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
Garnett 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
That 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.
Danny 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.
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.
After 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.
NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On
At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.
At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.
Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.
“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”
Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.
But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.
“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”
Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and George Hill — they could be poised for an encore performance.
Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.
Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.
“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”
But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.
“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.
But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.
“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”
Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.
Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.
Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.
“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.
“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”
For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.
“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.
From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.
* * * * * *
*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.
Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?
Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.
While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.
March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.
So who could still become available?
Joakim Noah, New York Knicks
This seems almost too obvious.
The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.
After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.
Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.
Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic
Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.
Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.
Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings
Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.
But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.
Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.
Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings
Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.
Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.
As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.
Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks
Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.
So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.
If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.
Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers
Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.
He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.
Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.
But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?
With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.
Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos
There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.
NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor
James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor
The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.
But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.
All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.
The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.
While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.
Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.
“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.
When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”
Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.
“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”
Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.
In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.
The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.
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