Just days after he made it crystal clear he believes he’s still a starting shooting guard in this league, veteran Kevin Martin now finds himself playing a secondary role in a fuzzy future on a Timberwolves team that again this year is playing for tomorrow.
Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell this week said he intends to start young Zach LaVine at that position, come good or bad. He said it’s not because he has earned the position but because it is where the team — with such young players as Andrew Wiggins, Karl Anthony-Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad and Tyus Jones alongside LaVine — is headed.
A starter most of his career who came off the bench one season with a mighty Oklahoma City team, Martin might not particularly agree. But he says he understands.
“At the end of the day, I’m a low-maintenance kind of guy, so they know what they’re getting in me,” he said. “I came off the bench for a 60-win team and I started 10 years in this league, so whatever it is they know they’re going to get a pretty damn good basketball player. That’s where it is right now.”
Mitchell notes that his decision is written in pencil, not pen, and the starting job is LaVine’s until he gives it away. He said he is willing to live with nights like LaVine’s 2-for-11 shooting performance in a preseason loss to Oklahoma City on Wednesday while LaVine adapts both to the shooting guard spot and playing without the ball constantly in his hands.
The situation, where it is right now, probably will lead to one of two things: Either Martin will be traded by the February deadline to a team aiming for the playoffs before he can opt out of the final year of his current contract next summer. Or the Wolves will decide Martin’s $7 million salary or thereabouts is a good number with a massive television deal arriving soon — particularly for the best three-point threat on a team that lacks shooters, one who can complement Wiggins and Towns — and offer a contract extension this summer that will keep the 32-year-old in Minnesota as a reserve (or starter) next season and beyond.
For now, Martin said he understands Mitchell’s commitment to youth.
“I know what it is, that’s what we’re going through,” Martin said. “I’m taking the young fella under my wing and teaching him how to be a quality ‘2’ guard in this league … At the end of the day, it’s a team game and that’s how everyone is going to look at this group, at how well the team evolves over the next six, seven months.”
LaVine said he hasn’t discussed the issue specifically with Martin, but …
“He has been cool,” LaVine said. “He still helps me and everything like that. I know everybody wants to start. Above all, it’s a coach’s decision. We’ve both been playing hard, both been going at it. I think we’re both OK with whatever decision is made.”
Mitchell admitted Wednesday that his veteran players are better right now than his young players and said his decision to name LaVine as the starter isn’t because he has played better in training camp than Martin. He relayed advice he once received from esteemed Toronto General Manager Wayne Embry, who told him “it’s not losing, it’s developing” when Mitchell took over a young Raptors team his first season there a decade ago.
“It’s not necessarily about earning it, it’s about where you are as an organization and where you’re trying to go,” Mitchell said.
“The nucleus of our team years from now is those young guys. The only way they’re going to get better is to get a chance to play. Obviously, if we lined up stats and put guys out there, the veteran guys are supposed to be better. They know the league. They have experience. They definitely have advantages.
“We understand that. But where we are right now with our young guys — and they’re talented young guys — you give them a chance. You think about it: At some point, someone gave Kevin Martin a chance when he was a young player. That’s just the natural progression of sports. That’s just how it is.”
Martin recalls his chance as a young player came in Sacramento when veteran Bonzi Wells was injured during Martin’s second season there. He started 41 games that season, a role he kept for the next seven years until he was traded from Houston to Oklahoma City.
“I took advantage of that opportunity,” said Martin, who became a 20 points-per-game scorer in his third NBA season.
Now presumably it is LaVine’s opportunity and time. Martin scored nine points in 10 first-half minutes Wednesday. Then, by mutual agreement with Mitchell and his coaches, he didn’t play in the second half.
“I’m on pace to be available October 28,” Martin said slyly, referring to the season opener against the Lakers in L.A.