When evaluating a franchise like the Timberwolves that has missed the playoffs for 13 consecutive seasons, there are plenty of checkpoints along the way at which you can stop and say in retrospect, “that was a reason things haven’t worked out.”
So indulge me for trying to pinpoint the one critical moment of failure in a 13-year history filled with missteps. But here it is: the trade of Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007 to the Celtics.
That’s not to say the Wolves would have magically avoided their descent into awfulness had they held onto their superstar, who was 31 at the time and coming down the other side of his career. But it was a seismic shift that signified a rebuilding process from which the Wolves have never fully emerged. As long as they had Garnett, they had a chance — if only they could properly build around him, which they had a brutally hard time doing for so much of his career.
The Wolves actually got seven pieces from Boston in that deal, but the three most significant ones were Al Jefferson, Sebastian Telfair and their own 2009 first-round pick, which they had traded to Boston a year earlier in the Wally Szczerbiak/Ricky Davis deal.
Jefferson was a promising but raw young player whose early career had been marred by injuries. Telfair was a 22-year-old point guard who arrived in the NBA with great expectations but had yet to deliver upon them. The draft pick ended up being the 2009 sixth overall pick (which the Wolves used on Jonny Flynn, but enough about that).
Jefferson blossomed into a very good player in Minnesota, but he was never destined to be a star. Telfair had a long but not very distinguished NBA career. Draft picks are always a crap shoot.
In money terms, if Garnett was a dollar bill, the Wolves in exchange received a bunch of loose change — useful, but not even close to adding up to the equivalent value of one player.
If that trade almost a decade ago was the true beginning of the frustrating cycle the Wolves are still in, let’s look also for some symmetry and some hope: perhaps the Jimmy Butler trade was the Garnett trade in reverse, closing the loop and putting Minnesota back on a winning trajectory.
The Bulls received, in exchange, a Jefferson equivalent at a different position (Zach LaVine), their own Telfair (Kris Dunn, a point guard young enough to have promise but seasoned enough to have question marks) and the seduction of potential with the No. 7 pick. They got three quarters for a dollar, which sounds good in your piggy bank until it’s time to buy something.
There are clear shades of difference, of course.
Garnett went to Boston, formed a “Big Three” with two other veterans in Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and immediately won a championship.
Butler arrives in Minnesota as the third member of a budding Big Three along with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Butler is the elder statesman of the group at age 27, more than three full years younger than KG when he was traded. The Timberwolves are not going to win a championship immediately because they are young and Golden State is lapping the field, but the short-term expectation has been elevated to breaking the playoff drought.
The parallel grows deeper roots when you consider the types of players Butler and Garnett are. Both are tremendous two-way players. Both are unselfish stars who value work. Both have connections to Tom Thibodeau, who was a Boston assistant when KG’s Celtics won the NBA title. He was in Chicago when the Bulls drafted Butler No. 30 overall in the 2011 draft, starting a professional love affair with a player that continues to this day.
Thibodeau brought up the Garnett/Butler comparisons unprompted on Thursday when I talked to him after Butler’s introductory news conference at Mall of America.
Said Thibodeau: “I think (Butler) is a perfect fit for us. It’s exactly what we need. When you have talented players, they all have things they have to sacrifice to put the team first. The work part is equal. The defensive commitment has to be equal. There may be some different shot distributions, but you can’t compromise on the work. It’s not necessarily what he’s going to say to them, it’s what he’s going to do. I was around Kevin Garnett, and the thing about Kevin was not only his words but what he did — how he practiced, how he prepared, how he played. When he played in the game, everything he did was about winning — making the extra pass if a guy was open. As great a shooter as Kevin was, the next guy always got the pass from him. When you ask what a great defensive player is, it’s a multiple effort guy. That’s what Kevin was, and that’s what Jimmy is.”
That sort of deference to teammates, though, was used against Garnett just as it is Butler in describing why they are better suited for secondary instead of primary roles on great teams.
If the worst things you can say about Garnett and Butler are that they want to win so much that they might be a little abrasive in the locker room and they’re such good teammates on the court that they have a hard time being selfish … well, those are subjective faults at best.
There might never be another KG, but Butler is as close as they come to a shorter clone.
There’s no undoing the past, only learning from it. Maybe, just maybe, always maybe, this is the thing that breaks the cycle.