seeing the outpouring of love and support for his return last week, Garnett personally bought 1000 tickets to a home game this week and gave them all away to fans as a thank you.
There is no one like Kevin Garnett. And I for one am overjoyed that he’s back with the Timberwolves.