KG carries new burden

Finally surrounded with star talent, Kevin Garnett faces even more pressure to lead the Wolves out of the first round.

Updated: October 19, 2003, 4:08 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Kevin Garnett
With a cast of stars, Garnett's Wolves have their best shot at reaching the second round.
MOLINE, Ill. -- The loudest prediction yet about the Timberwolves does not come from the Twin Cities. It does not come from this fabled CBA outpost in the Quad Cities, where Kevin Garnett has come to play an exhibition game. It comes from Los Angeles.

It comes from KG's buddy Gary Payton, in response to one of the few non-Kobe questions that the Glove has fielded on his new job. Payton was recently asked to name the team most likely to prevent the reloaded Lakers from regaining the championship.

He named Minnesota.

"They'll have a starting five that's gonna match with us," Payton said. "I think they're going to be the rival for us right now."

Not San Antonio. Not Sacramento or Dallas.

So ...

Nothing has changed and everything has changed for the Timberwolves. They're still the same franchise with a playoff past that makes the Cubs' postseason history seem rich. They're also a franchise that has transformed its personnel so radically, you've got lots of luminaries like Payton speaking as if those seven straight first-round exits never happened. Even Payton's new coach, Phil Jackson, sounds impressed by what the Wolves have amassed, and he almost never compliments anyone outside the circle of Team Triangle. "We see Minnesota as a team," Jackson said, "that really helped themselves."

That is why Garnett, surrounded by more help and happiness than he has ever seen in Minny, is also shouldering more pressure than he ever has before. The Wolves are the source of serious expectations for the first time in the club's 15-year existence, and Garnett is the guy supposed to make it all click. Especially since owner Glen Taylor just committed to pay him another $100 million over the next five seasons, after this season completes Garnett's record-setting $126 million contract.

Tell you what, though. If he's feeling burdened by the pressure, you can't tell. He isn't tossing out Payton-like proclamations, maybe because the second round is still seven months away ... and because Garnett has been playing with his four most prominent helpers -- Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell, Michael Olowokandi and the returning Wally Szczerbiak -- on the bench in street clothes because of various ailments. But it doesn't take much pressing to get an indication that KG's expectations are plenty lofty.

"I think anything's reasonable," Garnett said, his way of throwing the Wolves onto the league's list of championship contenders. "We've got the players. We've got the talent. Now we need to create the continuity and the chemistry to accomplish it all.

"We have to get that continuity down. Chemistry is the key word. We have to understand that what we have is special and take advantage of it."

Garnett understands better than anyone. The best team he ever played on, until now, was the team that took a 2-1 lead over the Lakers last spring, only to lose the next three games to seal Early Exit No. 7. That team was led by Garnett and Troy Hudson, enjoying the best six games of his life, while L.A. clamped down on Szczerbiak and Rasho Nesterovic had to deal with Shaquille O'Neal.

The Wolves still have no idea exactly what they have now because their season has started with so many injuries. Chances are they will not have their full team available by opening night. Yet you only have to see the names to know that coach Flip Saunders will eventually have more options than he's ever had.

Cassell and Sprewell have arrived as Minnesota's new backcourt, allowing Sprewell to play shooting guard -- instead of masquerading as a small forward to accommodate Allan Houston in New York -- and pushing Szczerbiak from the two to his preferred spot at the three. Hudson, meanwhile, will now be deployed as a bombs-away Sixth Man Award candidate, with Olowokandi signed to replace Rasho. Fred Hoiberg (shooting), Ervin Johnson (shot-blocking) and Mark Madsen (dancing and energy) were also added as off-the-bench specialists.

As a group, it's almost as interesting an assemblage as Payton's Lakers, and the group got a further boost when Garnett, after strong indications that he planned to test the free-agent market next summer, decided to sign a five-year extension now. In what amounts to the biggest possible Thank You to management for doing everything Garnett could have wanted -- short of convincing David Stern to move the Wolves to the East -- KG committed his future to 'Sota without waiting to see if all these big names can blend.

Now it's time to see, with potential contract distractions out of the way, if they really can blend. To see whether Sprewell can still be a defensive force. Whether Cassell and Szczerbiak, both accustomed to having the ball in their hands, can mesh. Whether Hudson, after his breakout season, will be happy as a reserve. Whether Olowokandi will finally live up to his considerable promise, which would only make Garnett more dangerous.

Fact is, Minnesota's question marks are bigger than L.A.'s, when you factor in the Wolves' lack of playoff success and the reality that they'll start the season without having much of a preseason together.

I'm not a star, man. If a guy came in here and shot you and shot me, we'd both be two dead people. You understand?
Kevin Garnett
"I'd have more of a concern if I thought guys like Spree and Sam, if I thought their No. 1 thing was more about putting up stats than winning," Saunders said. "What they want to do is win. And when your best player is as unselfish as Kevin is ...

"KG has always been upbeat, but this is the best he's been. I think he's going to have an even better year than last year. I think he's got more peace of mind, whether it's now that he knows that he's got other people to go with him, or that he's got his contract taken care of. I think he thinks there's a realistic chance that this team can compete for a championship.

"Every guy here, at some point in his career, has taken a backseat to somebody and done it very willingly."

Everyone except Garnett, of course. Everyone else, while acknowledging that they've heard the skepticism, insists it won't be a problem.

Sprewell: "I don't think this team is going to be that way. We've got veteran guys that want to win. I don't see guys being selfish on this team."

Cassell: "Better to have more than less, you know what I'm saying? I'm here now. Spree's here now. You've got some different characters on this team now. You have some fiery guys who ain't going to accept losing in the first round. So many times, KG's voice is heard. Now you've got some other voices that are going to be heard. And I think he likes that, that he ain't got to always be the one saying something."

Szczerbiak: "We've gotten so much out of the talent we've had here. We've proven the system works. The system's not changing, but now we've got better talent in the system. I'm telling you, we just want to win. We've won 50 games before, but I'm sick of losing in the playoffs, and I know KG is, too."

Garnett, actually, is the one guy who won't acknowledge that he has heard any skepticism about Saunders molding a unit from a group of players widely known as shoot-first guys. "That's my first time hearing that," he insisted.

Which is what Saunders likes to hear, truth be told. It's Garnett's unwavering commitment to unselfishness that has Wolves management convinced that this mix can work, and the proclamation Garnett is willing to make serves as a prime example of his, uh, unique approach.

"I'm not a star, man," said Garnett, sitting in the corner of the tiny home locker room in an arena that used to house the Quad City Thunder.

"If a guy came in here and shot you and shot me, we'd both be two dead people. You understand?"

Not exactly, but this next bit is a little more graspable.

"If anybody's going to mess this up," Garnett concludes, "it's going to be us."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics