Last time I tried this, it was about six months ago. The Twins were one month into an awful season, and one theory was that they missed Torii Hunter. The veteran outfielder, who turned 40 in the middle of the 2015 season, offered decent production. He also served as the team spokesman and the starter of dance parties, among other things.
I’m not naive enough to suggest an outfielder with a .702 OPS and a fondness for fog machines was the main difference between a 59-win Twins team last year and an 83-win Twins team two years ago, but I am willing to consider the intangible roles that Hunter played for the Twins. Every season from 2011 to present ended with 90 losses or more — except the one when he was here. Again: clutch hitting and decent pitching were huge factors. But how much does a strong clubhouse dynamic help performance?
It’s a question we are in the position to ask again now that a young team with similarly high expectations is off to a slow start (albeit in a smaller sample) in the absence of a veteran leader who returned to the Twin Cities sports scene after leaving in 2007.
The dynamic is a different with the Timberwolves and Kevin Garnett in a few different ways, but the early 1-4 Wolves start and some other similarities in spite of those differences make the question worth asking.
First, the differences: Hunter was close to a regular player, while KG was a part-time player and then a no-time player last season — the latter coming at the end of the year when the Wolves played close to .500 basketball. Hunter walked away on his terms and was by all measures loved by the Twins; Garnett’s love was a lot tougher than Hunter’s, and there is plenty of evidence his intensity wasn’t necessarily welcomed by all (particularly the new Tom Thibodeau regime, since the Wolves are paying KG $8 million not to be there this year).
That said, KG was still productive when he played last season. In games where he played at least 12 minutes, the Wolves were 12-14 (compared to 17-39 in all other games). Even in a season in which he turned 40 during the NBA playoffs, Garnett was an active defender and a valuable guy to have on the court in crunch time because of it.
When Hunter retired, he seemed to pass much of the leadership torch to Brian Dozier. The Twins second baseman did his part on the field, crushing 42 home runs, but nobody will confuse Dozier for Hunter when it comes to personality (which is not a knock on Dozier, really). Similarly, Karl-Anthony Towns accepted much of the leadership burden from Garnett, saying on Instagram upon KG’s retirement, “I know what I must do. I’ll take it from here.”
Towns has been quite good on the court so far (22.4 points, 8 rebounds and 50 percent three-point shooting), but the Wolves have lost all three close games in which they’ve been involved. Towns is wise beyond his years, but he can’t even legally drink in this country until next week. There’s a wisdom that comes from being 40 that just isn’t there when you’re 20 (and I don’t just say that as someone who hit that magic number a week ago).
Both the Twins and Wolves have other leaders. But Hunter and Garnett had a certain presence. In both cases, it’s impossible to know how much — if at all — that has been missed. But it’s equally impossible to dismiss the potential impact of their contributions and their absences on their respective teams.