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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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NBA

NBA AM: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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