- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2002

Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves are where they always are at this time of the season, trying to come to terms with another first-round exit in the playoffs.
This makes six first-round cameo appearances in a row for Garnett and the Timberwolves. This is not a trend. This is a habit.
This one hurts the most after Garnett and the Timberwolves flirted with the elite teams in the Western Conference in the first half of the season and stoked the impression that it would be different this spring.
Garnett was a better player, the same with Wally Szczerbiak, and once Terrell Brandon became healthy, the Timberwolves were bound to exorcise their playoff demons of the past.
But it did not work out that way against the Mavericks, the United Nations contingent of the NBA. The Mavericks have so many weapons, and just too many ways to eliminate a team as limited as the Timberwolves.
Brandon was in street clothes, as usual, and Garnett and Szczerbiak could not overcome the elementary truth that the Mavericks were just a better team than the Timberwolves.
None of this stopped Magic Johnson, a guest analyst on Turner Sports last week, from peering deep inside Garnett's soul and seeing certain deficiencies when a playoff game is hanging in the balance. Johnson sees a player who is all too willing to defer to less gifted teammates. He sees a player who almost does not want the ball in the last few minutes of a game. Johnson did not put it exactly that way, but he implied it.
Johnson eventually tried to distance himself from his original contention after the facts got in the way of his assertions and objections were raised. Garnett did his part in the series, and then some, putting up impressive numbers. He scored, he rebounded and he defended. He just didn't have a lot of help beyond Szczerbiak.
If Chauncey Billups is the No. 3 player of a team, the team has serious flaws. Billups has played with five teams in five NBA seasons, which sums up fairly well how he is regarded around the league.
That also sums up the Timberwolves, stuffed as they are with a whole lot of modest sorts. Joe Smith, who used to be somebody, is now a glorified role player, which does not say much for Kevin McHale's ability to evaluate personnel. McHale was in charge of the funny-money contract to Smith that resulted in, among other things, the Timberwolves losing four first-round picks.
Here's the thing: If you're going to break a rule, you are obligated to break a rule in favor of someone more dynamic than Smith.
In a way, the Timberwolves are stuck, and Garnett is stuck with them. They are his burden. Fair or not, when it is time to assign blame, the lead player is destined to receive his share. That is how it works in the star-driven NBA. That is how it always has worked, even if the thought process is not as applicable today as it was a generation ago.
NBA rosters today, for the most part, are nowhere near as deep as they were 20 years ago, mostly because of expansion and the proclivity of up-and-coming players to blow off their developmental years in college. More and more, the NBA practices a form of basketball for dummies. Even someone as marginal as Billups, just another no-name in the NBA, left Colorado after two shoot-happy seasons.
Johnson's argument, however valid at one time and in some cases today, is a stretch with Garnett, one of the few to make a successful transition from high school to the NBA. Johnson should know better.
Johnson played with a team in the grandest sense, a complete team that went beyond Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. The supporting parts with the old Lakers were well-versed in the nuances of the game, players such as Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, Bob McAdoo, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, Kurt Rambis, A.C. Green and Mychal Thompson.
Johnson played with those who understood who they were, which made it easier for him to be who he was. Garnett labors in no such environment. He toils with players who either would have been at the end of the bench with the old Lakers or jumping between the old CBA and the also-rans of the NBA.
The Timberwolves won 50 games this season, a testament to Garnett. Other than Garnett, they are a lottery team, somewhere in the 25-win range.
It really is as simple as that.


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