Twenty years after they gambled on him as a gangly teenager and nearly eight years after they traded him away as a superstar, the Timberwolves are bringing future Basketball Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett back home.
A franchise that has never seen the playoffs without him struck a deal with Brooklyn just before Thursday afternoon’s NBA trade deadline. In doing so, the Wolves sent away 26-year-old forward Thad Young to secure the return of a 38-year-old champion who played his first 12 pro seasons at Target Center and was the face of the franchise until he left in 2007.
Garnett waited until the final hour before Thursday’s 2 p.m. trade deadline to waive a no-trade clause in his contract so that he could return to the place where it all started for him professionally. That contract with a $12 million salary expires this summer, but Garnett isn’t coming back merely to play out the season’s remaining 29 games.
He is expected to sign an extension this summer to play probably for another two seasons, according to a person with knowledge of the team’s negotiations with him. And he could be looking for the chance to make good on a hope he expressed last fall of one day owning the Wolves.
Fans eager to see Garnett’s return will have to wait a few days. He’s not expected to return to Minnesota — where he still has a home — until Saturday and won’t play his first game with his old team until Wednesday against Washington at Target Center.
Thursday’s trade reunites Garnett with Flip Saunders, Wolves coach and president of basketball operations, who coached him his first decade in Minnesota. It also brings him back home to team owner Glen Taylor, who traded Garnett to Boston in July 2007 after refusing to offer Garnett another maximum contract extension.
Garnett sounded embittered toward Taylor and the organization for years over that split, but Taylor said that hasn’t kept them from exchanging friendly hellos. Taylor said he’s never had a heartfelt discussion with his once and future star over the 2007 split.
“I am really excited that he’s coming back,” Taylor said. “Not only as one of the best basketball players ever finishing out his career here, but as a friend. We had a great relationship when he was here and I have no question we’ll be able to carry on with that friendship. I really do see that Kevin can help this team not only this year, but in the future. The ultimate goal is to be better sooner. With our young guys, he can be the voice that will help us get there.”
A mentor, then more?
In strict basketball terms, Thursday’s trade made little sense. The Wolves traded a proficient starter in the prime of his career for an aging player nearing the end of his time in the game.
But Garnett’s return mirrors his career’s beginnings, when the Wolves acquired veterans Sam Mitchell and Terry Porter to mentor a 19-year-old who had been the first player in 20 years to enter the NBA draft directly from high school. The Wolves made him the fifth overall pick in 1995, and Garnett’s decision paved the way for Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and many others to make the same leap in the coming decade.
Now Garnett is the graybeard whose playing time will be limited, perhaps to the most crucial moments of games.
Saunders felt the team needed more vocal leadership. Garnett is perhaps the league-leader in that category. His persona — fierce and competitive, sometimes to extremes — rather than his game is what the Wolves were after.
Saunders thinks that leadership will be evident on the court as well as in the locker room.
“I still think KG can play,” Saunders said, comparing Garnett to veterans Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas and San Antonio’s Tim Duncan. “I see how these veteran players move. They don’t move quite as quickly as they used to, but they can make up for so many things because of their smarts and how they play.”
But Garnett’s most significant role will be in shaping the clubhouse atmosphere and practice habits of a team once again built around a teenager. In fact, this time the Timberwolves are being built around two of them — No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and recent All-Star slam-dunk champ Zach LaVine.
“If you know KG, they’re not going to have a choice,” Saunders said about whether Garnett will impose his will on young players. “It’s kind of the way he is. Certain people are born leaders. They’re upfront. They let everyone know how they feel and what they respect.”
Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio, who, at age 24, remains something of a youngster himself, is eager for the change.
“I hope he can bring what he did in this franchise: A lot of playoffs,” Rubio said. “He’s going to help the young guys.”
Wolves’ veteran guard Kevin Martin expects a big impact.
“That locker room is going to be turned upside down, the culture of this team,” said Martin who, at age 32, is now no longer the team’s oldest player. “He’ll definitely put his handprint on it. That’s what we needed in the locker room: Somebody’s who has been through it all, a Hall of Famer, intense like he is. It’s definitely going to change.”
Future to ‘play out’
By trading Young, the Wolves sent away a player who could exit his current contract this summer and walk away as a free agent or be owed nearly $10 million next season. The Wolves apparently didn’t like either option, so they traded him for Garnett, who told Yahoo Sports in November that he wants to buy the team that drafted him after he retires.
“I want to buy the Timberwolves,” he said then. “Put a group together and perhaps someday try to buy the team. That’s what I want. That is the one that has my interest. I have ties there. Flip’s there.”
Taylor has had the team on and off the market in recent years. He said Thursday that Garnett’s November admission contributed to discussions in recent weeks about whether Garnett might be open to finishing his playing career in Minnesota.
The two sides found common ground, although Taylor said that Garnett’s ownership desires were not part of the recent negotiations.
“He wants to be here and we like him,” Taylor said. “The best path is to let him play and see what type of relationship and rapport develops. Let it play out over time and that will take us to the next step, if it’s to happen.”
When Garnett left the Wolves, he had led them to the playoffs eight consecutive times but no further than the 2004 Western Conference finals. That appearance was the last time the team made the playoffs.
Garnett won his first — and only — NBA title in his first season alongside fellow stars Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston. The Wolves have meanwhile floundered, despite featuring three-time All Star Kevin Love for six seasons.
Garnett has remained the face of winning Wolves’ teams.
Now he wants to be again.
“He put the Minnesota Timberwolves all around the world,” Rubio said. “Even when I was in Europe and Spain, I knew [about Minnesota] because KG was here. That means a lot. It’s an honor to play with him and have him in the locker room.’’
Playing with Garnett is “going to be a lesson every day, so we’re going to be ready for him.”