Kevin Garnett is as big as he’s always been – “6’13,” as Flip Saunders used to say – with a huge personality and competitive fire that still burns bright and hot. At the moment, that flame flickers as KG sits behind the bench in a suit, instructing young players on the intricacies of the game while his thin arms and long hands dance wildly around his words, or as he talks trash to opposing players or the referees, or as he barks out defensive scouting reports to teammates. There’s been a ton of effort put into dissecting what Garnett’s mentorship means, and such discussions always end with examples such as these, and with the conclusion that KG’s involvement is helpful. The Wolves are better off that he’s back in the fold; even though his knees are sore and his body aches, his mind, his words, and his presence bring the best out of his teammates, especially the young ones.
But Garnett’s impact on the team isn’t solely abstract. On the contrary – his presence in the lineup has been the best predictor of the Wolves’ success this season. Minnesota is 14-24 (.368 winning percentage) when he’s in a uniform and just 6-21 (.222 winning percentage) when he does not. It’s a bit of an arbitrary cutoff, but when KG plays 17 minutes or more, the Wolves are 6-5; they’re 14-40 in the rest of their games. The team’s defensive rating when Garnett is checked in? 96.4 points per 100 possessions. As a point of reference, the San Antonio Spurs are allowing 95.5 points per 100 possessions this season, one of the best marks in recent NBA history. When he sits, the Wolves allow 109.6 points per 100 possessions. As a point of reference, the Los Angeles Lakers have the worst D-Rating in the league this year… at 109.4.
In other words, Garnett is the difference between the Wolves playing elite defense and abysmal defense. Even at 39, with all the physical limitations described above, his impact is that profound.
What’s discouraging, however, is that if the young Wolves learned many on-the-floor lessons playing at such an elite defensive level, it’s difficult to find evidence of them. Consider how their output has changed since January 23rd, the last time KG logged time on the floor:
It’d be unreasonable to expect the Wolves’ collection of youngsters to suddenly morph into a league-average defensive unit, but ever since Garnett’s knee acted up and he started missing time, the Wolves have reverted to near-2014 tankathon levels of crappy D. Particularly troubling is the fact that all the members of the core group moving forward – Towns, Wiggins, Rubio, LaVine, and Dieng – have been healthy and playing the lion’s share of the minutes. It’s not a carousel of players on ten-day contracts surrounding two 19-year old rookies, Kevin Martin, power forward Chase Budinger Because Meh Whatever, and Adreian Payne For Some Reason. This season, it’s the core group playing together coming down the stretch, and showing themselves to be completely inadequate on the defensive end of the floor.
Towns is a lock to win Rookie of the Year. Andrew Wiggins has started to hit three-pointers lately. Ricky Rubio is shooting a bit better and seems to enjoy the new, more up-tempo style. Zach LaVine has had a truly fantastic stretch, scoring efficiently, especially when they need it. Gorgui Dieng has flourished with the uptick in playing time, showing an increased level of chemistry with Towns in the frontcourt while improving his scoring efficiency as well. And Bazzy’s Bazzy.
Since January 24th, the Timberwolves have the 5th-best offense in the league. It isn’t because they’re shooting more threes – they’re running most of the same sets they have all season, hunting the same shots. But a de-emphasis on Wiggins post-ups and repetitive curl actions has allowed for a bump in both Ricky Rubio and Karl-Anthony Towns’ playmaking duties, which has been better for the offense as a whole. The problem is, of course, all of this was accompanied by the defense falling apart entirely.
Minnesota has been non-competitive in three of their past six games – a troubling sign. Instead of using the final month and a half to catapult to better things in 2016-17 (like Utah did last season, for instance), the Wolves are yet again plodding to the finish, trading a spirited effort one game for a blowout loss the next, and back and forth again. The poor recent showings coupled with the general inability to defend since KG left the lineup in late January appears to reflect poorly on the coach – the question is, will the stink stick to him? Or if he can get the club to 22 or 23 wins, which would technically be an improvement over a year ago (it shouldn’t really count as one, due to the fact that pretty much everyone is healthy this season compared to last… but that’s another column unto itself), Mitchell could rightfully approach the front office and argue he deserves to have his interim tag removed. It isn’t a great argument, but it’s the best one he’s got.
Which brings us back to Kevin Garnett himself. He may retire at season’s end, though he is under contract through the end of the 2016-17 campaign. Even if he does walk away from playing, it’s unlikely he’d vanish from the decision-making circles of the team – especially if his designs are really to become involved in ownership of the team. KG’s already gone on record to say that he fully endorses Mitchell as the team’s coach now and into the future. While it is possible he reverses course and advocates for an earnest search this offseason, such a scenario seems unlikely. He doesn’t say much to the media nowadays; the one time he went out of his way to do so recently was to speak passionately on behalf of Mitchell.
If the decision is up to Glen Taylor, isn’t it likely he’d be persuaded to give Mitchell another season, especially if Garnett is in his corner? Even if Steve Kaplan and his partners are able to secure their 30% minority ownership in a timely fashion in the coming months, with guarantees of having a say in management and personnel going forward, would their first order of business be to shun the advice of a franchise icon and fire the coach he passionately supports? That seems unlikely, too.
Would it be so bad if Sam Mitchell was the Wolves’ coach on Opening Night in October? It certainly wouldn’t be ideal, given the bevy of top-flight coaches that could be available this summer, but it certainly wouldn’t be apocalyptic. This isn’t an argument that Garnett has unchecked power in the organization, or that it’s bad having him around. It’s merely a reminder that his presence has certain side effects – and while KG still has many fans in the Twin Cities, the chorus of voices for Mitchell’s ouster get louder by the day. At some point, those who love having KG back in Minnesota and passionately argue for Sam’s ouster as vital to the future success of their favorite team will have to reckon with how incompatible the two views seem to be.
On the court, off the court, who he supports – KG isn’t done shaping the Timberwolves franchise. In fact, he might just be getting started.