So many people have so many suggestions for Kevin Garnett that the multitalented Minnesota Timberwolves forward should consider developing a syndicated tell-me-what-to-do column. You should play shooting guard, Kevin, says sometime shooting guard Scottie Pippen. You need to be more selfish in games down the stretch, Kevin, opines legendary crunchtime quarterback Magic Johnson. You need to go inside and demand the ball, Kevin, asserts demanding observer Charles Barkley. You're making a big mistake if you don't play for your country at the 2004 Olympics, Kevin, scolds two-time gold medalist Karl Malone.
Garnett professes that these admonitions (all made within the last year, Malone's within the last month) do not bother him, and he concedes that to a point, he has heeded Magic and Sir Charles. He still believes that great players should share the ball with teammates, even when the game's on the line, but he does allow that this season, he is more lethal to opponents partly because he has adopted a more aggressive approach. While Garnett, who earned a gold medal in Sydney in 2000, responds testily to Malone—"I won't make a decision just because Karl Malone is running his mouth," he says—even that has a let-him-talk feel to it. "Believe me, I critique myself harder than anyone else," says the 26-year-old Garnett. "Where I'm going to be at the end of the day is where I want to be."
Where he is now is familiar territory, partly pleasant, partly treacherous. At week's end Garnett was averaging 23.0 points, 13-3 rebounds and 5.9 assists—all highs for his eight-year career—and was a leading contender in the hotly contested MVP race (page 94). But at the same time there is a gnawing inevitability about Minnesota's season, a sense that despite Garnett's efforts, his T-Wolves, whose 43-26 record through Sunday's games ranked fifth in the Western Conference, will exit in the first round of the playoffs for the seventh straight season, thereby exposing him to more suggestions. Your team will go further when you stop shaving your head and grow a 'fro, Kevin, coif-conscious rebounding machine Ben Wallace will no doubt tell him.
Few NBA players should need less advice than Garnett. Since he came into the league from Chicago's Farragut Academy in 1995, he has leapfrogged every pothole, countered every stereotype. He's a well-spoken team leader who's never appeared on a police blotter as a pro, a Viking-like warrior who's missed only seven games because of injury. Garnett has ridden out some well-publicized rough waters with teammate Wally Szczerbiak—they aren't close off the court but at least claim they enjoy playing together—and has never uttered a discouraging word about the frozen tundra where he plies his trade. "I've taken to Minnesota from Day One because of the loyalty the people showed me," says Garnett, a beach-loving native of South Carolina. "Anyway, it's too damn cold to do much, so the weather keeps you focused."
In a hellish period between March 5 and Sunday, here's what Garnett had to focus on: road matchups with Chris Webber, Shaquille O'Neal, Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki, then Target Center dates with Tim Duncan, O'Neal again and Rasheed Wallace. During that stretch, in which Minnesota went 3-4, there were highs (a 92-83 victory in Dallas), lows (a 111-99 loss to San Antonio) and in-betweens (a spirited battle at home last Friday night, won by the Lakers 106-99). And when the gut-check ordeal ended with Garnett's fifth triple double in a 111-94 victory over the Trail Blazers, it merely confirmed what was suspected at the beginning of the season—that despite Garnett's brilliance, it was doubtful the Timberwolves would advance in the playoffs.
"How does this situation make me feel?" Garnett, sitting in front of his locker in Minneapolis last week, ponders the question and stares into space. He started dabbling in yoga last summer, and during timeouts he occasionally remains on the bench with his eyes closed, trying to visualize a particular outcome. "It makes me feel challenged" he says finally. "Extremely challenged." Garnett the diplomat is satisfied with the answer; Garnett the frustrated superstar is not, and he soon sticks a toe into the waters of analysis. "This team plays as hard as any team on any night," says Garnett. "But most teams that win it all have a main guy and another guy right there with him, kind of a partner in crime. Shaq and Kobe. Michael and Scottie. Behind them there's a supporting cast that knows their roles." He would take his analysis no further.
Timberwolves general manager Kevin McHale knows whereof Garnett speaks. "Bastards come in pairs" is the way he puts it, and over the years various combos have failed to jell either because of injury (in Terrell Brandon's case) or because one bastard wanted out of Minnesota ( Tom Gugliotta and Stephon Marbury). Szczerbiak, the 6'7" forward and current partner in crime, is not the slashing, creative type who can provide Garnett with adequate succor. McHale made a maximum offer ($34 million over six years) to 6'7" Ricky Davis last summer, but the Cleveland Cavaliers matched it. The T-Wolves won't have much wiggle room under the salary cap next year—when Garnett, who signed a six-year, $126 million extension before the 1997-98 season, earns $28 million—so in all probability what you see in Minnesota is what you'll get for a while.
Garnett will not address whether he would take less to help the T-Wolves land more talent; he says he's "too focused on this season." His agent, Andy Miller, was in negotiations last summer on a reported four-year, $80 million contract (as hard as it is to fathom, that would represent a pay cut), and though Garnett finally brought an end to the talks, he has never said he would demand maximum money when he becomes a free agent, in 2004. What he has said is that winning a title is paramount in his thinking, and making a financial sacrifice may be the only way to achieve that goal.
Even if he doesn't, Garnett by himself is one of the league's best shows. Before the opening tip-off he can be found crouched along the baseline, psyching himself up, adrenaline coursing through his elongated 220-pound body. (He refers to himself as 6'11"; coach Flip Saunders calls him "6-foot-13," which is closer to the truth.) He strides to midcourt and, already sweating, spreads some love, then doesn't stop moving for the next two hours. He might be the only big man to work himself into a low-post position by coming off a perimeter weave.
Despite Garnett's natural gifts-quickness, jumping ability, size—his game has none of the apparent effortlessness of, say, Kobe Bryant's. He is, rather, the front-court version of Mavericks point guard Steve Nash, seeming to exert maximum energy on almost every shot. Garnett competes with such intensity that he used to spoil Minnesota's practice drills. "We wanted to work on something specific, like defending a pick-and-roll," says Saunders, "but all KG wanted to do was come out on top. We had to throttle him back a little." Indeed, Garnett still feels his biggest weakness is being too hyper. "My decisionmaking is sometimes horrendous," he says. "I need to slow down and assess rather than rush in." Yet Garnett is also called upon to calm down everyone else. Point guard Troy Hudson is an excitable player given to streak shooting, while Szczerbiak can come unglued after a spate of missed shots. Garnett, the team captain, is their counselor.