Kevin Garnett Leaves The Timberwolves Better Than He Found Them

Kevin Garnett has announced his retirement. I take a look back at what he meant to me, the league, and the future of the Timberwolves.

After 21 seasons, Kevin Garnett will bid farewell to the NBA and the game of basketball. It’s been an incredible hall of fame career for KG, as he walks away as the all-time Timberwolves leader for points (19,201), assists (4,216), rebounds (10,718), steals (1,315), and blocks (1,590), and  as a 15-time all-star, NBA MVP, and NBA champion.

One of the most daunting truths that has been handed to me in life is that growing up means watching your heroes become humans.

Everyone from your parents to your professional athlete and rock star idols will one day appear more mortal than they have before. This offseason has allowed me a lot of time to reflect on this notion as Garnett’s retirement is the next in line of all time greats that have called it quits this past offseason, with Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan coming earlier this year.

Growing up in central Texas and coming into my obsession with the NBA in the early 2000s, obviously my loyalty was pledged to the San Antonio Spurs and Tim Duncan. But even as my beloved Spurs were stringing together championships, the appeal of Kevin Garnett was something I could never ignore or deny.

Although Duncan was just 45 minutes South of me, down I-35, I reveled in watching the passion of Kevin Garnett; almost feeling it radiate through my buzzing, dusty, blurry 13-inch television as he went up for a huge putback slam and followed it with a ferocious howl that, I imagine, shook the Target Center, while bulging his eyes out of his sweaty, bald head to an almost inhumane length.

If it were Tim Duncan who showed me to do everything in humility, it was Kevin Garnett who showed me to do everything with passion.

In 2003 the Spurs won their second championship with Duncan crowned Finals MVP. I can honestly say that was the happiest moment in my 10 years of life, up to that point. That summer I asked my parents for my first jersey. A green 1995-96 Kevin Garnett Timberwolves jersey.

I wouldn’t feel comfortable stuffing this article with layers and layers of stats that hold no context and can’t come close to signifying and conveying what The Big Ticket meant to the league during his prime and why his breed of passionate, polarizing, hardened, and “no-love-lost” play may never be seen again. Kevin’s impact to the Timberwolves and the league goes far beyond his averages, his playoff success, or where he ranks on any leaderboard.

For the record, if I were to load this up with stats and leaderboards, KG would rank number one for most sweat dripped onto an NBA court.

You will never see another Kevin Garnett. I guarantee you, no player will ever headbutt a wall while watching an episode of Making The Band. I guarantee you, no one will ever appear as emotive and unmerciful as Garnett was. No player will ever come close to KG’s trash talk, with the ability to more than back it up.

Nobody will ever look more like he’s super pissed he didn’t get an apple in a bobbing for apples competition as Garnett does when he comes down from a dunk with his head soaked in sweat, his eyes protruding past his brow, and his mouth stretched from his nose to his neck. No matter what, there will never be another player that gave more heart and desire, so openly and without reticent.

Kevin is the absolute last of his kind. The last active player drafted before 1998. The last player to play against Magic Johnson. The last player to play against the 72 win Bulls. The only player to play against the 72 win Bulls and the 73 win Warriors. The last player that truly mastered the craft of talking trash. The only player that that appears on a current roster on both NBA Live 96 and NBA 2K17. How crazy is that?

Nobody in the history of professional sports was more open and fervent about his desire to win. Losing was like a disease to Kevin. This was most notably shown during the 2005 All-Star weekend when TNT aired an interview between John Thompson and KG.

The previous season, Garnett was named MVP and brought the Timberwolves to the Western Conference Finals. The Timberwolves were due to repeat and build on their prior success. But at the time of the interview, Minnesota was a team playing well below .500 even as Garnett played up to his previous MVP standards. This is undoubtedly the toughest timeline of Garnett's career, as the interview came just days after the firing of Flip Saunders, the man who Kevin trusted and respected the most in the Timberwolves organization.

It’s one of the most memorable moments of the NBA to me, despite not taking place during an actual game. The frustration, determination, and exhaustion all weighted onto Kevin during this interview as he breaks down multiple times to Thompson. This is the prime example of who he was as a player. He didn’t care about his accomplishments, he didn’t care about the lights or cameras, he wasn’t going to rely on the safe, canned response -- winning and being real were the most important things to Garnett.

KG gave all he could to the Timberwolves for the first 12 years of his career. It seems impossible to blame him for wanting out and going to Boston to win a title. He didn’t weasel his way out of Minnesota. He didn’t leave a trail of ashes from bridges behind him. He didn’t leave to the team that he lost a 3-1 lead to the year before. This was about Kevin and the team realizing it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

So as a thank you to Kevin, the organization put him in the best position to win a title. And as a thank you to the Timberwolves, Kevin’s departure allowed for the Wolves to acquire Kevin Love in the 2008 draft (by way of the O.J. Mayo trade, I know, calm down) who the Wolves eventually traded in 2014 for Andrew Wiggins. I fail to recall a more fair trade.

One of the most overlooked aspects of Garnett’s successful career is that he is the biggest pioneer for preps to pros players. Kevin Garnett wasn’t the first player to go straight from high school to the NBA, he was just the best up until that point. With Minnesota taking the gamble on KG at number 5 in the 1995 draft and his congruent success, it opened up the door for teams to not shy away from Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal the next year, who along with KG paved the way for the next 10 years of many players to go from high school to the NBA.

NBA GM’s became more willing to give interest to high school players because of Garnett. Now, LeBron, Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard, Tracy McGrady -- those guys would all have great careers without the success of Garnett’s transition.

But players like Andrew Bynum, Tyson Chandler, Kwame Brown, Shaun Livingston, Sebastian Telfair (I just added that because I’m hoping he has Google Alerts), J.R. Smith, Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, Martell Webster, are all indebted to Garnett for making it easier for teams to be comfortable taking a chance and using a lottery pick on a high school player.

And the list drags on for players who maybe didn’t get drafted in the lottery but still got an NBA contract which they, hopefully, used to better their life somehow. Anyway, Robert Swift is trying to make a comeback.

Perhaps the most impactful stage of Kevin Garnett’s career comes after his MVP season and WCF appearance with Minnesota, and his championship in Boston, and that time when Billy King lost his damn mind.

When Garnett was traded back to Minnesota during the 2015 season, it seemed like a fond, fitting farewell. His Brooklyn days obviously showed signs that he was close to the end and after 20 seasons, who could blame him? It was a foregone conclusion that he’d play out the season in front of the fans that embraced him in his prime.

But Kevin graciously stuck around for one more year, to help mentor the future stars of the Timberwolves.

This, to me, is the most significant fingerprint that he will leave on the league. When Garnett was in Minnesota originally, the pieces just never seemed to fit quite right for him to win a ring. It was one thing or another and the West was stacked as ever in those days, with the Lakers, Kings, Spurs, Mavs, Rockets, and Suns all fighting for the same position. Unfortunately, the window closed and everyone moved on.

But his return to the Timberwolves allowed him to set the tone for the future of the Timberwolves. His competitive spirit and determination has now been passed along. The passion and pride that Garnett carried for Minnesota for the first 12 years of his career, now presents itself in guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

These last few years on the court, he wasn’t the Garnett of old, and at times, it was almost somber to see him with so little left in the tank. But that wasn’t the point of him being there. The pieces are now in line for the Timberwolves. They have the talent and potential to be special. Kevin’s presence around those young players planted the seeds for a winning culture in Minnesota.

So, after over two decades of pain, struggles, failures, missed opportunities, and gallons of sweat poured into the game of basketball, Kevin Garnett, leaves the Minnesota Timberwolves better than he found them.

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