Kevin Garnett returning to Minnesota Timberwolves in deadline deal
MINNEAPOLIS — When Flip Saunders and Milt Newton woke up on Thursday morning, they had no idea how the day would end.
Kevin Garnett was mulling a possible return to Minnesota, and a full no-trade clause in his contract gave him all the leverage. As Saunders learned in 10 years coaching Garnett with the Timberwolves from 1995-2005, the hyper-competitive and supremely loyal power forward loathed change.
So even with 12 years of familiarity with Minnesota and the Timberwolves, even with the same man who coached him from an skinny, 19-year-old rookie into a perennial All-Star and MVP on the Timberwolves sideline, there was no way to know which way Garnett was going to go as the clock ticked down on the trade deadline.
Like Garnett has done for most of his career, he took his time and made everyone wait. And just like that, seven minutes before the 3 p.m. Eastern deadline, Garnett finally relented, agreed to uproot his family in the middle of a second straight disappointing season in Brooklyn, and come back to the franchise he put on the map.
"I think when he looks back,," Saunders said late Thursday night after the trade that sent Thaddeus Young to the Nets for Garnett was approved by the league, "he doesn't think moving from Brooklyn to here as a big change. I think he looks at it as moving back and being home."
Saunders has had his eye on Garnett — the only true superstar in the franchise's 26-year history — for two years, ever since he returned to the organization that fired him in 2005. When he was negotiating with teams to trade Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer, Saunders tried to recruit the Nets as the third team in the deal and bring Garnett back to mentor a young and impressionable roster.
The Nets, and Garnett, weren't ready to move at the time, so Saunders and Newton, the general manager, got the Philadelphia 76ers to include Young in the package that also brought Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to the Wolves for Love.
Young got off to a rough start in his first season in Minnesota, enduring the sudden loss of his mother and struggling while starters Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic were out injured. When all three were back on the court in January, Young's production increased noticeably. In his final 15 games, Young averaged 16.3 points on 49 percent shooting with 6.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists, a 26-year-old forward playing well in his prime.
But the Wolves were still buried in the Western Conference standings, and Young had a player option on his contract for nearly $10 million next season. The Wolves called around the league trying to find a good fit, but many teams were concerned with his contract situation.
Nets GM Billy King drafted Young when he was the GM in Philadelphia and had long been interested in a reunion in Brooklyn. Late Wednesday night, small signs started to emerge that Garnett might be amenable to returning to the team that drafted him out of high school in 1995, and the wheels were in suddenly in motion.
"I wasn't here the first time (Garnett was in Minnesota), but I was told that he takes his time in making his decisions," Newton said. "And then all of a sudden he's ready to make a decision and it was something of that sort. In regards to what Billy and I were thinking and at the end of the day, we had a lot of back and forth on what we were willing to do and what we weren't willing to do and it just happened all of a sudden at the last minute."
While some Timberwolves fans were concerned with giving up a starting-caliber forward in his prime for a 38-year-old future Hall of Famer whose best days are behind him, the majority of Twin Cities basketball fans who equate Garnett with the only tangible success the franchise has ever had rejoiced at the news.
The Timberwolves have never made the playoffs without Garnett on the roster and are currently mired in an 11-year postseason drought. In his second tour in Minnesota, Garnett won't have to carry the load like he did in leading the Wolves to the 2004 Western Conference finals. Instead, he will be asked to set a strong example for youngsters like point guard Ricky Rubio, rookies Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Adreian Payne and second-year players Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Bennett.
"He put the Minnesota Timberwolves all around the world," Rubio said. "Even when I was in Europe and Spain, I knew (about Minnesota) because KG was here. That means a lot. It's an honor to play with him and have him in the locker room."
Garnett has expressed an interest in owning the Wolves when his playing days are over. This move could help make that happen, but not yet.
"It means a lot to me to have Kevin Garnett back on our team," Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said. "I have great respect for Kevin as a person and a player. He was the first player we drafted after I bought the team and we got to see him develop into one of the best players in the world. Like our fans, I'm excited to be able to watch Kevin in a Timberwolves uniform once again."