In Part I of an ongoing five-part series, aimed at breaking down the current state of the Wolves, I looked at the franchise cornerstones: Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins and potentially the Wolves 2015 lottery pick.
Part II brings an inside look at the veterans in Minnesota: Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and the newly acquired, but certainly a familiar face, Kevin Garnett (Chase Budinger and Gary Neal are not included because they exist in another tier called "Time is Running Out"). What should fans look for over the last 29 games out of these three, and how do they fit into the long-term plans of the organization?
Tier II: The Veterans
Kevin Garnett (KG, The Big Ticket, The Kid)
The 2015 NBA trade deadline brought a flurry of moves, including a swap of Thad Young for Kevin Garnett, who returns to Minneapolis after agreeing to drop his no-trade clause and accept a trade from the Nets to the Wolves. KG now returns to the place it all began, and the move gives the organization a real mentor to a current roster loaded with rookies and sophomores (nine), headlined by Andrew Wiggins.
"I've coached 17 years in this league [and also have been in management] and the response that we've heard from our players when they found out, I've never seen anything as positive," Saunders said. "Payne talks about, you know, I've really never had a favorite player but he's [Garnett] my favorite player. Ricky, of course, comes out and says 'I'm trying to get as much knowledge from him as I can.'"
My immediate reaction to the deal was: it's OK to hate the trade and still love KG. I love that he's coming back to lace up his sneakers in the same locker room that he grew up in. I love that he's ending his career in the same place he shaped his game and became an MVP. I love that he's going to retire where it all began. I love that he's back in his original NBA home. But I can't ignore how disappointing it is to see Young move on to another team this quickly. The Wolves gave up Miami's 2015 first round pick (protected for selections 1-10 in 2015 and 1-10 in 2016) to get Young, along with dumping two ineffective players in Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alexey Shved, which is still a positive to take away from the deal even if it appears extremely short-sighted today.
Statistically, Garnett won't do much for the team. He's probably going to produce close to what he was doing in Brooklyn – 20.3 minutes per game, 6.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and bring above-average defense, according to DRPM. Ironically enough, KG is actually 17th in Defensive RPM this season, so yeah he can help the Wolves' putrid defense right now. But his on-court production doesn't seem to have much to do with this trade to begin with and at 38-years-old he's certainly not going to get any better. The deal is about a few things, which mostly have nothing to do with the on-court product...
Pros: the Wolves will sell way more tickets over the last 14 home games because casual fans will be far more inclined to come watch an 11-win team and actually go out of their way to buy a ticket, due to the nostalgic "KG IS FINALLY BACK" campaign. The deal also ensures that the team will win less, because Anthony Bennett and Adreian Payne will play far more, which helps the Wolves secure a top four pick in this summer's NBA draft. Another positive is this: Garnett can mentor the youth, and his presence within the organization sets the table for new management down the road. He's talked about buying the team before and I suppose if this move helps usher in a new era of management than I might actually love the transaction.
Cons: the team sold low on Young – though it's not that surprising given his early termination option – after essentially re-routing a first rounder from Cleveland (via Miami, along with Mbah a Moute and Shved) for him this past summer. As of today that pick would be a mid-first rounder, an asset the Wolves could have used on a number of players, perhaps a backup point guard like Tyus Jones (Duke), Delon Wright (Utah) or Jerian Grant (Notre Dame). Trading Young is basically admitting the mistake of acquiring him in the first place, in the name of being competitive this season, and equals bad asset management; there's really no way to run away from this reality. In the end it didn't work out with Young, but if making the playoffs or winning 35-40 games was the only way the team would have kept him, doesn't that make the trade extremely risky in the first place? Additionally, the trade creates a huge hole at power forward. Young was having his worst season in a while, but he's still a superior option to Bennett, Payne or Garnett.
The big question is not how much KG can help the team win ball games now, but whether or not there will be a noticeable increase in intensity from the team. My gut tells me there will be and I'd love nothing more to see some of KG's nastiness rub off on a squad full of first and second year players, especially the bigs like Bennett, Dieng and Payne (and of course, one of the cornerstones, Wiggins).
In many respects, KG is exactly what the Wolves need. A cocky player that can teach the youngsters some of the mental nuances of the game. Someone that during the fourth quarter of a close game yells "we are not losing this [redacted] game" and actually inspires the team to not lose the game. They don't have anyone with that attitude. Rubio is the closest thing to that, but when he smiles at the crowd you began to realize that he's not much of a bad ass. Honestly, the Wolves need some nastiness. Even more so, they need someone to teach them how to be nasty within the context of the game. I believe KG can do that, though I'm still skeptical of trading Young solely in the name of finding a non-coach to inspire the team in this way.
"I don't know what the pick is going to turn into but the impact that KG will have, I believe, is going to have more of an impact than that pick would have delivered over the years," Saunders said during his press conference last night. Only time will tell if he's right on that front.
Upon hearing the news that KG could be in line for a two-year extension with the Wolves, well, I'm not sure why they would want to go that route. But the team does lack a battle-tested mentor to guide the young pups and it makes some sense that they're willing to pay for this attribute, even if Garnett will take up a roster spot, probably can't play in back-to-backs and won't be asked to play for more than 15-20 minutes at power forward. The devil's advocate would definitely suggest the following: AREN'T COACHES SUPPOSED TO INSPIRE AND TEACH THE PLAYERS?
Anyways, this move definitely wreaks Country Club. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of the trade but I've been a Thad Young backer all season and wanted to roll the dice on him not exercising his ETO, with the plan of restructuring his deal to a more friendly cap hit on a longer deal next summer. He wasn't all that great in his time with the Wolves, but not having Rubio, Martin or Pek, in combination with his mothers death, created a tough situation to thrive in. It also changed the situation and pushed the Wolves from "retooling" to "rebuilding" which is a big reason this move went down.
For what it's worth, Young looked far better with Rubio running the point and I'm a bit disappointed that the organization merely turned Thad into KG. That's poor asset management and tough to support, even if it's truly awesome to have Garnett back in Minnesota. But on the other hand, maybe there wasn't much of a market for him to begin with and the team saw this as their best opportunity to turn Young into something before he walked.
I'm hopeful that Garnett can help turn around the culture and make Anthony Bennett, Adreian Payne and Gorgui Dieng his personal projects for the rest of the season, and moving forward. Ultimately, the trade could help in plenty of ways that have nothing to do with what he actually brings to the court. This is what makes me optimistic about the deal.
"We just thought that where things are with this team – with the young players that we have, with the way the draft could unfold, and opportunities for the players that we have – this gives some of our young fours the opportunity to play, but also be mentored by maybe the most complete forward to ever play the game," Saunders said.
Kevin Martin (K-Mart)
KMart is still a valuable piece to the rebuilding efforts. He can shoot (41.3 percent from deep) and score (20.2 points per game in 32.8 mpg -- 57.8 true shooting percentage) which makes him that much more valuable on a team that lacks perimeter threats. Personally, I really like Martin on this team and don't look at his contract as a negative. Plenty of teams pay much less effective players more money, and he seems to play well with Rubio. He is 32, which naturally suggests that regression is upon us, but Martin can still score the rock. And even if he can't light it up as he used to, he's still incredibly valuable as a shooter on a team that doesn't possess a whole lot of floor spacers.
In the next next two months, Martin needs to take a leadership role. Ideally he'll work extensively with guys like Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine, educating them on the little tricks that every elite NBA scorer possesses. Martin, for example, essentially received his master's degree in drawing cheap fouls and getting to the line for freebies. If he can pass this trait on to any of the youngsters that's a positive.
How does he fit into the long-term plans of the organization? Martin will probably start for the rest of the season sandwiched between the cornerstones, Rubio and Wiggins. Next season it would be wise to move him to sixth man, if Muhammad continues to progress, and run with the Wiggins-Muhammad wing platter in the starting lineup. Martin can continue to be effective off the bench over the last two years of his contract, while Wiggins can shift to the shooting guard and draw the less burly defender in the process, due to Muhammad's advanced post game and physical style of play. If Garnett can take the bigs under his wing and Martin can take the wings under his (without rubbing off on them in a negative manner – Martin is a career -2.3 Defensive Box Plus Minus and has never even pretended to be average defensively) that will be a positive.
*2016-17 is a Player Option
Nikola Pekovic (Pek, The Peksecutioner)
Pekovic is 29 years old and is owed $35.8 million through 2018. When Pek plays he's still highly effective and nobody in the league likes playing against him (for good reason) – he's a beast in the paint, a wrecking ball that destroys foes, even the best young centers in the league (I'm looking at you, Andre Drummond) with his physicality in the paint. Pek does what Pek does, and he's an awesome low-post player that Rubio can dump the ball to and let go to work. But he's also become untradeable this season due to chronic injuries and that enormous contract of his.
Nevertheless, I love Pek. He's most definitely a fun guy to cheer for and truly a good person that never acts like he's above anyone, at least from my interactions with him. Across the board, his teammates seem to love him and he's easily the funniest member of the team (at least in the locker room).
When Pek is healthy there's no questioning his value, but it's tough to ignore the fact that through five seasons with the club he's only managed to play a maximum of 65 games (during his rookie season). Truthfully, it seems unlikely that he can stay on the floor for more than 60 games at this rate, unless Saunders begins to manage his minutes more effectively and consistently take precautionary measures (maybe he doesn't play in back-to-backs, or if he does, he only plays 15-20 minutes).
Over the rest of the season, keeping Pek on the court should be the primary goal, unless his ankle flares up, or something else goes wrong, than it's probably wise to simply shut him down and get him as healthy as he can before next season. Pek has missed huge chunks of time with various foot and ankle ailments over the last two seasons and the Wolves need to be extra cautious with him. If the team can keep his mileage down over the next year as they figure out how the rest of the roster is going to shape up, they could potentially release a hungry beast on opposing teams during a (crossing my fingers) playoff run in 2016-2017. I realize it stinks to micro-manage such a highly paid player, especially when the team desperately needs Pek on the floor consistently, but having him healthy for games that actually matter should be the main focus.
At some point this weekend I'll publish Part III. For now, I'm calling it "The Unknowns." I'm sure you can imagine who comprises this tier. Sneak peek: Anthony Bennett is not a part of this group.