I’m just happy to be here, and I figure if LeBron can go home why can’t I?
— Kevin Garnett at the press conference announcing his return, 2/24/15
As it stands right now, it is safe to assume that Tom Thibodeau has a goal for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Odds are he also has a plan to get them there. An NBA Championship is the endgame, of course, although there are going to be myriad steps along the way. Occasionally it’s nice to have reminders that those steps are being taken and that the team is headed in the right direction.
The advantage Thibodeau has over Flip Saunders when he was named head coach and president of basketball operations in 2014 is that the Wolves already have momentum. Karl-Anthony Towns looks like a once-in-a-generation player; Andrew Wiggins a natural scorer and lock-down defender. Thibodeau reached 100 wins faster than any coach in NBA history with Chicago, and the Wolves have captured the attention of sports fans in Minnesota once again.
He has Kevin Garnett to thank for that.
Things can change rapidly in the NBA. The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat immediately went to the NBA Finals after assembling their Big 3. More pertinently, the Oklahoma City Thunder were in the playoffs a year after they relocated from Seattle and lost in the NBA Championship the year after that. And Wolves fans don’t need a reminder that Golden State Warriors drafted Steph Curry in 2009 and made the playoffs in the 2012-13 season, then won it all two years later.
Before K.G. arrived, the Wolves were overshadowed in the Twin Cities market
Minnesota isn’t throwing a team together like Boston and Miami did; they are building from the ground up like Oklahoma City and Golden State. They are perhaps most like Golden State in that in a league where teams can go from worst to first on a dime, the Warriors always seemed stuck at the bottom of the standings.
Boston had Bill Russell, Kevin McHale and Larry Bird. Miami had won a championship with Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal in 2006. The Seattle Sonics had at least won the Northwest Division in 2004-05 — three years before the franchise relocated. The Warriors had a 60-step process to annoy their fan base.
The Wolves had gone to the Western Conference Finals the year before Seattle won the division, in 2003-04, but now own the longest playoff drought in the NBA. Before K.G. arrived, they were overshadowed in the Twin Cities market: The Vikings had Adrian Peterson and a crazy year with Brett Favre, the Twins were once a model franchise and the Wild spent big on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Even the Wolves sister team, the Lynx, were outshining them as one of the premier teams in the WNBA.
It took something big to awaken a fan base that had long turned their attention elsewhere, or at least begun to wonder if things were ever going to turn around. Flip Saunders’ return was welcomed, no doubt, especially after the David Kahn fiasco, but he’s not an athlete people can attach themselves to. Ricky Rubio showed flashes, but took a while to arrive and plateaued at times due to injury and the lack of a reliable shot. Wiggins isn’t a large personality off the court. LaVine’s dunks are fun but won’t fill seats on a losing team. The Wolves needed something big.
Saunders had Garnett on his mind from the day he arrived in Minnesota. “That’s one of the reasons why we got him. Having a couple of veteran players that have been around, and have helped give confidence to your youth movement,” he said of Thaddeus Young, before referencing Garnett. “We kind of went to an old play that we ran a lot with [Sam] Cassell and Garnett, and we ran it with Rubio and Young.” Maybe this is reading into things too much, but Saunders did reference Garnett from time to time before he joined the team, enough to make it obvious his return was preoccupying some corner of his mind.
While there is a fair claim that the Young-for-Garnett trade wasn’t great on paper — Garnett only played five of the 29 games left on the schedule that year and 38 in his final season — K.G. had value to the franchise not only in his ability to defibrillate the Target Center in what would have otherwise been a meaningless game against the Washington Wizards, but also to mentor Towns, the team’s next superstar, and the rest of the young players.
“It’s gonna be a shock to everybody,” Saunders said the day after the trade was made. “There’s no one better as far as work ethic and preparation than KG maybe in the league, just with how he is, and so it’s a great way for them to learn, and what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to facilitate those guys’ development and trying to speed that up.
“We’re trying not to have them go through a natural course of action. We’re trying to speed that up. And sometimes the best way to do that is having them go through that on a daily basis and getting your butt kicked.”
There were other ways that Saunders’ plan manifested itself, times when we got to see in action what was going on inside his head. Zach LaVine is starting to look like a steal as the No. 13 pick in the draft. Wiggins is driving to the basket more and shedding some of the aloofness he showed at Kansas. Towns was obviously the right pick at No. 1 overall.
But as everyone suddenly and tragically was reminded before the season started last year, plans can change in a hurry. Saunders’ passing hit everyone hard, especially Garnett and Towns. It also disrupted the plans that Flip and K.G. had to eventually own the team together.
Garnett’s status with the Wolves remains in limbo. Will he return in the front office or as part of an ownership group? What is his standing with Thibodeau, the man who has arrived to finish what Saunders started? Will he be given carte blanche to visit the facility and offer advice to young players like Towns and Wiggins on a regular basis?
All those questions will be answered in the near future. Right now we know this: For one night in February of 2015, the Target Center was alive again.