As soon as ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that the Minnesota Timberwolves were involved in a late push to bring back Kevin Garnett from the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Thad Young, a particular drumbeat began that went: “Wolves traded a first round pick for a 38-year-old KG.”
I’m here to tell you why this is a stupid way to think about this, whether or not it happens. And it’s not because trading for Young in the first was not a mistake — because it might well have been — and it’s not because trading for Garnett is not a mistake — because it might well be. It’s mostly because of a little thing called the fourth dimension, so let’s travel back through it to when Minnesota traded for Thad Young for a first round pick this past summer.
When the Wolves were putting together the trade that sent Kevin Love to Cleveland for Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, they were looking at a rough season for the power forward position on their team. With Dante Cunningham gone from the team, they were looking directly at an entire season of starting Bennett at power forward or experimenting with starting Gorgui Dieng there and having only one center — Ronny Turiaf — behind Nikola Pekovic.
They were also thinking they wouldn’t be terrible this season. Given the comparative success the team has experienced with their return to full-strength, they might not have been wrong. It was probably still too optimistic to expect the playoffs, but there’s little doubt that with everyone who started the season healthy through the whole season, this team would not have the second worst record in the league.
For Young’s part, his season has been uneven, without a doubt. This is partly on him, because it’s easy to see that his commitment and energy on the court has waxed and waned. But some of it is out of his hands: it’s certainly more difficult to set the tone and lead on the court when you’re a smallball power forward. His efficacy — as I’ve said before — comes from fitting into the cracks, scavenging points against mismatches and causing turnovers. I firmly believe that with Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Pek healthy, Young’s season would have looked entirely different.
But instead, it looks like it looks. Young has a player option for next year, and at first, the big concern is that he wouldn’t stay, meaning Minnesota would have traded a first round pick (one that was all but guaranteed to be out of the lottery, but still) for a one-year rental. Then, as his play flagged through the middle of the season, the concern was that he’d opt in, costing Minnesota almost $10 million next year.
These talks about trading for Garnett make me think that Young has maybe indicated he will opt out next season. After all, the team already traded Corey Brewer, at least partly, it seems, because he was planning on opting out. (Also — and this is pure speculation — one need only look at the Twitter feed of Young’s wife to see that she doesn’t seem totally thrilled with the weather in Minnesota, and who could blame her? Family seems tremendously important to Young, and I wouldn’t blame him for considering the desires of his family in making this decision.)
So before the season, the Wolves gambled with their first round pick that Young would fit into the team well as they constructed it. They lost gamble, not primarily because of Young, but because of injuries to their core. Now the question in a lost season is how to pivot and prepare for next season.
As an asset, Young has limited value. His contract is not easily absorbable and his skillset can only benefit teams in pretty specific ways at this point in the season — he has to be just the right fit off the bench for a team looking at the playoffs, most likely. Thus, it seems like the Wolves are approaching this from a perspective that extends beyond the court.
Garnett has already made noise about purchasing the Timberwolves when he retires. Saunders, with whom Garnett has a good relationship, is a part owner already. Glen Taylor, with whom Garnett has a rocky relationship, seemed ready to consider selling recently before deciding to stay invested. This trade may simply be about bringing Garnett back into the fold and remember that Garnett has a no-trade clause. If he comes back, it’s because he decided to, and it’s likely part of that decision has to do with planning his future beyond playing.
I mean, let’s not beat around the bush: Garnett on the court for 30 or so games doesn’t move the needle from a basketball perspective. But it does lay a kind of groundwork in terms of transitioning the teams in much bigger ways. It would put Garnett on the ground level for a bunch of the season, would give him a firsthand experience of the team and give fans a chance to welcome him back in a very public way.
Does this mean it’s a home run? Not at all. Should the Wolves be vilified if they were to give up a first round draft pick for the right to present Garnett’s twilight campaign? Absolutely. But that’s not what they’re doing. If Young is opting out, holding on at this point simply because you traded a first round pick for him is like going out for a fancy dinner, getting sick, then trying not to puke because of how much you spent on the meal.
Again, you can call many of the steps along the way mistakes. You can say that even if the Wolves hadn’t been injured, being better but not good enough to make the playoffs wouldn’t have been worth it. You can say that first round pick from Miami was always more valuable. You can say trading for Garnett is not sound from a basketball standpoint, and you may be right. But please: stop saying the Wolves are trading a first round pick for Garnett. The Wolves have enough legitimate missteps to criticize without this kind of exaggeration.