Garnett Growing, but Still Needs Help

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006; 8:51 PM

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett looked beat down and worn out as he answered questions after his team lost to the Wizards, 90-78, on Tuesday night. Garnett slowly rubbed his head after each inquiry, as if the interrogation was contributing to a massive migraine. When Garnett was finished, he took a deep breathe, stood up and tossed a leather bag on his shoulder.

He took a few steps, sank his head into his hand, sauntering down a hallway toward the team bus. It was a side of Garnett that isn't captured in his latest shoe commercial, a side that makes him more human, a more sympathetic figure -- if you can actually have sympathy for someone who makes $18 million a year.

Garnett will not be dealt before today's 3 p.m. trade deadline or anytime soon, but the stress of being the Lone Wolf and carrying the Timberwolves for most of his 11-year career is weighing on him like never before. The passionate and fiery Garnett used to spend his nights cursing, shouting and belittling his opponents and officials. He arguably had the foulest mouth in the NBA. That Garnett was not on display at MCI Center and has been practically non-existent for most of the season.

He says maturity, not a lack of enthusiasm, has contributed to a kinder, gentler Garnett. "You grow up and you learn," Garnett, 29, said. "I play off raw emotion and people don't know, when you play off raw emotion, it takes a lot out of you. My younger days, I get all riled up about a couple of plays and then have nothing in the second half. I've learned to channel my energy in different ways. I still curse. I just don't curse for kids in the front row no more."

The Timberwolves are 23-30 and have been moving in reverse ever since they pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the Western Conference. Garnett has openly expressed his frustrations like never before. "What's not frustrating?" Garnett said with a glare during All-Star Weekend in Houston. "I get frustrated when I got to stay at a red light."

But Garnett is adamant that he doesn't want to leave Minnesota and won't demand a trade. "I'm not one to give up because something is rough. That's a coward. I'm in it for the long haul," he said. "I'm not being anything for the short term. I feel like if you want to commit yourself, commit yourself wholeheartedly, 1000 percent. Just cause I'm going through a difficult time because of the transition, that doesn't mean I'm going to give up. It's not my makeup, not my speed. I don't get down like that with anything."

With Garnett making his displeasure known while being steadfast in his commitment to Minnesota, he appears to be making a not-so-subtle effort to nudge Timberwolves president Kevin McHale out of town. The list of McHale's blunders rivals the humor of "McHale's Navy" and has surely angered the nine-time all-star and 2004 most valuable player. McHale did an excellent job in picking Garnett with the fifth pick in 1995, but it might be time for someone else to build a team around a 7-foot, do-everything forward.

The problems in Minnesota began in 1998 when he signed Joe Smith to a one-year deal and made a secret agreement to sign Smith long term, which circumvented the cap, and set the franchise back when NBA Commissioner David Stern took away five first-round picks from Minnesota. McHale was forced to trade Stephon Marbury to New Jersey in March 1999, breaking up the Garnett-Marbury union, and acquired Terrell Brandon, who gave the Timberwolves a few good seasons before his knee pushed him to early retirement. Later that year, McHale drafted Wally Szczerbiak with the sixth pick (instead of Andre Miller, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry or Corey Maggette) then selected William Avery with the 14th pick (instead of Ron Artest, Andrei Kirilenko, James Posey, Jeff Foster or Kenny Thomas).

McHale was able to get both Bobby Jackson and Chauncey Billups but allowed both players to walk in free agency without compensation. When the Timberwolves were finally able to get a draft pick in 2003, McHale drafted Ndudi Ebi -- who is already out of the league -- instead of Kendrick Perkins, Leandro Barbosa or Josh Howard. Later that summer, McHale was able to find the perfect complimentary pieces for Garnett in Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, which overshadowed the ignominy of replacing Rasho Nesterovic with Michael Olowokandi. They helped get Garnett out of the first round for the first time in his career, but that experiment lasted just one season, before Sprewell began complaining about "feeding his family." McHale's biggest mistake was firing his friend Flip Saunders as coach last season and taking over as coach himself. Then, last summer, he traded Cassell to the Los Angeles Clippers for underachieving point guard Marko Jaric.

Now how has that worked out? Saunders is leading the team with the best record in the NBA and a favorite to win the championship in Detroit, Cassell is about to lead the Clippers to the playoffs for the first time since 1997, and the Minnesota is heading for another lottery pick.

Garnett looks as if he's closer to snapping each day. "I'm not one to give in to a lot of pressure," Garnett said. "I've always understood everything is not always going to be good. I've embraced the fact that it's going to be some difficult times, especially when you're dealing with change. I can only control what I do. So I go out there, mix it up every night, put my hard hat on, my utility belt, give it my all."

Minnesota is just 4-9 since trading Szczerbiak and Olowokandi for Ricky Davis, Mark Blount, Marcus Banks and Justin Reed. Garnett has to adjust his game to his new surroundings, but should he have to at this stage in his career?

He's a superstar in search of continuity. His peers, such as Tim Duncan and Rasheed Wallace, have been playing with the same teammates for the past few years. When asked if he was jealous, Garnett said, "As a player, you don't really think about [the constant turnover] that much. You're aware of it. I feel like, if you want to be successful in anything, you have to keep some kind of bond with a team. Having guys signed long term. Having a great mix of players. But I'm never jealous of anything. You're always hopeful. Maybe one day . . ."

Maybe one day Kevin Garnett's fire will return.

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