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The Wolves could really use KG right now

Kevin Garnett
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Jettisoning Kevin Garnett from the franchise has been a mistake.

Through the first month of the 2016-17 NBA season, the Minnesota Timberwolves have played like a team that is less than the sum of its talented and exciting individual parts.

There is ample cause for Wolves fans to take comfort in the future — and ample opportunities to revel in the present. One of the team’s two cornerstones, Andrew Wiggins, has taken a huge step forward by adding a reliable jump shot to his offensive arsenal while figuring out some of the synergies that phenomenon creates in other aspects of his game.

Under new coach Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves have joined the modern NBA by exploiting the added value of the three-point shot. Better yet, every member of the team’s trio of 21-year old starters — Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine — is shooting better than 40 percent from long distance while collectively hoisting 14.7 attempts per game. Because all three are extraordinarily athletic and can drive to the rim, this ability to spread the floor with multiple weapons creates a multitude of options to score both in transition and the half-court sets.

Consequently, the Wolves currently rank 8th among the 30 NBA teams in offensive rating (points per possession), up from 11th a year ago. On defense, the points they allow per 100 possessions has dropped from 107.1 a year ago to 105.5, enabling them to climb from 27th to 21st in overall defensive efficiency.

Truth be told, on a play-by-play basis, Wolves fans have been treated to a richer mix of spellbinding talent and capable performance thus far this season than any team since the 2003-04 edition went to the Western Conference Finals. Through the first 13 games of the season, they have outscored their opponents by 14 points.

So much for the good news.

When it comes to the bottom line of winning or losing basketball games, this Wolves team is quickly establishing a reputation for being epic chokers. Despite their overall positive point differential, they have a record of 4-9. Only three NBA teams are worse.

Four of those nine losses have resulted from the Wolves coughing up double-digit leads in the second half. These bouts of ineptitude are sudden and melodramatic. It is if the Wolves have been injected with a toxin that alters the team’s brain chemistry, generating alternating currents of paralysis, uncertainty and panic. They last anywhere from three-and-a-half to seven minutes of playing time and result in opposing runs of 16-0, 24-1, 15-2, and 17-0.

In all four of these games, the Wolves had “comfortable” leads, ranging from 11 to 14 points, at onset of the carnage, and managed to stop the bleeding once the opponent had seized the advantage by a relatively small margin, anywhere from 1 to 9 points. In other words, they regained their equilibrium once the entire lead had vanished and the choke was complete. Against Charlotte, they even battled back to take an 8-point lead, only to choke for the second time in the quarter, permitting a 21-3 run that cinched the loss.

Yes, sustained runs by teams are a relatively common occurrence in the NBA. But it is worth noting that there have been no similarly galvanizing second-half comebacks by the Timberwolves thus far. In their wins, their opponents have held the lead a grand total 9 minutes and 28 seconds — and never in the second half — through four 48-minute contests.

A month into the season, despite holding third-quarter leads in nearly half of their first nine defeats, we have yet to see the Wolves snatch a game that is up for grabs in crunch time. In part that’s because the club hasn’t usually competed well enough to even create an “up for grabs” situation. There is a pattern here, a team-wide change in behavior under even the earliest hints of crunch-time pressure. It stems from a dearth of poise and composure, and points to a void in veteran leadership.

An absence of gravitas

In retrospect, this void is the deliberate handiwork of President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau, executed with the cooperation of head coach Tom Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden.

In his first off-season roster makeover as chief architect of an NBA franchise, Thibs surprised nearly everyone with his conservative spending and absence of flashy acquisitions. He ignored some of his favorite players from his Chicago Bulls tenure who were on the free agent market, such as Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, in favor of lower-priced journeymen such as Brandon Rush, Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill. He selected a four-year collegian with the fifth overall pick in the draft, combo guard Kris Dunn.

In my optimistic season preview of the team, I approved of these measures as an integral part of a prudent long-range plan. Specifically, I noted that Thibs had upgraded the depth on the roster without impinging upon his ability to conduct a season-long review of the glorious cache of young talent bequeathed to him by the late Flip Saunders.

For role players such as Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Dunn — and to a slightly lesser extent older players Gorgui Dieng and Nemanja Bjelica — that meant seeing how effectively they can develop and burnish their virtues and hide their foibles under Thibs’ sets and systems. For Towns and Wiggins — and to a lesser extent Ricky Rubio — it meant how quickly and how prominently they could establish leadership and a viable pecking order in a Thibs regime.

After just 13 games, drawing definitive conclusions is risky business. That said, the most consequential flaw in the roster design thus far is the absence of gravitas and sagacity that comes with respected veteran leadership.

The players with the alpha skill-sets, Towns and Wiggins, are too inexperienced for the job. Both show tremendous leadership potential — Towns is charismatic, voluble and versatile, while Wiggins is quiet but genial, and seems to gravitate rather than shrink from spotlight situations on the court. But each has to figure himself out before being able handle genuine authority.

Rubio is sabotaged by the biases against him built into Thibodeau’s system, and by his notorious inability to punish opponents who dare him to beat them with jumpers and layups. His on-ball defense is less effective and crucial in a system in which the Wolves switch more often on pick and rolls, and his ability to choreograph a half-court offense is frequently usurped by Thibs’ desire to make Wiggins, and occasionally Towns, the decision-maker with the ball.

The veterans on the bench are a deliberately motley collection. Aldrich is a banger with one very good NBA season under his belt as a reserve last year with the Clippers. Rush is a shooting specialist with the Warriors’ championship pedigree on his resume, but he has shot poorly, been injured and was never a leader on prior teams. Jordan Hill doesn’t play unless it’s garbage time.

An interesting stopgap possibility is Gorgui Dieng. He was just signed by Thibs to a long-term contact, is notoriously diligent in executing assignments, and carries himself with poise, confidence and clarity. But if he is your alpha leader, you lack the kind of gravitas required for the inevitably rough patches over the course of an NBA season, especially in the eyes and minds of future alphas Towns and Wiggins.

Missing KG

For the second time in the first month of the season, I am compelled to state that jettisoning Kevin Garnett from the franchise has been a mistake. I’ve previously voiced my understanding of why Thibs didn’t want the distraction of KG around — as the icon of the franchise, he’s an outsized presence used to having his own way. He is still smarting from his diminished chance at owning a piece of the Wolves now that Saunders is gone, and didn’t appreciate the way the team let Thibs’ predecessor Sam Mitchell go at the end of last season.

I also understand that Garnett is of limited, and even then short-term, effectiveness as a player due to the enormous wear and tear on his body through his storied career.

But Garnett has gravitas, earned through what he has done, what he knows, and how he communicates. One need only read the cover story on Towns in the latest ESPN The Magazine to be reminded of how KG kept Towns on task at crucial moments throughout the phenom’s rookie season last year. And if you don’t think Garnett would have realigned the focus and composure of this young crew through one or more of their many second-half shit-storms thus far this season, you haven’t paid attention to his 20-year history.

The test for Thibs

By not working very hard at encouraging KG to stick around and by essentially ensuring that the Wolves will eventually buy out the rest of Nikola Pekovic’s contract, Thibs made it clear that he would be the lone truly alpha presence within this franchise this season.  This gambit becomes more intriguing now that the team has started 4-9 and the natives (the fan base) are getting restless.

When it comes to gravitas and sagacity, Thibs can more than hold his own. His knowledge of the NBA game is exceeded only by his passion when trying to control it. Referees could whistle him for at least 30 technical fouls per game based on his profane criticisms, but dodge the mortal combat that would involve out of respect for the unrelenting consistency and depth of detail in his outbursts.

When the game is over and Dr. Jekyll regains status in his human form, Thibs has shown surprising patience with the chronic pratfalls of his players, chronicling (and, you can bet, having his assistants catalog) the numerous mishaps that went into the latest collapse and then repeating the mantra that steady improvement is the point of the process.

What is unknown is whether Thibs miscalculated or factored in the rudderless nature of play besmirching the season thus far. KG can summon ten minutes of former greatness and kick ass on the practice court to make his point. Thibs has rotation minutes and the encyclopedia of stratagems in the brain of his pudgy white frame as leverage to use against these ballyhooed and uber-athletic black athletes two or three generations younger than him. 

But Thibs also has time. Disgruntled fans point out that if the Wolves were performing this way under Mitchell, the coach would be subjected to nonstop criticism. Indeed, many of those same fans regularly lambasted Mitchell a year ago when he had a better won-lost record.

It’s a fair point, at least as it pertains to Mitchell, who rarely got his due for his decent performance on the sidelines. But context matters here. Mitchell was thrown into the breach with the stunning death of Saunders the week before the start of the season, and always faced an uphill climb to retain the head coaching position the following year. Months before this season started, Thibs signed a five-year contract to control the playbook and the personnel. On that basis alone, the way each man coached his first 13 games with the team is going to be like night and day.

In the long run, Thibs needs the cornerstones more than they need him. But when you are 21, five years is an awfully long time. If the relationship ever did get to a worst-case scenario this season, it would be a cold war rather than a hot war, due to what could be perceived as mutually assured destruction.

We are a long way — and many, many more embarrassing losses — from that point. Still, Thibs has made himself the sole voice of authority and his decree and refrain is the need to learn and improve. He has three point guards who can’t shoot (four if you count John Lucas III), a wonderfully talented team in the midst of developing a snake-bitten psyche, and the easiest part of the schedule behind him. Tickets once again can be had for a song among the scalpers outside Target Center.

It’s the latest bump in what has been a long road. 

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Comments (13)

No thanks

Funny you should say that

The father of Karl Anthony Towns stated last year that having KG mentor his son during the rookie year was the best thing that could have happened to him.

Guess I'll go with your interpretation of what is actually a pretty fascinating story about Garnett's dedication.

BTW, when you say "our" I guess you mean "the Wolves." Nobody has more right to use "our" in that context than Kevin Garnett.

KG

It's like the emperor has no clothes with a guy like Garnett. No one wants to outright criticize him because he is such a legend, but his "dedication" is counterproductive if not downright harmful. I just read your other piece about the problems with KAT's game. Garnett's mentorship couldn't have been that great.

If Thibs has wanted Garnett here, he'd be here. He didn't, and in reading this ESPN piece and others in the past about Garnett, it's zero surprise to me.

I get to use "ours" and "mine" with any professional sports team which gets my tax money to subsidize its billionaire owners.

Last round for me

First off, thanks for commenting, twice.

Actually, the surprise to me is how many Wolves fans I know have a negative view of KG. I mean, his ability to inspire and motivate his teammates is well-documented by anecdote and statistic. If you want to blame Garnett for the zeal of Towns' desire to lead via hero ball, it's a stretch, but fine. But I'd caution you against regarding yourself as some truth-teller informing us blindly loyal subjects that the emperor has no clothes. From here, it seems more like a hot take from someone who doesn't pay much attention to the game.

Every commenter pays taxes

Some of us even actually spend our hard-earned money to watch them live.

Anyone who read that article could get past that headline and see what KG brought to the squad. Most simply, they played league-average defense, which helped result in more wins at this stage last season. His knowledge and toughness led to a better structure, something they sorely need now.

Critics of KG mostly focus on him being too "mean," overlooking that most of the negatives on his record were incidents with opponents. There 's not much room for unfocused effort, lack of effort, or lack of fortitude in pro sports, and KG dragged many mediocre teams to the playoffs through focused effort and fortitude.

Thibs

Good analysis as always. One question on Thibs - do you think his unrelenting style might in some way combine with the youthfulness of this team to contribute to the collective tightening down the stretch of these games? There's likely no way to measure this but watching these games I can't help but wonder if his authoritarian style impacts these guys as they start down these slides. Might just be a matter of team and coach getting used to each other but curious if others have this impression as well.

certainly a possibility

To be fair, Thibs is relentlessly specific about the source of his unhappiness--the behavior, rather than the player, is always the focus.

But can somebody with such high and frequently stated standards collide in a bad way with highly lauded athletes who know his esteemed reputation and want to justify all the hype surrounding this team perhaps a little much? I would think so.

It feels to me like something that has to run its course. I feel better watching Thibs treat the dynamic with exactly that attitude.

On a related note

I was wondering about something similar to the original question: how do players like Rubio handle having a coach who calls plays from the sidelines so frequently? On one hand, I think it would drive me crazy as a PG, especially one as creative as Rubio, to be restricted in how to operate in certain situations. But since guys like Wiggins are initiating the offense more frequently, and we seem to be scoring at a healthy clip, maybe it's not that big of a deal.

But it sure doesn't seem like Thibs cares much about letting Ricky do his thing or putting him in a position to succeed. Small sample size and all, but Rubio's shooting numbers are at all-time lows. And while we could write that off in past seasons due to his great on/off court numbers, those have completely flipped around into negative territory. Slightly more minor, but his steal rate is half of what it was last year and his assist rate has dropped too.

I don't mean to start up the Rubio rumor mill or anything but I think it's clear that Thibs either doesn't know how to use Rubio or doesn't want to use him properly. I still think Ricky is great, but a more conventional PG who can make shots might be better utilized in our system. Some shooting always helps stem the tide when facing big runs by opponents, too.

Any more KG would be welcome

those who may have forgotten or don't believe he inspired and/or energized his younger teammates last year ought to go back and watch. He very clearly embraced the role and the one dunk he threw down during the year sent his youthful mates into a frenzy. You don't engender a reaction like that without the respect and admiration from your bros

When will you see the light?

They need a point guard!

An Observation

When KG was on the bench lecturing to young players, my impression was that they listened to him for a few seconds, then turned back to the game while he was still talking.

Well written, Britt

Expounding on the idea that the Wolves lack a strong vet presence: generally speaking, there seems to be a major difference in perception between young players in the league with the P-word ("potential") as compared to reliable veterans.

Fans and media seem to drastically overrate and sometimes obsess with youth and young talent with high ceilings. On the flip side, the experienced players and coaches of the league always want more grizzled veterans who know how to win in the NBA without any coddling or prodding.

I was very interested to read the Rolling Stone article on Kevin Durant from this offseason in which his paramount criticism on the direction of the Thunder during his time there was that they were always getting younger as a team (aside from Westbrook/Ibaka) and he wanted more vets. It reminded me of KG always talking himself about wanting more veterans, and this was at a time when Wolves fans and media were excited about the likes of Randy Foye and Rashad McCants as talented young compliments to KG. (this disconnect is arguably why Dwayne Casey got fired).

Thibs seems like the type of old school soul who would prefer going the route of grizzled vets. That was always one of the 2 or 3 chief concerns I heard regarding the hire - "can he coach a young team?"

Anyway, maybe the Wolves are the ultimate tease in terms of a talented YOUNG and INEXPERIENCED team that flashes greatness, clouted by bouts of a young team's gutless incompetence. I guess the key to watching this team is hoping that soon they shed those moments and start playing more like a team commensurate with their young talent. Unfortunately, it was a crude wake-up call for those of us that thought the "Thibs Effect" could propel them to a low playoff seed.

On-court leadership

The Wolves do need someone like KG; I don't have an opinion on whether having him, in particular, on this team, this year, was a good idea. But the team does need on-court leadership.

This article was written before the last two games, when Tyus Jones played the whole 4th quarter to good effect in each game. I know he's not likely to be a starting PG in this league, and he will be challenged to be a heavy-minutes bench player as well, but I'm very impressed by his on-court leadership and decision-making. I am frustrated by the number of dumb turnovers, passed-up shots, dribbles into traps, shot-clock violations, and other mental mistakes these guys make. To my eye, Tyus doesn't make those mistakes. He gets beat, he gets outmuscled, etc., but he is a poised, decisive, high-IQ player out there, and the Wolves respond to and benefit from that.

Who else can do that? Who else can organize and lead the defense, for example? As Britt said, maybe Gorgui is doing that, but it's hard to tell on TV. I don't see guys talking enough when going back to the huddle, when play stops, correcting small mistakes and coverages. They do need a KG, or someone similar. What kind of assets will we have to trade to get a highly-verbal, hold-people-accountable, fill-in-the-cracks kind of player this team needs--guys like DeMarre Carroll, Jae Crowder, George Hill, Taj Gibson kind of player? I'm not suggesting any of those guys are available, but I am saying that all those guys became the valuable glue guys they are through force of will and understanding how to use their abilities, not because they were high draft-pick talents. There may be gems like that out there, guys that can blossom as leaders on the court and off for this young, callow group. Tyus has the mental makeup and basketball IQ to be a team leader; I hope for his sake and the Wolves' he can develop the body and skills to be on the court enough to take advantage of that.