Roster Review: Kevin Martin
Timberwolves fans are accustomed to looking for change. (And I don’t mean between the couch cushions, which is where the cash from selling second round picks always seems to end up.) For a franchise that has had eight head coaches and four GMs in the last 11 years, it’s simply expected. In that same span, draft picks have grown and then sputtered, or occasionally flourished and left. Even in the span of a single season we’ve seen Karl-Anthony Towns develop from solid prospect to potential star, with much distance left to run.
Those who watch the team watch for movement, for players to get better or get worse, to gel or fracture as a unit. It’s part of what makes Kevin Martin’s tenure as a member of the team hard to grasp because like war, Kevin Martin never changes. More scorer than shooter, more turnstile than defender, Martin built his game around baiting defenders into fouling him with that herky-jerky, lightning-quick release. When the league changed the rules about swipe-throughs, Martin didn’t change, just kept goading defenders into going for it and kept getting to the line, maybe just a little less reliably.
The year prior to coming to the Wolves, Martin shifted from being a starter in Houston to being a sixth man in Oklahoma City, effectively replacing James Harden — another master foul-hunter, although he does it going to the rim — in their scheme. That Thunder team got to the Western Conference Semifinals, ultimately undone by the loss of Russell Westbrook to an injury at the hands of Houston’s Patrick Beverly. With Martin’s former coach, Rick Adelman, in Minnesota and the chance to move back into a starter’s role alongside the promising trio of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, Martin agreed to a sign and trade for a four-year contract worth $28 million starting with the 2013-14 season.
And Martin was good. He provided a 3-point and general scoring threat from the backcourt that the Wolves had sorely lacked with a shooting guard rotation of Luke Ridnour and Alexey Shved the year before. And the starters overall were scorching in a way that a lot of people both didn’t see at the time and have forgotten since. Although the team finished below .500 and missed the playoffs, the starting lineup posted the sixth best net rating in the league with a +9.2 and their offensive rating was tied with Golden State’s for the top spot at 112.4 for any lineup with at least 400 minutes.
What doomed the Timberwolves that year was a weird amalgamation of a bad bench, bad luck and — perversely — the way their scorching offense limited them down the stretch in close games. Working together, Rubio, Martin, Love and Pek were formidable, but each of them had their limitations as offensive players. Pek couldn’t generate his own shot; Love was a deadeye shooter but comparatively easy to stop in a single possession because of lack of mobility; Rubio couldn’t shoot; and Martin was reliant on drawing fouls, as were Rubio and Love. (Minnesota took the third most free throws per game that year and made the second most.) This was a problem in the closing minutes of close games when refs often swallow their whistles.
So the structure of many games that year was the same: The Wolves jumped out to a big lead early, watched it wither as the bench struggled, then failed to close it out at the end of the game. The result was an expected W-L on the season of 48-34 — based generally on scoring margin — and an actual record of 40-42.
Martin had been brought on largely because of Adelman’s affection for him, and probably with an understanding that Adelman would ask Martin to be Martin and no more than that. But with Adelman’s retirement, Flip Saunders stepped in as head coach and asked that Martin be a leader to a team that was suddenly at the start of a youth movement with the departure of Love and the acquisition of Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett.
But in the tenth game of 2014-15, Martin delivered perhaps his most heroic and tragic performance as a Timberwolf, dropping 37 on the Knicks with a broken wrist. When he returned from the injury on January 28, 2015, the team was 7-37 and a lost cause. Although the wrist still bothered him, he kept firing and kept letting ballhandlers blow by him, same as always.
And then this season, playing for his third coach in three years, twice removed from the coach who brought him to the team in the first place, Martin was moved out of the starting lineup in training camp for Zach LaVine, then put back into it, then moved out of it again so Wiggins could start at shooting guard alongside Tayshaun Prince at small forward. At media day, Martin had said he believed his resume in the league spoke for itself and that he should be the starter, but to his credit, he didn’t make waves when he wasn’t. But he also wasn’t ever mentioned alongside the vets like Prince, Andre Miller and Kevin Garnett when people talked about the mentoring process for players like Towns, Wiggins and LaVine. He existed in this no-man’s-land for much of the season, neither a rookie or young player in need of grooming, nor seen as a grizzled font of wisdom. Eventually he was bought out by the team in time for him to join the San Antonio Spurs for a playoff run. In the postseason so far, he’s averaging more minutes per game than Jonathan Simmons, Andre Miller and Boban Marjanovic, but that’s it. He is, effectively, the Spurs’ 11th man.
That’s the weirdly nondescript arc of his career in Minnesota. He was a pro, maybe even a pro’s pro, staying in his lane, doing what he knew how to do, neither making trouble nor making a mark. Speaking personally, his game often drove me nuts, more from an aesthetic than strictly tactical perspective. But whatever his failings on defense, there’s no denying that minute to minute, his approach on the offensive side of the ball was effective and efficient, his commitment to luring defenders into fouling him never less than total.
During his time with the Wolves, Martin was a key addition, a starter, a weak point in the defense, a scorer, injured, a sixth man, a trade chip, a veteran, a DNP-CD, a contract to stretch and clear cap space. Ultimately, it’s to both his credit and his condemnation that through all these different ways we saw him, he remained Kevin Martin, professional player of basketball, with all the skills and shortcomings he long ago accepted as the gears and levers that have allowed him to have a career.