Just as quickly as Kevin Garnett's return to Minnesota in a February trade bolstered the Timberwolves' hopes for revitalization, the air was let out of the balloon. Knee issues limited Garnett to a grand total of 98 minutes, 11 seconds over five games the rest of the way. He sat out the final 21 altogether as the Timberwolves (16-66) sank to the worst record in the NBA.
Frustrated fans who purchased tickets after Garnett's acquisition wondered if Garnett was brought back merely as a public relations ploy to sell more tickets. Others questioned how he could pass a pre-trade physical when his knees were too sore for him to play.
Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders said the examination revealed nothing more than what they expected to see from a 38-year-old power forward who has played 20 years in the league. And Saunders saw no reason to try to rush the 38-year-old back in a season that was essentially lost in November when Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin all went out with major injuries.
"His mentoring, that's why we brought him in here," Saunders said. "We didn't bring him here to sell tickets. ... If I had to do the deal over again, I'd do it in a second."
The plan all along was for Garnett to play roughly 20 minutes a night, rest on the second night of back-to-backs and provide much-needed veteran leadership and guidance for a young team still trying to figure things out. He ratcheted up the intensity in practice and shared stories with promising rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and the other young pups, fulfilling those obligations and then some.
"He definitely had an effect," LaVine said. "He was there every day. He was on the bench. He was in the locker room. He was at practice. You still see his routine. He's still practicing, getting up early before shootarounds. It's great to have a dude like that.
"We all want to get to his level. He's a Hall of Famer. That's what we all want to get to and he has that type of aura about him where he's just so uplifting. He keeps our morale high."
But Saunders admits that he expected to see Garnett in games much more often than he did.
"If it was a different situation, he may be playing," Saunders said. "The situation where we were at, him wanting to come back and, I believe, play another year, he wanted to get everything right."
Garnett will be a free agent in July, and expectations are that he will sign a new deal with the Wolves to return for a 21st season. Garnett has expressed an interest in buying the Timberwolves one day, so his investment in the franchise cannot be questioned.
And Saunders said that the improvement that Wiggins, the heavy favorite to win rookie of the year, and LaVine showed over the final six weeks of the season can in part be attributed to Garnett's tutelage, even if he wasn't playing in games.
"He brings a different type of energy to the team, a different type of feeling, on the court, off the court, even in the locker room," Wiggins said. "We still feel his presence."
Rubio is expected to return at full health next season after ankle problems limited him to 22 games. Wiggins has given the team optimism that they have found a new two-way star to build around. And, if he returns, Garnett will be needed to provide some defensive presence on the court and continued guidance in the locker room.
"If we get those guys healthy and get them back, we can be a team that can compete in the West," Saunders said. "It's going to be difficult. We've got to be lucky, you've got to be healthy and a lot of things. But from a talent pool standpoint, our talent pool should be able to compete at that level."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.