The Three Pointer: Getting Past the KG Hangover

Copyright 2008 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Game #48, Home Game #24: Boston 88, Minnesota 86

Season record: 10-38

1. Kevin Garnett, Over and Out

The big man came, he smiled, he waved, hit his heart once or twice, and left. The applause from the fans was long and genuine, but not so enthusiastic as to induce goosebumps, or to make either side of this classically Minnesotan, passive-aggressive relationship believe that something historically special was taking place.

It’s another small but significant step of separation, and I’m glad it is over. As someone who has covered the Timberwolves on a near game-by-game basis since 1991, I’ve struggled to be a person of perspective, to suck it up and take the long view, and to give this current squad a chance for their talent, and their potential, to be judged on its own merits. I’ve tried not to be baited by the inevitable but absurd KG-Al Jefferson comparisons, by the various members of the media who say they’d rather have Jefferson than Garnett in a Wolves’ uniform, by the folks who seem enthusiastic, almost giddy, about the trade that occurred this summer. So I am going to dive into this one more time and then hopefully leave it alone.

When Kevin McHale was named the most successful executive in pro team sports last year by, the hoots and hollars of derision were appropriately widespread. People who didn’t look at the methodology wondered how such a conclusion could possibly be drawn. And the answer is, in the context of the dunderheaded Wolves management that had existed before, be it Bob Stein or Trader Jack McCloskey or the Musselman-McKinney power struggle, McHale did indeed look like a genius. The Wolves never won more than 29 games in an 82-game season before McHale came on board. And because he was instrumental in acquiring Gugliotta for Donyell Marshall, drafting KG and Stephon Marbury, installing Flip Saunders on the sideline, and weeding out the Laettners and the Riders, McHale laid the groundwork and then filled in the pieces, culminating in Spree and Cassell, for a franchise that *averaged* 51 wins per season from 1999 through 2004. That’s a hell of an improvement, and that’s what impressed the statistical formula was using.

The Garnett trade can be regarded with a similarly diverse, contextual perspective. For those who endured the increasingly dysfunctional, dispiriting decline in the team’s fortunes the last three years, ending the inexorably fractious KG drama in exchange for a bona fide cornerstone player in Jefferson, a couple of draft picks, huge cap relief in Theo Ratliff’s contract, and a couple of keepers in Gomes and (surprisingly) Telfair is a very good trade indeed. When the trade occurred I considered the circumstances and endorsed it. I still do. It was the right move and–*in context*–a good deal for the Wolves.

But proponents of the trade should stop right there. Don’t blame Garnett for the Wolves’ failures, or proclaim that, all things being equal, you’d prefer to have Jefferson instead, because you risk looking like a fool. Yes, I understand that Jefferson is just 23, already averaging 21.5 points and 12.3 rebounds a game, whereas KG at a similar age was averaging 18.5 and 9.6. I was there when KG was 23. He was putting together a season in which, if Jefferson’s current averages hold out, had him block 37 more shots than Jefferson will block this year, steal the ball 55 more times, and, on a team where a relatively selfless Marbury was the point guard, passed for more than triple the number of assists Jefferson will deliver this year. Then there is the small matter of the 24 minutes when the Timberwolves don’t have the ball.

Right now, the Celtics are 38-9 and Kevin Garnett is on a very short list of MVP candidates. Meanwhile, Leon Powe went 8-10 FG on Jefferson last night, and when Powe ran down and tipped in Ray Allen’s missed layup with one-fifth of a second on the clock, Jefferson had not yet stepped over the half-court line. I say this out of no disrespect for Jefferson, a marvelous player who did not ask for this comparison, and who will make my job infinitely more pleasurable over the next five years. I say it out of disrespect for clueless homers suddenly contorted into revisionist history, who, because they don’t want to think about how little this franchise reaped of a utterly distinctive and magical performer during his dozen years here, are overpraising what was salvaged via the KG yard sale.

Now you know why I’m glad this latest Garnett frenzy of attention is over. It brings out the grumpy old man in me. Because when it is all said and done, I miss the athletic beauty, and the consistency of effort and execution. I miss, with an ache and a surly passion that will now hopefully go back under wraps, the opportunity to watch Kevin Garnett display his multifaceted virtues on a near daily basis, including live and up close at least 40 times per year.

2. Now About The Ballgame…

You can probably blame it on such a young and inexperienced roster, but aside from Ryan Gomes, there is not a single player on Wolves who sports a balanced overall game of solid offense and solid defense, a fact that was apparent throughout last night’s enjoyable game of roller-coaster highs and lows. Corey Brewer not only throttled Paul Pierce as well as can be expected for the second time this season, but was a whirling dervish of steals, rebounds and defensive rotations for most of the game–it ranks up there with his 18-rebound, 5-assist performance against Atlanta as his best game of the season. (Wittman, who started Brewer over Rashad McCants at the 3 to get the matchup on Pierce, says he thinks Brewer’s length is the key, that Pierce likes to clear space for his jumper and Brewer is too long and tenacious to let that happen.) But Brewer was only 3-10 FG, a total that didn’t appreciably diminish his 35.2% field goal accuracy for the season. Marko Jaric likewise hounded Ray Allen into 5-16 FG, but when Jaric went up for an uncontested jumper with the game on the line, did any Wolves fan feel good about the probable outcome?

On the flipside you’ve got Jefferson and Craig Smith. Be it Big Baby Glen Davis or the smaller, quicker James Posey, the Rhino cavorted at will in the paint, shooting 7-10 FG that included a desperation trey miss. But on defense especially, Smith is a ‘tweener without position, unable to handle the behemoths backing him down or the larger 3s and quicker 4s who roam beyond the paint. As for Jefferson, once he was rid of his old practice partner– the Celts starting center Kendrick Perkins, who wrenched his left shoulder late in the third period–he was unstoppable whenever Boston couldn’t prevent him from getting the ball. It is easy to forget how much of Jefferson’s post-game relies on guile; his upfakes, the footwork, the spectrum of options he has at his disposal and the unpredictible ways he combines them. But Perkins went against him every day in practice during most of that formative process, and defends Big Al with uncanny clairvoyance. Last night, Jefferson was 4-11 FG, had two shots blocked and committed six turnovers before Perkins went down. After that he was 5-6 FG without a miscue. But, as with Smith, defending people is more problematical.

On the perimeter, it is blatantly obvious that McCants is Minnesota’s premiere scoring threat via perimeter jumpers or dribble penetration. The seemingly effortless elan with which he twice dribbled through two or three Celtics en route to a layup during the first 2 minutes of the second period was simply the latest in a string of constant reminders this season that no one on the Wolves can get his own shot more effectively than Shaddy.

And yet, with equally numbing frequency, it is apparent that McCants is endurin
g a star-crossed campaign. Despite three steals and disciplined play at both ends of the court during the first half last night, the defense of Jaric and Brewer deprived Shaddy of court time until the final three minutes of the third. Then, with 8:51 to go in the game, a fateful play occurred that began with a steal by Antoine Walker. ‘Toine got the ball to McCants and the Wolves were 3-on-2 on the break. But McCants, whose skill set certainly gave him cause to try and take it all the way himself, instead followed the bball catechism of rewarding the ball-hawk if logically possible, and dished to Walker on the right wing. Walker flubbed it on the dribble, the Celts converged, and the ball rolled down his back and was up for grabs. McCants did not go down on the floor to get it, Tony Allen did, and fed it to Eddie House for a layup. At the next stoppage in play, Wittman subbed in Brewer for McCants, berated Shaddy as he went by, and left him on the pine the rest of the way. During the postgame, without naming names, he twice specificed the importance of getting down on the floor for loose balls as one of the little things that decide a ballgame. Whether this is tough love or residual disgust, standard discipline or a delayed blowback to Shaddy’s snit the other night, is difficult to know. But the drama continues.

Then there is the point guard position. Randy Foye is the incumbent in waiting, the guy expected to sidle beside Jefferson for unquestioned team leader status. But Foye isn’t ready yet, and that’s being charitable. Readers are forgiven if they don’t recall that one of my mantras last season was that "Foye is not a point guard," but I didn’t remember either. But a few games seeing the difference between Telfair running the offense and Foye dribbling out on the perimeter has refreshened those impressions. Wittman was actually telling the truth when he said of Foye that last night was "one of his best games," although he once again reiterated that Foye is taking way too many three-pointers. The line on #4 was 3-12 FG, including 1-5 3ptFG, plus 3 assists and 2 turnovers, in 25:15. What the line can’t show is the lack of grease in the team’s offensive execution with Foye at the point instead of Telfair. The problem with Bassy, as always, is he can’t hit the broad side of a barn with that jumper. He was 1-8 FG tonight in 22:45, which puts a large dent in that otherwise nifty 6/1 assist-to-turnover ratio, if you regard missed shots as the onset of a probable turnover.

Even Foye’s defenders don’t claim him to be Anthony Johnson, let alone Magic Johnson, when it comes to conscientiously doling out the rock. That may eventually came back to haunt the Wolves–as it currently stands, their future is Jefferson, Gomes, Foye, Brewer, and a center, which is a pretty shaky quintet on the handle. But for even that to pan out, Foye has to play defense better than the statuesque poses he’s been making thus far this season, and he has to not only find his offense but incorporate it into a sharing philosophy. The best sight of the night for Wolves fans had to be the time Foye drove the right lane and–in a more pleasant flashback from the glorious of last season–hung in the air waiting for the contact before banking the shot home. As Wittman said, you spend 3 and a half months not playing, it is a long and slow road back. Foye showed too much to imagine that he won’t bounce back. But, flat-out, you give Telfair Foye’s 4th quarter minutes last night and Wolves win that game. As it was, Foye missed 9 shots in 25:15 to Telfair’s seven misses in 22:45. That’s a collective 4-20 FG from your point guard position, added to Brewer and Jaric playing a collective 63:11. And that’s 86 points on 41.7% shooting, despite a combined 16-27 FG from Jefferson and Smith.

3. Two Big Deals

With the All-Star game just a week away and playoff positioning beginning in earnest, I will be devoting this third point in the trey increasingly to various observations about other teams around the league. Today, it’s my quick take on the recent blockbusters swung by the Lakers and the Suns.

The Lakers now boast arguably the best player in the Western Conference in Kobe Bryant, and arguably the deepest team in the NBA. If Bynum comes back healthy, they are the biggest threat to the Spurs’ return to the NBA Finals. What’s great about Gausol in this context is the flexibility he provides their roster. LA is large–7 guys on their roster are 6-10 or above, only 3 are less than 6-5–yet remarkably quick for their size. Guys like Kobe, Luke Walton, and Lamar Odom are matchup nightmares for most swingmen. the two-headed point guard situation with Farmar and Fisher is a great mix of flashy kid and savvy vet. Ronny Turiaf, Sasha Vujacic, Vlad Rad, and even Trevor Ariza, should he ever find some minutes in edgewise, are the kind of players who can burn a second unit that isn’t paying attention or merely going through the motions. The roster’s personnel is well suited for the triangle offense, mobile and fairly smart (losing Kwame Brown boosted the BBIQ), and yet the team can ambush you in transition. The only questions are whether Bynum can be the stud in the paint that he was becoming before the injury, and whether team defense with respect to Gausol, Odom and the two point guards is sufficient in a rugged playoff series. I know Memphis clears lots of cap with Kwame and wants to feature Rudy Gay, season their point guards and line themselves up for the lottery, but even so, advantage Lakers.

The Shaq to Phoenix bombshell is a little different. As with the Lakers’ trade, I’m probably not saying anything that hasn’t already been said, ad nauseum (fortunately I haven’t had time to read it, just getting it through osmosis in hoops talk with friends), but it is obviously a matter of Steve Kerr going for broke, figuring that spending tens of millions on a potent tub or lard is better than spending tens of millions on a cancerous swiss army knife (that would be Shaq and Shawn Marion, respectively). Phoenix’s odds of winning the NBA Championship go up about 10 percent with this deal. Unfortunately, their odds of being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs go up about 30 percent.

How does a team getting the most out of Shaq also be a team that gets the most out of Steve Nash? It is difficult to think of two stars whose offensive games are less compatible. One of the precious few blessings of the deal will be that D’Antoni can significantly cut Nash’s minutes, and I would imagine they won’t share the court for any more than 12-20 minutes a game, tops. But it is hardly a secret that both don’t defend very well–who guards Duncan in a matchup with San Antonio? For that matter, who is their premiere low-post defender–Brian Skinner? Losing Marion puts pressure on a physically fragile Grant Hill and a mentally fragile Boris Diaw.

The greatest justification for this trade is that Phoenix needs to do exactly what Kerr did–push all their chips on to a longshot hope of taking it all this season, because after that, the window is closed. New Orleans and Portland will soon take their place alongside Dallas and the Lakers as championship threats over the next 4-5 years. Better to get rid of the bitching Marion–who, even more than Joe Johnson, wins the Mr. Clueless award for wanting out of Phoenix–and have the aging Nash and the aging Shaq coming off the books; take the team down to the ground and start from scratch. But before that happens, see if D’Antoni can use his offensive genius to get a two-headed horse to go in the same direction. See if the change of speeds discombobulates opponents. See if Shaq and Nash can put their phenomenal talents and their considerable pride ahead of what common sense would say is a disastrous marriage.

As much as I love and have defended both Shaq and Nash in recent years, I think common sense wins out. I’ve already made a wager with a colleague on the regular season: He wins the bet if the Suns finish among the top three seeds; I win if they finish between sixth and eighth. (Four an
d five seeds are a push.) And, to bring it around to the Wolves, that Miami draft pick owed Minnesota in 2010 is going to be a lot worse with Marion joining Wade plus a high pick this season on the 2009-10 Heat roster.