Dining Out on the Franchise
Timberwolves center Rasho Nesterovic was on his way to get a soft drink out of the cooler in the team's locker room at Target Center when, from his seat two stalls over, Kevin Garnett leaned over and extended a hand into his path. "Hey Rasho, great game, man."
Nesterovic had just played the game of his life, pouring in a career-high 24 points in a crucial win over San Antonio. As is often the case when the Wolves excel, Garnett was a catalyst for the performance. Throughout the first month of the season, the Wolves have tried to shore up Nesterovic's fragile confidence by getting him a few easy shots early in the game. Because of KG's superstar status and Nesterovic's erratic reputation around the league, opposing defenses occasionally risk leaving Rasho open to double-cover Garnett. When San Antonio tried it, KG became the linchpin in a passing attack that provided Nesterovic with eight points in the game's first five minutes. Rasho's self-regard soared, and that self-confidence fueled the team's victory.
Flustered with gratitude, Nesterovic, staring at the floor, awkwardly slapped KG's palm and reached for a Coke. "Look at those tight-assed pants," Garnett teased, as Rasho in his nondescript black chinos started walking away. Then, referencing his new clothing line, KG added, "We got to get you some OBF jeans!"
"Yeah," the stoic Slovenian said dully, as he glanced back over his shoulder. But in that brief instant, the look on his face was that of a four-year-old boy staring down a lit birthday cake.
A year ago at this time, Garnett was concluding the most emotionally trying ten weeks of his professional career. Two cherished friends and teammates from the previous season were gone: Malik Sealy, killed by a drunk driver on the way home from helping KG celebrate his 24th birthday; and Joe Smith, banished from the Wolves by NBA Commissioner David Stern for signing a contract that violated the league's salary cap rules. As further punishment for the Smith fiasco, Stern stripped the franchise of four first-round draft picks. The ruling prompted members of the national media to ask KG if he would demand a trade, which offended his sense of honor.
Eager to compensate for the loss of Sealy and Smith and reaffirm his loyalty to the team, Garnett, already physically taxed from a summer playing for the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, began to fray. Uncharacteristically, he racked up a series of technical fouls for barking at both opponents and referees, and got into an altercation with Szczerbiak for the center's defensive lapses. In short, an unhealthy sense of responsibility circumscribed some of the strengths of his game. He began shooting too much on offense and roaming too frequently on defense. It wasn't until mid-December that he finally regained the rhythm and perspective required to lead the Wolves into the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
It is a tribute to Garnett's remarkable character and skills that last year's early-season deficiencies are most apparent in retrospect. Put simply, it was difficult to detect faults in a marvelous player who was trying too hard, especially when he was still performing at heights others could only hope to reach.
Another reason KG's (relative) doldrums weren't as apparent is that fans have become accustomed to his excellence, accept it as a constant, and are therefore less likely to notice the highs and lows. That was fine at the beginning of last year--what we didn't know didn't trouble us. But now, with the Wolves off to the best start in franchise history and Garnett performing with more splendor than ever, it behooves us to savor what is happening, if for no other reason than that his contract expires in the spring of 2004.
People can argue where KG ranks in the pantheon of today's active superstars--I'd place him second to Shaquille O'Neal. But a good case can be made that he is the most versatile player the game has ever seen. At the age of 25, he is one of only seven players in NBA history to average twenty points, ten rebounds, and five assists per game in more than one season. (The others, in order of frequency, are Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, and Elgin Baylor. Michael Jordan fails in the assists category and Magic Johnson didn't get enough rebounds.) While these three categories encompass a multitude of skills, they shortchange a broad-based, crucial facet of the game where KG's versatility really shines: defense. No player has ever been able to capably guard a wider range of opponents than Garnett, from six-foot point guards to seven-foot centers. Last season when center Dikembe Mutombo was voted NBA's defensive player of the year, KG came in second.
What's more, I can't think of a single current or former teammate of KG's--with the possible exception of Sacramento's Bobby Jackson--who has played better for another ball club. Part of that is due to Garnett's unselfishness. In the NBA, more than in any other professional team sport, a franchise's character and personality are an extension of the strengths and weaknesses of its best player. The Timberwolves share the ball on offense more efficiently than any team in the league and have an usually high winning percentage in close games. Early this year, there was some question as to whether Garnett would allow more of the offense to be funneled through Szczerbiak. But against Golden State last week, Szczerbiak jacked up 18 shots in the first half alone, while Garnett concentrated on shutting down the opponent's leading scorer, Antawn Jamison. Could Joe Smith and Nesterovic convert more than half their shots without KG drawing double coverage? Could the Wolves have installed perhaps the league's best match-up zone defense without KG's range and length to fortify it?
"What people don't see is how hard he works in practice and his commitment to the game," says assistant coach Randy Wittman. "First of all, he never misses a practice. Second, he never gives anything less than a total effort. Does that affect and motivate the other guys? Sure it does."
That charisma and dedication can be felt by the fans in the stands, as well. Whether you're a basketball purist or watching a game for the first time, the joy and passion Garnett exudes is irresistible. And it comes without any baggage. It is hard to imagine a situation on or off the court where KG would embarrass himself or the team.
Finally, it's important to talk about the one area Garnett must improve if he is to fulfill his potential as a superstar: the ability to elevate his game in pressure situations. Considering the talent level surrounding him, KG can't be blamed for the Wolves' failure to win a playoff series. On the other hand, he has yet to put together the kind of magical post-season performance required for Minnesota to spring an upset. Whether it's a last-second play to decide a regular season game or the more sustained intensity of the playoffs, he has not shown himself to be a champion when the chips are down. Quite possibly, he is undone by the competitive passion and sense of personal responsibility that normally serve him so well, and, put simply, tries too hard. Will this flaw be remedied by continued maturity or a better supporting cast? It certainly will be a pleasure finding out.
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