More than most two-year contracts, Kevin Garnett’s new deal with the Timberwolves is about the future, rather than on-court production over the next two seasons. Garnett’s two-year, $16.5 million dollar contract is an investment by Glen Taylor and the Timberwolves in Garnett’s ability to mentor Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and the other young players that’ll define the team over the next five to 10 years (and hopefully more).
At first blush, $8+ million per year for such an investment seems high, even in light of the rising salary cap. Veteran mentorship certainly matters. (Though I, as someone who’s never stepped inside an NBA locker room and thus has little basis to make a claim either way, do think that its importance is often overstated.) But unlike Brendan Haywood, Nazr Mohammed and other “veteran mentors” who typically receive little more than the veteran’s minimum, Garnett is receiving an annual salary commensurate with that of a high-level contributor.
In terms of on-court production, Garnett is unlikely to match the season-long outputs of Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos and other players who signed contracts with similar annual values this offseason. There’s also an opportunity cost to carrying a salary at that level, as it limits somewhat the moves that the Timberwolves will be able to make through the 2016-2017 season (assuming Garnett picks up the player option on the second year).
However, given their roster makeup of young players in need of playing time for further development, it was unlikely that the Timberwolves would have pursued another player with either the money or roster spot committed to Garnett. Moreover, much like LeBron James in Cleveland, his signing another contract with the team was a mere formality, evidenced by the fact that Garnett’s agent didn’t even take part in the negotiations.
The emphasis on Garnett’s role as a mentor isn’t to say that Garnett can’t still contribute on the court. When he played last year, Garnett was arguably the team’s best front line defender and was one of only two players to finish the season on the roster with a positive net rating. He showed that, despite an offensive game consisting almost entirely of 18-foot jumpers, he can still be a valuable defensive presence on a team that ranked dead last in nearly every defensive metric. And given the other options the Timberwolves have to play at the power-forward spot, a stable defensive presence with a limited offensive game is a significant upgrade over the likes of unproven and/or disappointing talents like Anthony Bennett, Adreian Payne and Nemanja Bjelica.
The key phrase above, of course, is “when he played.” After a triumphant debut against Washington at home, Garnett played in four of the Timberwolves’ final 26 games and played a grand total of 98 minutes for Minnesota on the season. There may have been ulterior motives behind resting Garnett down the stretch, as more minutes for Bennett and Payne certainly didn’t hurt their chances of getting the ping pong balls that eventually led to Towns. Or it could also have been that Garnett was simply worn down.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but Garnett’s ability to handle the day-in, day-out grind of a long NBA season is, at best, questionable given his recent history. According to Flip Saunders, Garnett is expected to start, play 20 minutes per night, and even play in some back-to-back games. That plan seems optimistic to the point of delusional, but if his limited minutes coincide with Towns’s minutes, and Garnett is able to impart proper defensive positioning and assignments while on the court, his availability on a night-to-night basis may not matter in the long term.
What seems more realistic is a very limited availability, with Garnett acting as a de facto assistant coach on the bench. Garnett scoffed at the idea of coaching in his introductory press conference last February, and he has a somewhat checkered history as a teammate (just ask Wally Szczerbiak, Rick Rickert or Big Baby Davis). But his remarks since returning to the Timberwolves, coupled with his on- and off-court activities, including a trip to Las Vegas over the weekend to work with the team’s Summer League roster, show a willingness to use his influence to help “building something” for the future.
(As an aside, I’m not as thrilled about Garnett’s foregone transition from player to management to ownership as many Timberwolves fans seem to be, which may happen as early as next year.)
It feels like more of the same from a franchise that’s long been referred to locally as “The Country Club,” where many front office positions are filled based on one’s relationship to the decision-maker rather than actual qualifications for the position. Even the team’s bench consists of assistant coaches that are either related to the head coach or that previously played for the team. The lone exception is David Adelman, a holdover from his time as an assistant to his own father, former head coach Rick Adelman.
Further, how many NBA greats have gone on to succeed in ownership or management roles? It feels like cherry-picking to highlight the lack of success of Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas, as there are certainly examples the other way, including the Lakers under GM Jerry West, but I’m not convinced that Garnett’s success on the hardwood will necessarily translate to success in the front office. It’s too early at this point to denounce Garnett’s move into management without knowing the actual role Garnett will assume, but I remain skeptical.
With Wiggins and Towns as the new faces of the franchise, and other promising youngsters like Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and even Ricky Rubio (How is Rubio only 24?! It feels like he’s been on the Wolves for a decade) under team control for the near future, the Timberwolves have the foundation of what could be a championship-caliber team if they can stay with the team and develop. The Timberwolves are hoping that Garnett will be an integral part of this development by mentoring them on the court and instilling in them the work ethic and professionalism off the court that helped Garnett become the player that he has.
Beyond that, though, they’re hoping Garnett will help cultivate a similar sense of loyalty to Minnesota and the Timberwolves to that which brought Garnett back in the first place. The relationships formed by Garnett the mentor may further be drawn upon when Garnett the owner is in position to help keep Minnesota’s talent beyond their rookie contracts.
That’s a lot of “ifs” for one franchise to hope for, but should those “ifs” be realized, the Timberwolves will recoup the costs of Garnett’s new contract tenfold.