Since Saunders' death, Timberwolves legend providing stability on the floor, while having eye toward future off it
POSTED: Dec 30, 2015 9:05 PM ET
Garnett, who returned to Minnesota last winter, wears an armband honoring Saunders, Malik Sealy and Kirby Puckett.
MINNEAPOLIS — Paul Pierce never kidded himself when it came to Kevin Garnett and the luxury homes they kept in southern California. Pierce, a native of the tough Inglewood area near Los Angeles, grew to be close friends with Garnett through six seasons as teammates in Boston and one in Brooklyn.
Home, as they say, is where the heart is and Pierce knew it.
"We lived like 15 minutes from each other in California," said the veteran forward, now with the L.A. Clippers, after a recent game at Target Center. "But every time I'd see where he was at, it seemed like he was in Minnesota. He always kept the house here. ... His heart always has been in Minnesota."
Garnett to Towns
Kevin Garnett hits Karl-Anthony Towns with a pretty pass for the dunk.
It wasn't inevitable that Garnett would ever return in an official capacity to the market in which he grew up as an NBA legend, not after the disappointments and desultory final seasons of his initial 12-year run with the Timberwolves. A marvel of individual accomplishments in Minnesota, Garnett had enjoyed his greatest team success with Boston and long ago had set up headquarters in Malibu, near his brother-in-law and record producer "Jimmy Jam" Harris' family.
Then Flip Saunders re-entered the Wolves' picture. A craftsman at bridge mending, Saunders laid out a vision for Garnett that would benefit both the franchise and the aging superstar, short term as well as long. So last February, the best player in Wolves history waived his no-trade clause to leave Brooklyn, returning to " 'Sota" for whatever NBA production was left in his lanky ol' bones in addition to serving as a mentor, a "sensei," to the team's young players.
On the court, Garnett's results have been modest offensively but more tangible defensively. His 7.3 points per 36 minutes is far below his what he scored in his prime, but his 11.0 rebounds per 36 is better than his career rate. Garnett's offensive/defensive ratings of 108/100 this season that make him a plus-3.9 when he's on the floor for a Wolves team that is a minus-2.1 overall.
He's like our father on the court and we want to make sure we don't disappoint.
– Wolves rookie Karl-Anthony Towns, on Kevin Garnett.
But it's the vocal stuff -- from a guy known as one of the league's most incessant talkers -- that is helping the most. That, and the demonstrations and repetitions he provides as a 39-year-old helping to develop the sort of Timberpups he once was. For Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad, this is the sort of education -- in basketball techniques, sure, but also in becoming a professional -- no tuition could buy.
"I think we both looked at each other and saw competitors, and wanted to go play," Towns said of his first brush with Garnett after arriving in Minnesota. "You're talking about a born leader. You're talking about one of the smartest players in this game. His ability, which he's always had, to shoot the one-dribble, pull-up mid-range shot is amazing. His post game is tremendous. Very crafty. It's just an honor to be on the court with him and watch him work.
Towns To Garnett
Karl-Anthony Towns finds Kevin Garnett with a no look pass that draws the foul from the defense.
"He's like our father on the court and we want to make sure we don't disappoint him."
Said Garnett: "This is on-the-job training. This group we have here is a very, very energetic group. Some of them have high IQs but it's basketball. We have literal players, where you teach them something and they literally do it. Basketball is more reflex and responding to and reacting, and we're trying to teach that here. But what you want is a good group of guys who give you effort every night. Love to win, love to play, love the game."
What Garnett is providing in hot, heavy doses, vets Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince are chipping in more quietly and surgically. It's the transition game as installed by Saunders before his passing in October, a reprise of what he did 20 years earlier with now-coach Sam Mitchell signed to stay in a young Garnett's ear while veteran Terry Porter tutored point guard Stephon Marbury.
"We as coaches coach," Mitchell said. "They don't look at us as former players -- they forget we played. But when those guys in the locker room, when Tayshaun and KG and Andre say something to them, that's invaluable."
It's working because, so far, the young guys are paying attention and acting like sponges to the wisdom rained on them.
As Garnett's pal Doc Rivers said earlier this month: "Kevin loving young guys is really good. Because if you don't have the right love of the game for Kevin, he's not gonna love you back. That's a fact. So clearly he feels they got it right -- not only young guys with talent but they want to be winners. That makes me happy, because he's happy."
Garnett still hasn't spoken publicly about his emotions in the wake of Saunders' death. He wouldn't "go there" for the video tribute the organization produced for the season opener.
Instead, Garnett expressed himself via a Facebook post -- showing him sitting in a hoodie, paying respect in front of Saunders' unused parking space at Target Center -- and by wearing an arm band embroidered with "Flip Malik Puck" to honor his fallen coach, former teammate Malik Sealy and MLB Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, a front-row season ticket holder during Garnett's early years who died in March 2006 at age 45.
"For me being older and coaching," Mitchell said, "I understand that sometimes the best thing to do is to talk about how you feel. For him, still playing, I can see him not wanting to talk about it."
Garnett also has fended off detailed conversation about his future plans. Taking an ownership stake in the franchise of some size was Saunders' plan for Garnett and the 21-season veteran has confirmed his interest in that. It's a scenario that makes sense for someone about whom teammates and coaches often wondered, how would he channel his passion for basketball into his post-playing days? It also makes sense if the hefty two-year, $16.5 million contract Saunders gave him through 2016-17 ends up coming back to the Wolves when he buys equity.
NBA Rooks: Towns' Teammates
Minnesota Rook Karl-Anthony Towns talks about learning from future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett and playing alongside fellow No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins.
Still, with Saunders gone and owner Glen Taylor starting to sell off ownership to L.A. investor Steve Kaplan, that vision remains sketchy.
"That's something to talk about seven, eight months from now," Garnett told NBA.com in declining a lengthier chat.
So in the meantime, Garnett remains a player, adding milestone to his totals and navigating his end game (be it this season or next) in his own way. Not under the glare of the spotlight like Kobe Bryant but certainly too public -- as with last week's potentially final stop in Boston -- to keep it in the shadows.
"I don't know what I look like. But I feel OK," Garnett said. "[Some] days are a little worse than others. My effort, I feel like, is there. I try to give maximum effort every night. I try to be super-encouraging to these guys. What you don't realize with young people, they get down on themselves very fast. And trying to get everybody to understand, this is a transition here."
It's a transition for all of them.
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