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The risky return of Kevin Garnett

He’s back. And for better or worse, his acquisition will mean a volatile change in the team’s standard operating procedure.

Be it Garnett jerseys or other paraphernalia celebrating the return of an icon, the marketing department should have a field day dreaming up ways to literally capitalize on this stunning development in an otherwise doleful season.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Less than six months ago, before he had played a single game for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Thaddeus Young sat in front of the team’s assembled beat writers and other media for the first time and delivered a few clichés about his competitive desire. “I’m an at-all-costs type of guy,” Young declared. “If it means tripping my grandmother up, I’ll go out there and do it just to win a basketball game. I’m sorry, Grandma.”

On Thursday, Young was traded to the Brooklyn Nets for a player who has become legendary for, among many other things, talking that kind of smack. But this player toils to transform such exaggerations into reality. He has walked the talk with a competitive mania drenched in sweat, one that has been poured into nearly every worthy accomplishment the Timberwolves franchise has ever achieved.

Welcome back, Kevin Garnett.

I’m not going to pretend to be objective about my feelings for KG. I covered the Wolves for each of the dozen seasons he played here. I watched a teenager who sweated and stumbled over cue cards for a radio station promo later hold the NBA trophy for Most Valuable Player over his head. In his prime, Garnett was the best defender I’ve ever witnessed, and my experience ranges from Bill Russell to Lebron James.

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So when he walks to the corner of the arena opposite the home team bench, pounding his chest and roaring to the rafters before the opening tip, it’s going to feel like the return of a family member, the kind of goosebump moment that makes you grateful for your capacity for sensitive emotions.

But worthy analysis doesn’t have a lot in common with the sentimentality of Hallmark cards. My thoughts and feelings for Kevin Garnett are dominated by affection, loyalty and nostalgia. My thoughts and feelings about KG’s return to the Timberwolves in 2015 are a lot more complicated.

Sugar high

The most obvious result of acquiring Garnett for Young in a straight-up swap is the short-term benefit it brings to the Wolves bottom line. While it is true that KG’s $12 million salary is greater than the $9.2 million Young will earn this year, the season is nearly two-thirds completed, shaving the discrepancy down to the vicinity of a million dollars.

That will easily be eclipsed by the boost in attendance KG’s presence will engender in the 14 home games (out of 29 total) remaining on the team’s 2014-15 season schedule. Even tonight’s game against Phoenix had a spike in attendance (and ticket values on the resale sites), before it was announced that Garnett will not yet be available to suit up.

Be it Garnett jerseys or other paraphernalia celebrating the return of an icon, the marketing department should have a field day dreaming up ways to literally capitalize on this stunning development in an otherwise doleful season.

But the larger potential windfall happens on next year’s salary structure. While KG’s contract expires at the end of this season, Young had the option of either remaining with the Wolves next year at a salary of $9.7 million or becoming an unrestricted free agent. His four months playing for Minnesota was unsatisfying for both sides, so it is certainly possible he would have bolted. By making a deal earlier this month for power forward Adreian Payne and now trading the 26-year old Young for the 38-year old Garnett, the Wolves are acting like they believe Young was indeed headed out the door.

But purely from a financial standpoint, it makes more sense for Young to exercise the last year of his contract at that pretty lucrative $9.7 million rate and then pursue free agency in 2016-17, when the salary cap is expected to rise significantly for all NBA teams, increasing both the number of suitors and amount of money available. I think that’s what he will do regardless of the team holding the rights to his services.

In any case, Thursday’s trade ensures that the Wolves have greater certainty of a significantly lowered salary base going into next season.

As rumors of the trade spread through the morning on Thursday, my first reaction was that the Wolves were indulging a cynicism — reaping the hype and revenue of a 60-day return by the franchise’s lone conquering hero while slashing next season’s salary base. As an added “bonus,” because Garnett’s skills and playing time are much diminished due to age, acquiring him for Young would become a more colorful way for the Wolves to “tank” games and ensure a worse record in order to better position themselves for a quality draft pick this summer.

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But in the hours since KG waived his no-trade clause and approved the move, it has become apparent that this deal may be aimed at a longer-term strategy, which brings a new set of complications.

Player, mentor … owner?

The first rumors to crop up about a KG return to Minnesota happened many months ago, in connection with him being part of a group that would buy the Wolves franchise from owner Glen Taylor. Since that time, the Los Angeles Clippers have been sold for a whopping $2 billion and media contracts to air the NBA have been extended with an exorbitant raise in rates, generating a coming tsunami of cash and boosting the value of even unsuccessful franchises out in the frozen tundra to heights nobody could have anticipated.

Consequently, after courting offers for the team three years ago, Taylor is no longer in a hurry to sell — on the contrary, he shrewdly bought out some disgruntled minority owners shortly before the boom.

For a billionaire, however, Taylor does have a notoriously provincial streak, especially when it comes to loyalty and past relationships. He has a history of waiting far too long to fire coaches and general managers, and even then does so with anguished reluctance.

It was thus not totally surprising that Taylor brought back Flip Saunders, who was let go as coach in 2005, to become president of basketball operations in 2013. More than that, Saunders got Taylor to provide him with a small ownership stake in the franchise and, after a year’s time, talked Taylor into allowing him to become head coach as well as POBO.

Now consider the scenario facing Garnett on Thursday. He is three months shy of his 39th birthday, wrapping up his 20th NBA season on the final year of another massive contract. He hears that if he waives his no-trade clause, he can return to the franchise he led to its only playoff appearances — eight straight! — while garnering an MVP award.

Not only that, it is a franchise where the personnel, the playbook and a tiny chip of the ownership are being handled by his old coach from that era, Flip Saunders. The lead assistant coach is Sam Mitchell, the player who was a significant mentor to him during his first few years in the NBA. And the owner is Glen Taylor, someone with whom he’s clashed in the past, but who obviously has a soft spot for him — and who, at age 73, owns the dominant stake of the franchise KG covets (and has already stated that none of his heirs have intense interest in the Wolves going forward).

Kevin Garnett waived the no-trade clause. And according to reports from both the Associated Press and Star Tribune writers who cover the team, negotiations have begun on securing Garnett’s playing services with the Wolves for another two seasons after this one.

He’s back. And it could be for a very long time.

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KG on the court

Before we get into the real meat-and-potatoes of KG’s risks and rewards — his impact on team chemistry — let’s start with his on-court contributions, which are the easiest things to predict.

The positive, as always with Garnett, is defense. Only four players in NBA history have played more regular-season minutes than KG, yet he is still spry and savvy enough to dramatically improve what has been the worst team defense in NBA history (in terms of opponents’ effective field goal percentage) this season.

Indeed, according to the stats compiled at nba.com, when it comes to “defensive real plus/minus” (DRPM) which factors in the caliber of your teammates on the court in determining value in a team’s defense, Garnett ranks 17th out of all NBA players, with a DRPM of plus 3.36 points per 100 possessions. Even with a minus -1.44 points per 100 possessions on his offensive real plus/minus (ORPM), that defensive excellence still gives KG a great overall real plus/minus (RPM) than anyone on the Wolves (ironically, Thad Young was the team RPM leader before being dealt).

Garnett is one of the most intelligent defenders to ever play the game, a genius at closing angles to the basket for the player he is guarding and arguably the best communicator of on-the-fly defense in the NBA. That is sweet elixir for a Wolves team that has precious little communication and little clue of how to help each other. He is also a superb rebounder on the defensive glass — a nice complement to Nikola Pekovic, who excels on the offensive boards — but is overrated as a rim protector, preferring to deny his man low-post position rather than try and block shots.

Last, but hardly least, Garnett is a rugged and, especially as he ages, borderline dirty defender when it comes to denying the ball or the bucket to the opponent. He has a mean streak born of a competitive zeal that is truly alien to most everyone on the Wolves with the possible exception of Ricky Rubio.

Given that the Wolves are down to a pair of second-year power forwards (Anthony Bennett and center-power forward Gorgui Dieng) who have little conception of how to play the position, along with untested rookie Adriean Payne, KG will be a glorious mentor teaching low-post defense.

So what’s not to love: availability and offense. Gone are the days when Garnett can partake in back-to-back games, and the ones he does play usually tax him out after about 20 minutes.

On offense, Garnett has the profile of a middling small forward. Incredibly, more than half of his shots this season have come from the area 16 feet out to the three-point line. He remains an above-average marksman from that distance — 47.8 percent. But having your seven-footer launching long two-pointers is an inefficient offensive tactic in the modern NBA, though (unfortunately) it’s right in Saunders’ wheelhouse.

Otherwise, KG is a relatively poor shooter in the restricted area near the hoop (50 percent), from 3-10 feet away (40 percent) and from three-point range (16.7 percent).

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The risks and rewards of KG’s indelible stamp

Anyone who thinks that Garnett will be a minor presence, a prototypical “veteran mentor” and mere “chemistry tweak” on the Wolves roster doesn’t know him. For better or worse, his acquisition will mean a volatile change in the team’s standard operating procedure.

It was Flip Saunders who provided me with the best definition of chemistry in the NBA that I have ever heard. Chemistry, the coach confided more than a decade ago, is all about establishing a pecking order that allows the players to recognize and settle into their proper roles on the team.

Okay, so the Wolves have just brought in a revered icon on his last legs whose vices and virtues are inextricably bound up in a competitive mania for the game that has made him one of the more polarizing presences in the league. It should come as no shock that as Garnett’s skills have eroded and the twilight of his career has approached, he has not mellowed nor accepted his inevitable fate. Instead, he has ratcheted up his already white-hot intensity, to the point where his customarily incessant trash talk has occasionally morphed into goofy moves like blowing in the ear of David West or pretending to bite the arm of Joakim Noah.

So where is this guy — with a possible two-year deal allowing him to play into his 40s and designs on franchise ownership twirling in his head — going to fit in the pecking order? Where should he fit?

It is easy to speculate but impossible to know what his impact will be on the nine players on the Wolves roster with two years or less of NBA experience. I enjoy the idea of Garnett lighting a fire under Anthony Bennett, whose inconsistency needs to be resolved or identified as unworthy of further investment; or Zach LaVine, who is in many respects the opposite of Garnett when it comes to absorbing team play and prioritizing skill sets.

But how does the heat of Garnett interact with the cool of Andrew Wiggins, the next superstar whose development needs to be the top priority of this franchise? How will they get along next year, or the year after, as Wiggins assumes a more subtle kind of leadership in his inimitable way? And what happens if either Garnett or Wiggins opt for a pecking order showdown?

But the biggest risk in terms of pecking order would seem to be Garnett and Ricky Rubio. Consider that Rubio has been playing professionally since the age of 14. He came over as a much-ballyhooed rookie four years ago and — after an auspicious half season in his rookie year — suffered a devastating knee injury. His second year was spent recovering his mobility and trying to absorb the welter of other injuries that beset the team, most significantly to Kevin Love. His third year found him in a passive-aggressive feud with coach Rick Adelman that had him benched in favor of J.J. Barea for a majority of the team’s fourth quarter minutes. Meanwhile, most of the ink spilled in his direction concerned his historically inaccurate shooting rather than the fact he led the NBA in total steals and was second in total assists.

This year, Love was gone and a fat four-year contract was signed. Ricky Rubio was the unquestioned leader of the franchise. Then, five games into the season, he severely sprained his ankle and lost nearly three months, during which time the Wolves demonstrated how much they missed him.

Returning in early February, Rubio flashed an improved shooting stroke and again showed his inspirational leadership on the court. The Wolves are 4-6 when he plays and 7-36 when he doesn’t. And yet, five games into his return, the Wolves trade for Kevin Garnett.

If there is a dominant theme to this entire, crazy season, it is that Flip Saunders is running the show and is unafraid to shake things up. Saunders loves the Garnett acquisition. In a late night press conference announcing the deal on Thursday, he said that KG’s contributions would be more valuable to the team than the first-round draft pick Minnesota forfeited this summer in order to acquire Young. And he said that Garnett “will be really good for Ricky.”

Saunders’ track record has been decent thus far. And there is no question that he is positioning this team not just for playoff contention, but as a team that can win it all. Assuming that Garnett hits all the right buttons in the locker room and on the court while interacting with his team, and assuming the Wolves pick up an elite prospect in the coming draft, there is a very high ceiling in play.

But the floor is a potentially painful thud of lost opportunity. How much chaos is too much chaos?

Amid the hubbub, one truth stands out like a beacon: Flip Saunders has become pretty much irreplaceable as coach until, for glory or doom, this thing is hashed out.