2015 Offseason

Kevin Garnett, Mentor


You’d be forgiven if you blanched at the announcement that Kevin Garnett resigned with the Minnesota Timberwolves for two years and $16.5 million. That Garnett is taking a $4 million paycut from his last contract feels immaterial: his grand return to Minnesota last season ended after just five games and — at least in on-court terms — hardly seemed worth the first round pick Minnesota first traded for Thad Young, who was later traded for Garnett. Even if it’s a legacy payment, making Garnett the third highest-paid player on the team at the age of 39 doesn’t seem to make basketball sense.

The Timberwolves, though, rarely emphasize Garnett’s on-court contributions in talking about the role the franchise’s all-time best player now has with the team. At best, his skill with defensive positioning comes up in a tertiary or fourth-most-important way, well after the idea that his skill and tenacity are now most important as traits he will impart to the team’s young players, especially Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

“Mentor,” used as both a noun and verb, is the word most often brought up with regard to Garnett these days, and the role is spoken of in semi-reverential, golden-tinged tones, as if Garnett were Pai Mei and Towns and Wiggins were lining up to learn the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. The thing about mentorship, though, is that it’s not some mystical, wordless transfer of concentrated experience from an old vessel into a new one. It’s teaching, and it’s something that’s been well-studied.

In “Characteristics of Successful and Failed Mentoring Relationships: A Qualitative Study Across Two Academic Health Centers,” a peer-reviewed paper published in Academic Medicine in January of 2014, authors Sharon E. Straus, Mallory O. Johnson, Christine Marquez and Mitchell D. Feldman did qualitative research into the characteristics of effective mentor-mentee relationships. They interviewed 54 medical faculty members about their experiences with mentoring. They were looking at these kind of relationships in the medical field, but as an area with a set of highly specialized skills requiring years of relentless practice that nevertheless leave you somewhat unprepared for the profession at its highest levels when you begin, there is some element of crossover here.

Some of these conclusions might seem like common sense, but they’re worth considering individually in framing what a successful mentorship between Garnett and one or more of the Wolves’ young players will look like. The authors found that mentoring needed to be altruistic. “The mentor not prioritizing the mentee’s best interests can lead to a failed mentoring relationship,” they wrote. In other words, this can’t just be Garnett telling war stories — it needs to be other-directed and specifically so to succeed.

Honesty is another prized characteristics of successful mentors and as far as Garnett goes, that probably won’t be a problem. Being an active listener is also important, which goes hand in hand with being altruistic; Garnett cannot simply impose his template for play on the young players, but see what they need and listen to them when they need help. This could mean that Wiggins and Towns might need very different things at different times, and Garnett will have to be responsive to this.

Substantial mentorship experience is also key, and it’s not entirely clear if Garnett has this. By most accounts, it seems like the Brooklyn Nets team Garnett was a part of was fairly dysfunctional, but he has earned some plaudits already from younger players like Jared Sullinger for playing a mentor role when he was with the Celtics. The difficult part of assessing Garnett’s past experience as a mentor is that we as the public learn about it only through the lens of the media and players interacting with the media, not through peer-reviewed journals or rigorous internal assessment. Stories of dysfunctionality or life-changing learning are by nature more compelling than the average everyday teaching that goes on between older and younger players, and so players present them that way, writers write them that way, and we digest them that way.

Considerable professional experience is a box we can just go ahead and check off for Garnett — he’s got that covered. A lack of time is cited as a major challenge to the mentor-mentee relationship and it seems like something that could easily creep up on a team when almost every available slice of time is filled up with games, shootarounds or recovery. Teams already struggle to get meaningful practices together during the season, so if the relationship between Garnett and his charges is going to flourish, it’s going to be because Garnett is consistently available, even if it’s just via text.

It’s not all on Garnett, though. The authors also outlined the characteristics that define an effective mentee, and they mirror many of the aforementioned ones for mentors: active listener, open to feedback, respectful of the mentor’s time. They also emphasized the importance of the mentee “driving the relationship,” with one participant saying:

You can’t just go in and be an undifferentiated blob about what you want, you have to really have thought before you go in and meet with your mentor about what the issue is that you need help with and you know it’s much more useful if you bring your own analysis in with you and then the mentor can give you their analysis and you can talk.

In some ways, this would appear to cut against the grain of the typical situation with an NBA team, where the hierarchical relationship between veterans and younger players is closer to military than educational: there is hazing (even if it’s fairly benign, like wearing a cartoon backpack or bringing the donuts), and rookies are expected to get the worst seats on the bus, to be the last to get food, etc.

Upending some of this structure doesn’t mean absolving the young players of responsibility, but rather giving them more. When Towns or Wiggins (or Zach LaVine or Shabazz Muhammad or any other young player) are working with Garnett, they should know what they want to get out of it, from the level of an individual meeting or practice to the season as a whole. Coaches — from Flip Saunders to his assistants — will have goals and expectations for players that have to do with teamwide goals, but a personal mentorship between two players should be about both more and less than that. It should be integrated with team concepts, but it should also follow its own path with its own short-term goals that can be accomplished game to game.

In short, for Garnett’s mentorship to be a functional thing, it has to be measured, even if it’s something we never see. There should be checklists that are as specific as possible, whether that means making the right rotation in a particular defensive scheme to pushing on made free throws. The feedback for the young players needs to be regular, consistent, critical and honest.

There’s nothing wrong with Garnett doing what comes naturally and “getting in a guy’s ear,” which is what we’ve heard about so far. But if the Wolves can lay out a structure for this mentorship in advance, they can make sure that $16.5 million is not just an investment in an aging player, but a young mentor.

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19 thoughts on “Kevin Garnett, Mentor

  1. !!!! Holy cow have you gone astray! Whew. Bending academic research to apply to juvenile command structures is a far reach for this subject and this blog. I’d love to know how much you read of Straus, Johnson et al., because I doubt that even a cursory review of those 54 examples would yield any evidence that KG can mentor anyone. The Brooklyn Nets were a sorry-ass mess when KG left, and the stories are all over the www that he was powerless to change the culture there: he threatened and forced players to practice, ruling by the sort of military might B.S. that barely worked in Vietnam or Afghanistan and will not work in a sports arena when men are involved. KG is intense, he has knowledge, but he is also borderline delusional if anything his past coaches have said is true. The voodoo, the superstition, the OCD battles with perceived demons, the chalk in the air, the head bowed like a comic book warrior at his introduction upon his return: this is not a magnanimous man inclined to intellectual analysis. And let’s be honest and connect the dots: in Washington, we listened to Flip extoll Gilbert Arenas as a leader, and our eyes rolled; Gilbert took a s*** in Andray Blatche’s shoe, and then got into a gun display in the locker room with a teammate who went to prison, and the mentee in this case turned into a space cadet named Nick Young. Come on. Kick the front office when it does unimaginably stupid things. If they wanted a real mentor, why not bring in Bruce Bowen or Grant Hill or a man with real leadership skills? If it has to be a broken-down active player on his last legs, trade for Boris Diaw or Andre Miller! But a bring in a man. It’s just not in the DNA of this organization to make wise choices: the coach’s son runs the summer league team into a flurry of losses at the same time the lowly Sacramento Kings refuse to let George Karl put his son on the coaching staff, citing the dangers of nepotism. I know, Minnesota’s Scandinavian heritage limns nepotism and cronyism as important elements of the state’s corporate culture, but how can the fan stay so silent in the face of their team’s quiet complacency on the court? Taylor is supposed to be the ward of our property, the team we root for, and he’s simply going to walk away from a turgid history with half a billion dollars in his pocket? Talking about KG as a mentor to young, impressionable athletes is idiotic. Thankfully, I’ll put my money on the fact that KAT and Wiggins are already smarter and much more analytical than KG will ever be. The Spurs, our nemesis, have Duncan, whose eyes widen famously as he hugs or consoles a teammate; watch KG’s body language when his teammate gets slammed, and ask yourself if the narrowing of his eyes into outrage is more about retribution from the opponent or concern for his teammate. KG is not a mentor, and has never been one, and will not start being one now. Say so, if you really think it, rather than wading into peer-reviewed academia only to come up with no conclusion at all. Can the Wolves lay out “a structure for this mentorship”? How much do you want to bet?

    1. Wow. So much unearned condescension and flawed logic in one space. There’s no point in getting worked up, so I’m just going to treat this like the comment version of The Room or Birdemic. My favorite insanity was bringing up summer league wins as if that means anything about anything.

      1. Yeah, funny how that summer league business means nothing! The famous line about Jordan: the best thing that can happen to a team is when your best player practices hardest. Summer League is just practice for the real thing, and of course it’s silly to extrapolate anything from it. Go ahead and lose your games with twenty-year-olds, won’t hurt them a bit. What B.S., man. Eight teams in the Vegas QFs, and they are Golden State, Atlanta, San Antonio, Chicago, Dallas (50 wins last season), New Orleans (45 wins), Celtics (40 wins) and Suns (39 wins). The Wolves scored 16, had the best draft pick and a young and upcoming team and stinks the joint out. But go ahead and pretend summer league is a picnic and nobody really plays hard. Give me a break.

  2. Seanie I just have to say you’re mistaken Garnett is a great mentor for the young team he is the franchise leader in just about everything, putting his body soul and everything on the line for Minnesota while he was here has expressed nothing but gratitude and happiness about Minnesota one of few super starts who didn’t want to leave and he wanted to come back all he while he could have went somewhere else or stayed put in Brooklyn you need to realize that he is the perfect mentor for towns in particular plus the players last year had nothing but good things to say about KG at the end of the year and let’s not forget how much better they played with him. Wiggins and Lavine playing a hell of a lot better once he arrived as well. Maybe this was a stupid piece which I agree with, but don’t disagree with the fact we have lots of cap flexibility these next three years and slight overpaying a great hall of fame player who wants to be here and lead this team into the future is not a waste and is very valuable in building from the bottom up.

  3. Personally, his main value comes from how much better he made the team defensively when he played (which Steve wrote about on another site as it was happening). We can complain all day about that $ (though it doesn’t really matter how much they pay this season since they have a full roster and needed to be over the cap to use the MLE for Bjelica) or the trade value (though people always forget that the Miami pick was partially for Young and partially to get the Sixers to take Mbah a Moute and Shved and are overlooking that Young opted out and got $48 million for 4 years, which no one should’ve wanted to come from the Wolves). It comes down to how many minutes he can give. Most mentors actually practice and play in the games.

    How we see him as a mentor probably connects to how much we see that term overlapping with “leader.” Though he’s taken a lot of justified heat for how he treats opponents, the reports on his leadership are overwhelmingly positive. Howard Beck’s piece (http://tinyurl.com/o68mbl5) really emphasizes how others view him as a teammate:
    – Danny Ainge: “He changed everybody … I think that it was just his energy and enthusiasm. But also, it was the fact that he believed. He had this strong faith in what the team could be…He sort of took Perk under his wing and he loved Perk for how hard Perk played. ”
    – Big Baby Davis: ” I think he goes down as one of the best leaders of all time, somebody that led by example, but also policed his teams and said what was right all the time, in spite of what other people think.”
    – Dwyane Wade: “I was a young kid … But he believed in me at that time. He wasn’t my teammate. I didn’t even know him that much…But he pulled me aside, he talked to me for that weekend, and he let me know that I can be a star in this league.”
    – Mason Plumlee: “So he’s like, ‘Everything that I tell you is for you. It’s coming from a place of success, a place of—you know I want you to do well, because I’ve done it all’ … That just gave me trust in everything he told me, that it wasn’t for anything but my betterment.”
    – Anthony Bennett: “He’s always a hard worker, always intense, always talkative. Everything about his vibe changed the locker room. … Someone missed a shot, he’ll go to them, bring them back up. Just the little things, but it goes a long way for other players.”
    From those quotes, you can see some kernels of what’s brought up with mentorship in the articles Steve found.

    1. well said GJK, sorry I did not read this before I posted my book. but even more examples of what I would call a natural leader.

    2. That’s good research, and I’ll believe anybody that says he inspires his teammates. That doesn’t make him a mentor. It makes him a guy who wants to win, and that’s extremely valuable to have on a team, no question. But not at 8 millions dollars a year! If he can put in 65 games at 17 minutes per game, his defense alone makes him good to have, at $4 million a year, tops. Why do the Spurs get David West and we get KG with his tyres bald? It’s institutional. I love going back to AWAW comments written exactly a year ago, and you would have thought the Wolves were a lock to fight for the playoffs; reality since a year ago is a cold shower. KG will play good defense, he will inspire his teammates, I won’t argue either.

  4. lol I still need to read this, but I have to make this one comment (while completely ignoring the first) I saw on facebook there was a new posting on AWAW and I knew after the first sentence that Steve wrote it. Still my favorite writer Steve, thanks for all of the time you put into this blog..

  5. I don’t know, I have heard KG talk about basketball before he became a T-Wolve again. and the thing that struck me about it was his commitment to team. To KG that’s all that mattered. You should pull up one of Doc’s interviews on what KG brings to a team and what he was willing to do within that structure.

    KG has the respect of his young teammates. He has 19 years of experience. He’s won at the highest level. But he has always tried to impart his knowledge to younger players (as the articles I copied detail).

    I’m not worried about his ability to teach. seriously I thought 16 million was too much especially when Duncan signed for 5. But that’s really not one thing impacting the other. So what? I’m not paying that bill. If that’s what the Wolves felt it was worth that’s really their business.

    The point is can he teach? history says yes, and it comes naturally. And it goes beyond what happens on court. Read the Plumlee article I think that was the best one. It doesn’t just talk about X’s and O’s Plumlee talks about attitude. About leading by example.

    There are going to be a lot of loses this season. seanie blue’s head may literally explode. But how the team handles those loses. How they maintain a positive attitude. What they take from each game. Those are important factors. Those go beyond X’s and O’s.

    I’m all in on it. We have added at least 2 rookies these past 3 years, we need a veteran in the locker room. Flip needs one he can trust to bring the message he wants conveyed. KG is the right guy for that job.

  6. I guess the post I made linking to the many articles regarding KG’s mentoring in Boston, in Brooklyn, and the players who spoke about how he’s helped their games is still awaiting moderation. The point is their is a documented history of Kevin Garnett helping players improve their games.

    all you have to do is google Kevin Garnett mentors and look for them yourself.

  7. I would think Lorenzo could be the 14th/15th man, by considering his salary. We only have 2 SG here in the team, and he is 6’5.
    If no trade or free agent pickup anymore in the offseason, my chosen roster could be:
    Guard: Rubio, Miller, Jones, Brown, Martin, Lavine
    Forward: Wiggins, Muhammad, Hummel, Garnett, Bennett, Bjelica
    Center: Pekovic, Dieng, Towns

  8. The article is pretty vanilla but its nice to see there’s a method to Flip’s madness at least a little bit and explains why Wiggins didn’t shoot many 3’s his first season. Training inside out is proper and most likely cannot be rushed with a “blank canvas”. Bad news is Flip basically said he still enjoys developing players…and we all know a GM doesn’t develop players…that’s a coaches job. Ick


      1. I’ve only ever heard of KG talking about McHale’s teachings. I know McHale taught KG some moves and pointers on how to handle the position but I haven’t heard of any development from him. I’ve never heard any other big like Rasho, Joe Smith, Stanley Roberts, Booth, etc. (whoever) talk about McHale helping them other than answering a question about him and them toeing the company line with the answer.

        Regardless though, I hope Flip does the same as McHale did and sit from afar because he’s actually really good at the GM position. Imagine what he could do with even more time to evaluate players!

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