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NBA AM: Looking at Kevin Garnett’s Legacy

With news that Kevin Garnett may retire, we look at the fascinating career of an all-time great NBA player.

Joel Brigham

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Word leaked out this week that Kevin Garnett was discussing a buyout with the Minnesota Timberwolves, presumably to retire after tying the record for most seasons played in NBA history.

If true, Garnett officially will end his career as one of the best power forwards of all-time. Known first and foremost for a competitive drive that borders on insanity, Garnett has always deeply, truly cared about the game of basketball. And when a person like that possesses talent like Garnett’s, the results are almost sure to be as impressive as they’ve been for KG.

Had Garnett played this year, he would have been the only active player left from the 1995 NBA Draft. To put that in perspective, there are currently no active players from the 1996 or 1997 NBA Drafts. He’s lasted forever in a way that’s always resonated with his fans, and his career is one of the more fascinating and memorable of anybody in his generation.

The High School Renaissance

Drafted fifth overall out of Farragut Academy in Chicago, Garnett was the first player to skip college for the NBA since Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby did it 20 years prior. He played only a single season at Farragut, but averaged 25.2 points, 17.9 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 6.5 blocks while he was there. This was more than enough to earn him a McDonald’s All-American nod (where he’d win the game’s MVP award) and plenty of attention from NBA scouts who wondered if he would forego an opportunity to play at the University of Michigan or University of Maryland to turn pro.

He was unable to qualify academically for college, but that didn’t matter. He was so good in high school that he easily went top five to a Wolves team that still hadn’t found its way out of its expansion team doldrums. In high school, Garnett already had his patented turnaround jumpshot and his ability to slam home a missed shot off an offensive rebound, but he was also a gifted passer and an otherworldly defender. In the mid 1990s, Garnett was built like Thon Maker, but his passion was clear even then and he displayed it immediately in Minneapolis.

The fact that Garnett was able to make the leap from high school as successfully as he did (averaging 10.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in his rookie season) paved the way for Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal to do the same a year later, then Tracy McGrady the year the after that. Those guys got the gumption to skip college because Garnett did it. And without KG proving that 18-year-old kids could make that transition so seamlessly, NBA drafts and NCAA tournaments between 1995 and 2005 could have had very different results.

The Rise to Relevance

kg1Garnett started his NBA career with a team that had never in its entire five-year existence won 30 games in a season, so expectations were obviously tempered. Nobody expected Garnett to turn things around immediately, especially given his age. However, as soon as the Wolves replaced head coach Bill Blair with Flip Saunders that year, Garnett was injected into the starting lineup and played well enough over the course of the season to be named to the All-Rookie Second Team. He wouldn’t make the playoffs in 1995-96, but that would be the last time he’d fail to make the postseason for the next eight consecutive years.

In his second season, Minnesota pulled off a draft-day trade to pair Garnett with Stephon Marbury, and that was the exact moment that things turned around for the franchise. During that sophomore campaign, Garnett would average 17 points, eight rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.7 steals, which earned him a spot on his first All-Star team. Minnesota would finish two games under .500, but they finally, mercifully, made the playoffs in 1997. They didn’t win, but the fact that Garnett could will them there at such a young age spoke volumes to what the future held for him.

Of coures, it only got better from there. In 1997, Garnett agreed to what at the time was an unheard-of $126 million contract extension to be paid over the course of six years. But despite some controversy about what was then considered an exorbitant amount of cash, he earned every dime of that money. Over the course of that six-year deal, he averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds every season while leading the Wolves to the playoffs each year. The only All-Star Game he missed during that span was in lockout-shortened 1999 when there was no All-Star Game, and he made an All-NBA Team (including three First Team selections) in each of those six seasons as well.

By 2004, the Wolves were a Western Conference powerhouse and Garnett was considered one of the league’s most dominant players. It only took him about two seasons in the NBA to transform from a teenager to a superstar. Then, within a half decade, he was one of the best professional basketball players alive.

The MVP and Western Conference Finals

kg4That all came to a head in the 2003-04 campaign, when the Wolves won a franchise-record 58 games and found their way to the Western Conference Finals. Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell came aboard that year to help push the Wolves over the postseason hump, but Garnett posted a career-year in which he averaged 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, five assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals for the season. Those are Most Valuable Player numbers, and the league rewarded him with the trophy.

Best of all, though, after seven years of getting ousted in the first round, the Wolves finally won their first-ever playoff series with a 4-1 thrashing of the Denver Nuggets in the spring of 2004. They won another, tougher series in the second round when they toppled the Sacramento Kings, 4-3. Then, they found themselves up against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

Unfortunately for the Wolves, Cassell got hurt in that series and backup Troy Hudson was already injured, so despite the fact that Garnett was averaging career-best playoff numbers – 24.3 points, 14.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.2 steals in 43.5 minutes per game – it wasn’t enough to beat a loaded Lakers team. At the time, that L.A. squad was viewed the same way that the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors are now (with not only Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant on the roster, but also Karl Malone and Gary Payton).

With Cassell out and the competition so stiff, Garnett and Co. would lose that series 4-2. That would be as close as Garnett would ever get to winning a championship in Minnesota.

Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Champion

In fact, the Wolves would miss the playoffs for the next three seasons in what has to be considered one of the nastiest basketball hangovers in league history. Sprewell turned down a $21 million contract in the summer of 2004 because he had “a family to feed,” and the Minnesota front office traded away Cassell to avoid getting hampered with the contract of an older, oft-injured player.

These weren’t happy times for Garnett. After a nine-year career building himself into a superstar and helping his team make baby steps toward contending for a championship, everything fell apart and it clearly wasn’t going to turn back around any time soon. That’s when Wolves owner Glen Taylor finally agreed to listen to trade offers for his franchise cornerstone, and he found a very willing trade partner in the Boston Celtics.

kg3Danny Ainge shipped five players and two draft picks to Minnesota for Garnett, which still constitutes the most players ever swapped for a single player in league history. Garnett immediately signed a three-year extension with the Celtics after the trade, and with the addition of Ray Allen to a roster that already included Paul Pierce, there absolutely was a sense that Garnett might finally be in position to win his first ring. At the time, there were even whispers that the Celtics may be the NBA’s next modern dynasty.

That first season in Boston, Garnett averaged 18.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks. His numbers were down, but he was only playing 32.8 minutes per game and the focus was clearly on hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. Even with those stats, his smothering team defense and leadership on that end of the floor earned him the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008. Interestingly, it was the only major NBA award that a Boston Celtics player had never won.

It was only a preview of good things to come. Boston would rip through the 2008 NBA Playoffs and topple the Lakers in six games, giving Garnett his first (and ultimately only) championship.

Garnett’s post-game speech remains one of the most emotional celebratory interviews NBA fans have ever seen.

Coming Home

After six seasons in Boston, the core of the group started to show its age a little as the team became less competitive with every passing year. After making the Finals twice in Garnett’s first three years there, the Celtics only even got to the Conference Finals once in the next three seasons (and even that particular run was pretty improbable). In 2013, the last time that particular “Big Three” played together, Boston was bounced in the first round.

That summer, Ainge traded Garnett, Pierce and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for a king’s ransom, but Garnett wouldn’t even last two years there.

kg2After a season-and-a-half in New York, Minnesota made a move to bring Garnett back in February of 2015, mostly to mentor some of the team’s younger players. Younger Wolves players talked about how much more intense practice got after the trade.

It might not be any coincidence that Minnesota has had the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in each of the last two seasons, with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns taking home that hardware under Garnett’s tutelage.

His numbers in Minnesota have been awful. Garnett averaged only 3.2 points and 3.9 rebounds in what may be his final season in the league, but he wasn’t brought back to help the team win a championship. Not right now, anyway. They brought him in to show kids like Towns, Wiggins and Zach LaVine how to be a pro, maximize potential and build a winning culture so that they can eventually compete for titles. You can bet that if this Wolves core ever wins a title, at least one of them is going to thank Garnett for being such an important influence in their formative years.

As a sure-thing Hall-of-Famer, Garnett walks away from the game as an all-time great. He helped make Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady and even LeBron James happen, but his impact goes beyond his prep-to-pro barrier breaking. His ultra-competitive nature turned him into one of the great rebounders and defenders of his generation. While he didn’t get to bring a title to the team he helped legitimize, he does walk away with the one thing he always wanted: an NBA championship ring.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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