KG’s press conference showed exactly why it’s so good to have him back

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Kevin Garnett extends his hand to a bowing Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman at the start of Tuesday's press conference.

Well, that was a command performance.

Minnesota Timberwolves franchise icon Kevin Garnett commanded our loyalty by sincerely pledging his own at a “welcome back” press conference Tuesday afternoon at Target Center. It had been seven and a half years since he had last walked into the building as a member of the Wolves organization. It’s useful to put that past in perspective.

When Garnett was traded to the Boston Celtics for five players and two draft picks on the final day of July in 2007, both player and fans were exhausted with a team that seemed to be increasingly burning energy without traction as it frantically slid into entrenched mediocrity. In the years since then, we have come to appreciate exactly how hard KG labored to meet that insufficient standard.

He departed after delivering a caliber of performance we had taken for granted. His final season in Minnesota had him lead the NBA in rebounding for the fourth straight year, score more than 20 points per game for the ninth straight year, and dish out more than four assists per game for the tenth straight year, all enough to earn him his tenth appearance in the All-Star game.

But the streak that mattered most was three straight years without a playoff appearance, an embarrassing stretch that began with a salary mutiny by the sidekick stars (Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell) who had helped KG and the Wolves reach the Western Conference Finals in 2004 and reached its nadir with clumsy backup center Mark Madsen clanking three-pointers in a blatant display of tanking during the final game of the 2006 season in order for the team to secure a draft pick in the lottery.

Along the way, the failure to win after eight straight trips to the playoffs began to erode Garnett’s innate charm and perspective. He used his outsized influence within the organization to mostly disastrous ends, advocating for the signings of overpriced players such as Troy Hudson and Trenton Hassell and the free agent acquisition of Mike James, while contributing to the dismissal of coach Dwane Casey. And he became a saltier presence around the team staff and media.

We know now that it could have been worse. In Garnett’s final season here, after Casey had been canned in favor of Randy Wittman, the Wolves limped to the finish with a 32-50 record. In the seven seasons since then, Minnesota has exceeded that victory total just once, and has won less than a third of its games with an overall record of 175-399.

You want dysfunction and ineptitude? McCants. Darko. Flynn. Beasley. Rambis. Kahn.

A better nature

The sort of tunnel vision that compelled us to believe mediocrity with a Hall of Famer in his prime was so terrible now inevitably colors our reactions to KG’s return, in ways that are by turns rosy and cynical.

I am an unabashed Kevin Garnett fan, but I was still shocked by how charmed I was by his words and behavior at Tuesday’s press conference. On a visceral level, I had forgotten, over these grueling years, who he is and what he means to this franchise.

I had forgotten that Garnett had been loyal to the Wolves long after everyone else had punted on the relationship. Years after then-respected national writers such as Sam Smith had literally accused Garnett of not wanting to win because he didn’t agitate for a trade to the Bulls or another more successful franchise, KG was still barricading himself inside the only NBA organization he had ever known. Just a month before the trade with Boston went through, he had nixed a deal with the Celtics by refusing to extend his contract, which had only one year remaining. It was only after he realized how much the Wolves coveted the trade (then-GM Kevin McHale was enamored of the seven-player haul that included potential McHale prototype Al Jefferson) that he finally relented.

Yes, it is true that Garnett didn’t want to take less money when discussions were held regarding his extension with the Wolves. His performance in the seasons both prior and subsequent to those discussions have borne out that he was worth every penny of a maximum contract. Even a loyal person understands that martyrdom has its limits.

Garnett reminded us of these things with no-nonsense statements sprinkled throughout Tuesday’s press conference. He said waiving the no-trade clause that otherwise would have kept him with the Brooklyn Nets “was a hard decision because I am a very loyal person,” then proceeded to thank the Nets organization, while noting the disruption caused by a midseason trade.

Kevin Garnett smiling during Tuesday's press conference.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Kevin Garnett smiling during Tuesday’s press conference.

More to the point, KG acknowledged that, “I wasn’t really happy in how I left here. My goal since I’ve been in the league is to win a championship and I wanted it to be here in the Twin Cities. I’ve always wanted that.”

Hearing that, I recalled the initial anger and frustration KG expressed when the deal first went through. It was a blip, easily forgotten in the tumult surrounding this huge change that temporarily doomed the Wolves franchise and immediately produced a championship for the Celtics. And easily forgotten because we assume players don’t mind being dealt from miserable teams to star-studded playoff contenders.

Another reason Garnett’s press conference charm came as something of an ambush is because his presence in the media the past few seasons has been dominated by the excesses of his competitive streak. His angry outbursts and goofy antics are prime click-bait for websites and time-consuming fodder for talk radio.

Even so, how did I forget the soulful dude I covered for a dozen years?

Just because his physical skills are in decline doesn’t mean the thoughtful, playful, compassionate and honest facets of the man have faded. So there he was again, riffing with choice detail about how much the children of Flip Saunders have grown, providing heartfelt shout-outs to media members he recognized and helping others who were flustered by the moment get over their nerves. There he was helping Sid Hartman through his latest dotage with just the right mixture of levity, respect and diffusion. And there he was answering every tough or pertinent question — about mending strained relations with McHale and owner Glen Taylor; his role on the court and in the locker room; and his future plans to someday own the Timberwolves — with a straightforward, good-natured candor that was an informational mother lode and emotionally authentic.

He said the current Wolves roster is “the most talented team” the franchise has boasted since its inception. As for past enmity, he first said “I’ve understood that you have to forgive and forget,” then honestly amended it by emphasizing that “I won’t forget certain things” — an obvious reference to Taylor questioning his desire right after the trade — “but it’s time to move on.”

When it came to his long-term plans, both as a player and possible owner, he first deferred by remarking that he wanted to see how his body felt at the end of the season. But on a follow-up question later posed by the Strib’s Jerry Zgoda, he copped to his imagined endgame: “At some point I want to understand ownership and try to get into that and bring a championship to this city. That has been my goal since I became a Wolf.”

The pure, feel-good phrases were probably at least partially scripted in his head, but the delivery was credible.

“I figure if Lebron can go home, shiiiiit, why can’t I?” he said to great laughter. And later, when asked if it feels like his career has come full circle with this arrival back in Minnesota, he sent the marketing department into paroxysms of joy with these memorable lines: “This is a fairy tale. This is a perfect ending to it…This is full-circle right here.”

Good faith

Less than a week ago, I wrote about the risks of Garnett’s return to Minnesota. Some of those concerns have been tweaked by recent events, but it is important to remember that this entire shebang could still eventually result in refreshed disaster. Either way, it won’t be boring.

For example, by putting his aspirations for ownership of the Wolves out in the open, KG has lessened the quotient for speculative sniping that would otherwise occur. But not the intrigue.

One could argue that Garnett has even more tactical interest in the greater goodwill of the roster knowing that he may someday be responsible for the entire bottom line. So yes, he wants to push Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins to be as good as they can be, but he’d also prefer they be happy when it comes time for them to become free agents four or five years down the road. It’s a fascinating, unprecedented situation.

It was in Garnett’s best interest to be as charming as he could be on Tuesday, his reintroduction to an ownership, front office, roster and fan base of a franchise that he hopes to literally possess in a few years.

Because the press conference was both charming and authentic, this is a honeymoon period in KG’s second stint in Minnesota. It doesn’t obviate all the obstacles and woe on the horizon for a ballclub with a 12-42 record in a brutally competitive Western Conference. And it won’t turn back the clock to the MVP who could control a game at both ends of the court for the Wolves on a regular basis.

In other words, Garnett is going to do some things, and say some things, that deserve to be ripped, and I look forward to doing the ripping.

But that’s because I look forward to having Kevin Garnett around again, in uniform at first and then in a suit or street clothes. I suspect that his ongoing presence will be more of a draw for free agents who might otherwise look askance at this frozen tundra. And I know that in the immediate future, the Wolves have become a more exciting team to watch. (Whether they are better or not remains an open question.)

Most of all, however, I appreciate that Garnett has knocked the mothballs of nostalgia and other hazy memories off the tailoring of his character. He has reminded me that loyalty, passion and honesty are the hallmarks of his professionalism. When it is laced with the experience of having been a superstar player who now aspires to be an NBA owner, it is a compelling force that I want — for better and for worse — to be part of the team I cover.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 02/25/2015 - 12:25 pm.

    Thanks….

    for your coverage of this event. Is Sid Hartman really bowing to Garnett? That is almost as bad as POTUS bowing to the Saudi king.

  2. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 02/25/2015 - 12:25 pm.

    Boston trade

    Britt, can you elaborate on the statement about KG only accepting the trade to Boston when he knew that the Wolves were getting a haul in return? I was under the impression that Garnett primarily relented due to the Ray Allen trade, but it was all a long time ago.

    But yeah, watching that press conference online really helped solidify (in my mind) that this was the right move. Knowing that a player of Garnett’s stature will be associated with this franchise for longer than just a season is important for stability, and could potentially be a draw (or drawback?) to free agents.

    But now that he’s openly talked about ownership, someone needs to ask him an advanced analytics question, right?

  3. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 02/25/2015 - 12:43 pm.

    I’ve always thought his antics were overblown

    They’re not good for his perception as a player by the general public or with opponents, but these are adults dealing with other adults and are, as you put it, “excesses of his competitive streak.” They can stick up for themselves. The Wolves teammates he was rumored to have dustups with, if I remember who they were correctly, probably needed to be put in their place, and such things happen in other locker rooms. Making Big Baby Davis cry didn’t represent that the two were friends.

    It can’t be overlooked how hard it is to become a competent, reliable NBA player that helps a team win games; even many of the role players on good teams are just along for the ride. The KG and post-KG eras display that clearly, as does the recent improvement after Martin, Pekovic, and Rubio returned. KG’s comment that coaches manage the game while the players bring the talent and IQ to produce and lead fits in well with this idea. The more players a team has who use their talent and IQ consistently while pushing their teammates to play together, the better a team is, and I don’t think a lot of those guys exist in the NBA. Rubio plays hard and has a high IQ but doesn’t always exercise good discretion; Martin plays at a pace that forces his teammates to stay focused offensively but is somewhat selfish and doesn’t play hard on D; and Pek plays hard and smart but is vocal in a Kevin Love-ish way (with vivid nonverbal language to the refts and when a teammate screws up). KG may not be the soothing presence that Sam Mitchell and Terry Porter were for him, but he understands the importance of physical and mental preparation and in-game focus that most/all of his teammates are still learning. As we found out the hard way with Mo and Thad, not every veteran provides that.

  4. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 02/25/2015 - 01:26 pm.

    As much fun to read

    as I’m sure it was to write. I envy you your time at Target Center the rest of this season which, suddenly, doesn’t seem nearly so miserable.

  5. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 02/25/2015 - 03:35 pm.

    wolves

    The fact that most of the wolves’ former coaches have gone on to be much more successful elsewhere should tell you all you need to know about this organization. Taylor clearly does not know his basketball and his hiring of Flip is questionable in itself. Now it’s possible Flip and KG purchase the wolves in the next couple of years? Look forward to more losing basketball for the foreseeable future.

  6. Submitted by Tom Om on 02/28/2015 - 01:11 pm.

    I must agree with Britt. To voice a pessimistic view on the future of the Wolves organization under Saunders/Garnet, and trying to support it with the notion that “most of the wolves’ former coaches have gone on to be much more successful elsewhere” can be irritating for several reasons. First, most former Wolves coaches have not actually gone on to be successful. I would like to add Rambis to Greg’s list of coaches who couldn’t get a coaching job after leaving Minnesota (the list already included Rodgers, Lowe, and Blair). Second, I think that neither Wittman nor Casey can be considered success stories yet. They both coach in the East (easier task), and they both only have one winning season under their belts. They both had two losing years on their new teams before winning, and were on par with their performances in Minn. It took them both a long time before they reached a winning season–Wittman did not have a winning season until 14 years into his coaching career (4 after leaving the Wolves), and Casey took 8 years (6 after leaving the Wolves). Minnesota was a random stop for them, and was not the reason for their failure–they simply weren’t ready. The owner/management failure was hiring them not firing them.
    By the way, Saunders resume includes 9 winning seasons (in 7 of them he won more than 50 games). He is also one of only 12 coaches who won more than 64 games in a season in the last 40 years.

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