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An uncertain future for Wolves great Garnett

Will 'The Big Ticket' follow legends Bryant, Duncan and head off into sunset or return to court for one more season?

POSTED: Jul 16, 2016 1:00 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Will Kevin Garnett return to play a 22nd season in league or retire and potentially become part of Hall of Fame Class of 2021 along with Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan?

Kevin Garnett is on the clock.

With Kobe Bryant's extended farewell tour over since April and Tim Duncan slipping quietly into retirement to start this week, Garnett is the next logical aging NBA star to face a decision to play or not in 2016-17.

If he does, the face and heart of Minnesota Timberwolves franchise will set a record for the longest career (22 years), surpassing Robert Parish and Kevin Willis. He also will be hoping to improve upon, or at least not decline further from, his least impactful season ever: Garnett averaged 3.2 points and 3.9 rebounds in 14.6 minutes, appearing in only 38 games and none after Jan. 23 due to knee soreness.

If he doesn't return, Garnett will follow Bryant and Duncan to the sidelines and likely join them on the stage in Springfield, Mass., for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's Class of 2021 enshrinement.

As he has done for most of his career, Garnett, who turned 40 in May, has gone off the official grid and even has the Timberwolves' honchos guessing. Tom Thibodeau, Minnesota's new coach and president of basketball operations, has spoken to the 7-foot power forward since being hired after the season but has not gotten a definitive answer. The same goes for owner Glen Taylor, who said Wednesday in Las Vegas he had dinner with Garnett about a month ago.

"I just asked him, 'Kevin, what are you going to do?' His answer was, 'I'd really like to play next year 'cuz I'd like to go out knowing we got into the playoffs,' " Taylor said.

"Then he said, 'I don't know if I can.'

"I asked him, 'What does that mean?' And he said, 'I don't know.'

"So I asked the question but I didn't get an answer that helped me. Yes, theoretically, he'd like to play. But he has some doubts of his knees holding up. I believe he told me exactly the truth."

First things first: Garnett is under contract for $8 million this season, the end of the two-year deal he signed after the late Flip Saunders acquired him from Brooklyn in February 2015. He even has a no-trade clause, though that seems academic now. The Wolves haven't hit the league's $94.1 million salary cap for this season and it is unlikely Garnett's salary is blocking any significant roster maneuver.

Only Garnett -- who was drafted at No. 5 by Minnesota way back in 1995, spent 12 seasons there and then won an NBA championship with Boston in 2008 -- remains from players drafted prior to the 1998 lockout. None of Garnett's peers from the Class of '95 still is standing. Bryant was the last active member from the 1996 draft (unless you count Stephon Marbury over in China or Ray Allen if he pulls off a comeback). Duncan was the last member of the '97 class to head out the door.

Thibodeau said this week he's giving Garnett as much time as he needs -- at least until training camp looms -- because "great players earn that" consideration.

Andy Miller, Garnett's longtime agent, said that he has heard nothing to suggest that his client will not be back. Several friends and family contacted for this story declined to comment, either because they respect Garnett's privacy or they truly do not know.

Reggie Miller, the Indiana Pacers' Hall of Fame guard turned TNT broadcaster, lives down the road from Garnett in Malibu, Calif. And he could only speculate about his friend's plans.

"He's a little torn, I think," Miller said. "It's the age-old question of mind over matter. I'm sure his mind is telling him he's able to play. But can his body follow?"

It could be that simple, that this is less a question of "will he or won't he?" than "can he or can't he?" As lean as Garnett is, his bones have logged serious mileage -- he ranks fifth all-time in games played (1,462) and third in regular-season minutes (50,418). That's nearly as many as Chris Paul and Kevin Durant combined.

The Wolves were better with Garnett (14-24) than without him (15-29) last season and, according to NBA.com stats, he had the team's best net rating (plus-6.6). That was better than No. 2 Ricky Rubio's plus -1.1 and No. 3 Gorgui Dieng's plus-0.8.

Garnett still has value as a defender, rebounder and old head in game situations or off the court. But his mobility and offensive value are shadows of his prime (from 1999 through 2007, he averaged 22.4 points, 12.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists).

"I think he's worried if he can play," Taylor said. "I worry about that too. When I talked to him last year, I said, 'Is it your knees or what?' He said, 'It's my whole leg.' "

Circumstances have changed considerably, too, since Garnett returned to the Twin Cities from Brooklyn, waiving his no-trade clause 17 months ago. What was intended as a fitting nod to his importance in Wolves history -- along with some sentimental cover on a bad team and a ticket-selling opportunity -- now looks very different.

Saunders' abrupt passing last October after a brief battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma threw the entire franchise for a loop. Interim coach Sam Mitchell, one of Garnett's teammates when he hit the NBA as the first high school player in 20 years, was canned on the season's final day.

Days later, Garnett -- who had endorsed Mitchell to remain as coach -- spoke cryptically about where he stood. "I pride myself on being loyal," he told ESPN.com. "I think I've proven that by coming back home to finish my career. I need to see how the next few weeks turn out to truly understand if everyone has that same loyalty. Then I will know what my future holds."

Thibodeau, hired soon thereafter, owed a slice of his coaching reputation to having Garnett as the anchor of the Celtics' defense from 2007 to 2010. Since assuming control in his dual jobs, the former Bulls coach has shown an eagerness to put his stamp on both the team and the front office.

National Mentoring Month: Towns and Garnett

As National Mentoring Month comes to a close, Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves talks about learning from veteran teammate Kevin Garnett.

Meanwhile, the mentor program that Saunders favored last season -- not just with Garnett but with veterans Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller to tutor the Wolves' young bigs, wings and guards -- might not be as necessary now. Center Karl-Anthony Towns is precocious and ready to take another step toward stardom. Andrew Wiggins will be in his third season.

"With the talent and the coach there, the lures have to be very attractive to him," Reggie Miller said.

But as Andy Miller noted, "Without Flip now, they don't know how much of Flip's vision is going to be there."

One key part of that: Saunders had pitched to Garnett the idea of buying an ownership share of the franchise, even partnering with Saunders and an eventual group of investors to take over as majority owners once Taylor, 75, decides to sell. But the self-made billionaire from Mankato, Minn., completed deals recently to sell approximately 15 percent of the franchise to Chinese sports entrepreneur Lizhang Jiang and New York real-estate mogul Meyer Orbach.

As for Garnett's place in that, Taylor said Wednesday: "I never participated in that. Kevin said it to some reporter and it got into the paper. I thought it was inappropriate for me to talk to him about it because he was a player. I never had that discussion with Kevin at all. But I sort of believed it because I assumed he was saying, that was his goal.

"What kind of happened with Flip's passing ... I don't know where we stand on that."

Yet Taylor, loyal to his roots (he purchased the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper two years ago as both a civic and value investment), did not rule out Garnett buying in. "I'm always open to something like that," Taylor said, "because he would kind of represent a Minnesota owner."

I think he's worried if he can play. I worry about that too.

– Wolves owner Glen Taylor on Kevin Garnett's decision

The more pressing matter is Garnett's final season as a player -- or not.

Taylor said he would welcome back Garnett or respect his decision to retire. The owner made it sound, too, that some or all of that $8 million salary could be had in a buyout, so the proud player wouldn't have to return just for the money. (Eight million dollars would buy about 1.1 percent of the franchise, based on its recent valuation of $720 million by Forbes.com. Garnett's career NBA earnings as a player, according to basketball-reference.com, were about $336 million through last season.)

"I think he would make a great owner," Reggie Miller said. "If his body physically doesn't allow him to play, he needs to be groomed for management and ownership."

Garnett, even if he functioned unofficially last season as the NBA's highest paid assistant coach, has said many times he doesn't want to pursue that as a second profession. He might run, er, too hot to let him near a broadcaster's microphone. And he's not likely to be fulfilled talking trash once a week with the garbage men.

Said Taylor: "I just think it's more complicated than that. Kevin's been around a long time. He's got a great history. I think he's got to think this thing through. When he retires, he's got to figure out a nice way to do it. I don't know what it is, but I want to help him. The transition won't be easy."

Going out like Bryant seems out of the question for Garnett, who has had a wary relationship with the media for most of his career. A season-long, league-wide tour of press conferences and parting gifts would not suit him.

Then again, retiring before training camp -- maybe announcing it from a distance on his Instagram account -- would mean Garnett's final game was a two-point, no-rebound performance against Memphis on Jan. 23. It would deprive fans from saying a proper goodbye. And, for that matter, buying tickets to another game at Target Center to do so.

"I'd tell him, 'Kevin, I'll help you do whatever,' " Taylor said. "If he liked, I'd announce to the fans that 'Kevin's going to be here for three games -- three home games -- and then he's going to retire. And we're going to play him in all three.' Or something like that."

Consider this: If Garnett plays part of the 2016-17 season -- or three games or even one game -- the clock on his Hall eligibility will bump back a year. That could get him out of shadows of Bryant and Duncan and send him in, perhaps, with old teammate Paul Pierce, depending on Pierce's own exit strategy.

"He'd have the stage and be the last speaker," said Reggie Miller, who anchored the Class of 2012's induction speeches.

"It will be sad, though. We've already lost Kobe and Tim. KG's the next one, right? Then Dirk [Nowitzki], Paul [Pierce], Vince [Carter]..."

One at a time, though, please. Garnett is on the clock.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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