Old Heads, Fresh Enthusiasm
The day Karl-Anthony Towns was born, 19-year-old Kevin Garnett played in his sixth NBA game, putting up 19 points and 8 rebounds in a 105-96 home loss to the San Antonio Spurs. It featured David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Vinny Del Negro, and Doc Rivers in the visiting black uniforms, and “Googs,” J.R. Rider, Doug West, Terry Porter and Sam Mitchell in the home whites. The contest predated the tenures of Greg Popovich (Bob Hill patrolled the Spurs’ sideline) and Flip Saunders (Bill Blair was still a month away from being relieved of his duties). In other words, it was a long time ago.
The day Karl-Anthony Towns was born, a 19-year-old freshman named Andre Miller was ten days away from making his NCAA debut for Rick Majerus’ Utah Utes against Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, Jacque Vaughn, Scot Pollard and the Kansas Jayhawks. Miller, along with Keith Van Horn and Michael Doleac, led Utah to the Sweet Sixteen that season, where they fell to Tony Delk, Antoine Walker and the eventual National Champion Kentucky Wildcats. In other words, it was a long time ago.
Fast forward to now. Garnett, a uniquely gifted and fiercely competitive “6’13” power forward, made basketball homes in Boston (where he won a ring) and Brooklyn before returning to Minneapolis to finish his career. Miller, a basketball savant who understands the subtleties and nuances of the game and uses them to gain advantage even as his physical skills have eroded, is playing for his eighth organization, and though it seems like he could play forever, the end is likely near for him as well.
Neither plays all that much. Garnett rests on the second halves of back-to-backs, and when he does play, he’s usually able to go for two or three stints, maximum, and for 12-18 minutes, tops. He’s averaging 3.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 0.3 blocks per game, all career lows. Miller has appeared in only 19 of the team’s 42 games, often in mop-up duty or to fill in for an injured teammate. He’s averaging 3.7 points, 0.9 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game, all career lows.
They’re each diminished, but here stands (well actually, they’re often sitting) The Professor and KG, each nearing 40, plugging away, fighting through the aches and pains that have surely set in after 40,000 and 50,000 career regular season minutes (respectively), all in the name of guiding the enigmatic young Timberwolves. And wouldn’t you know it, despite their limitations, if you take a gander at the team’s Net Rating leaders, who else could lead the team besides…
I have no great insight into the two men, at least, nothing that hasn’t already been covered by far better writers than myself. I’ve not had the pleasure of speaking to either at length, and even if I did, I doubt either would divulge too much about the specific nature of their mentorship. But what I can tell you is from my seat, uniquely positioned near the end of the Wolves’ bench, I’ve seen (and sometimes heard) what their leadership and teaching look like up close, and to be perfectly honest, it’s some of the coolest stuff I’ve been privy to in the three seasons I’ve been doing this.
Kevin Garnett does this often – some games, it’s every timeout, every stoppage in play. He’ll hold court, specifically addressing the five guys currently in the game, and instruct each of them, pump them up, emphatically slapping knees and pounding chests to encourage, admonish, and everything in between. One night, as we watched Garnett emphatically addressing the huddle in a close game, our own Steve McPherson turned to me and remarked, “You know, it’s funny that it says he doesn’t want to coach, because look at him. That’s all he freaking does!”
I’ve seen him play the good cop to Sam Mitchell’s bad cop, especially with Zach LaVine. I’ve watched him get on Nemanja Bjelica’s case to be more aggressive and confident. I’ve witnessed extra chest bumps, high-fives, and slaps on the behind for Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins. I’ve seen him get specific with Gorgui Dieng – gesturing with his long, thin arms flailing and his face animated as can be – “when your man comes here, spin this way, look to pass, turn right shoulder for the hook, take it up strong!” I’ve noticed the way he’ll stand first and encourage teammates to show extra love to Shabazz Muhammad when he returns to the bench after playing his ass off.
The tutelage of Andre Miller is a bit more subtle.
There are only a few players who seem as constantly invested in the game from the bench as Miller; one is KG, obviously, and the other is Ricky Rubio. It’s amazing to watch Miller, especially in a situation like the one shown above, standing and pacing, barking out signals and instruction when necessary, then celebrating his teammates’ successful defense. I’ve seen him lean in to Ricky Rubio to answer questions, pointing and gesturing, each seeing the floor as a chess board, trying to parlay their knowledge into successful possessions, two or three points at a time. I notice when Zach LaVine, frustrated and inching closer to Sam Mitchell’s doghouse, gets pulled from a game, plops down on the bench next to The Professor, and goes to school. It’s a million little things with Andre, it seems, all the million little things that have kept him in the league this long, that keep him waving guys to their spots and setting one another up for success. No, he can’t play defense like he once did, but look at that offensive rating when he’s on the floor – 112.1 points per 100 possessions.
In some ways, the two are a perfect pairing to mentor a young team. One brash and bold and outspoken, the other with plenty of personality but a bit quieter, content to break down the game in an even tone, with facts and tips delivered plainly. One to handle a precocious young big man with a high ceiling, the other to help teach Ricky Rubio even finer points of the craft and Zach LaVine (and Tyus Jones) the very basics.
This final video was taken in the concluding moments of a Wolves blowout loss at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. I have no idea what’s being said. I know it’s important that Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns heard it:
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the young guys roll their eyes at the veterans who are old enough to be their fathers. Maybe all this mentorship stuff gets overplayed.
Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s vital. Maybe that’s what is standing in between the Wolves being bad and being so bad that their young players get stuck in a vicious cycle of tuning out coaches and discontentment with teammates. Maybe it’s different behind the scenes; that’s entirely possible. I’m not at practice, I’m not a fly on the wall of the locker room.
All I know is that from what I can see from my seat, Garnett and Miller are as fresh as ever, excited as ever, ready to teach, ready to talk. And as long as their words aren’t falling on deaf ears, they’ll be invaluable.