Team’s growth has not mirrored Jefferson’s
Don’t worry about Big Al. He is plugging away in Minnesota, hoping the second rebuilding project in three years is the final one he will have to endure.
It’s been 2 1/2 years since the Celtics shipped Al Jefferson (above), four other players, and two draft picks to Minnesota for Kevin Garnett, and while Garnett has sipped the championship champagne, Jefferson still waits for his team to advance beyond putrid.
The Timberwolves come to TD Garden tonight with a renewed faith, a slew of new players, and Jefferson as their central figure. Big Al doesn’t turn 25 until Jan. 4, but he is a cagey veteran on this club, the most established player among a sandbox of NBA toddlers, working furiously to bring a sliver of success to a team that’s been without an identity since Garnett’s departure.
Jefferson is the face of the franchise, a rugged post player with immense skills who keeps his emotions to himself. Jefferson just plays. He just scores. And he just keeps trucking.
Save for the Celtics’ first-round playoff exit to the Pacers in 2005, Jefferson has not been close to the postseason. What’s more, Jefferson’s teams are a combined 153-284 in his six-year career.
As Jefferson improves exponentially, the teams around him crumble and then are put together again, hoping for different results. This time it was president of basketball operations David Kahn, who took over for Kevin McHale, overhauling the roster, shipping out veterans such as Mike Miller, former Boston College standout Craig Smith, and ex-Celtic Sebastian Telfair and bringing in young guards Ramon Session and Jonny Flynn, among others.
The Timberwolves play hard - really hard - for new coach Kurt Rambis, but the youthful errors constantly cost them victories. Jefferson is counting the days until the franchise moves on from this stage and he can match team success with personal success.
“I do see hope,’’ he said. “The thing I have been through in Minnesota is, when I first got here with Randy Wittman and Kevin McHale, it was a rebuilding stage. Now two years later, we got David Kahn, we got Kurt Rambis, so it’s now Stage 1, the rebuilding stage. Luckily, I’m still young and I am able to go through that. But the difference is now that I have David Kahn, who is committed to making us a playoff team.
“They said three years max that we could be a playoff team. One year is almost gone, so next year, maybe this offseason we can add some pieces, do whatever we are going to do. And I can see it. I am really happy about what’s been going on here.’’
Jefferson has the patience of a grandmother knitting on her porch. Unlike many of his contemporaries who would publicly complain about losing, Jefferson realizes NBA success is a marathon. Garnett didn’t win his first NBA title until age 32 and labored for years in Minnesota before the trade.
Jefferson wants to see the Minnesota project to fruition and leaving Boston is not something he laments.
“It’s not going to come easy; you have to work for everything,’’ he said. “There’s going to be times like this. I was in Boston and I was going through the same thing in Boston. We were rebuilding. I got traded for one of the best players [in the NBA], put myself in a position here, got blessed with a nice contract. So this is what it’s all about. It’s about working your way to the top. It’s not about people giving you stuff, making it easier for you. And that’s where I am at right now, I am in the process of working.’’
Jefferson’s numbers are down slightly this season as he continues his recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last February. But he reported to training camp 31 pounds lighter, despite being limited in training. When Kahn said he wanted a fast-tempo team, Jefferson worked himself into premium condition to better prepare himself for Rambis’s system.
This season (5-22) has been a struggle. After winning the season opener against New Jersey, the Timberwolves lost 15 straight games before snapping the streak with an impressive win at Denver. Since then, there have been close losses and blowouts, Kevin Love has returned from a broken hand, Flynn has shown flashes of brilliance, and Corey Brewer is playing with more confidence. Meanwhile, Jefferson’s steady improvement following the injury is apparent - 11 double doubles in the past 15 games.
“I don’t feel snake-bit,’’ he said. “At the end of the day, you could be playing with the worst team in the league but it’s still the best job in the world. It’s still the best job to be on the worst team. It’s a blessing. So I don’t feel that way. If I got waived or got cut then I would feel bad. I am in this league and I rather be playing for the worst team than not playing at all.’’
So give Big Al a hand when he is announced tonight at TD Garden. He still remembers Boston warmly as the place he became an adult, and he remembers Boston as the place he learned that NBA success doesn’t come easy - at least not to those who seek greatness.
“Boston is my home away from home. Danny Ainge, Doc Rivers took a chance on me,’’ he said. “For me to get traded here for a Hall of Famer, it’s a blessing. I will always have love for Danny and Doc. Boston will always be home to me. It’s like a homecoming. It’s always good to come back and see the guys I came in here with. To see the goals they have reached and I know my day is coming to be where they have been. That’s what I hope.’’
McHale blends well with Chris Webber and Ernie Johnson in studio on Tuesday nights, and also did color commentary in Miami’s victory Thursday over Orlando. The transition has gone smoothly, but he misses life in the NBA. McHale didn’t get to finish the job in Minnesota - and clean up some of his own messes - but there is no bitterness.
“I guess the one thing you do miss is the games,’’ he said. “You do miss the day-to-day involvement sometimes but there’s other times . . . you think of all the agents calling you up and all the other stuff, so I don’t miss doing that. So it’s a little bit of good and little bit of bad.’’
For years McHale attempted to build the Timberwolves into an elite team, but they always disappointed come springtime - seven straight first-round exits - until breaking through to the Western Conference finals in 2004. But when Latrell Sprewell pulled his ridiculous “feed my family’’ protest and turned down a guaranteed $21 million, the organization fell into decline and missed the playoffs five straight seasons, leading to McHale’s dismissal.
The most significant move McHale executed during his tenure was the Garnett trade, sending the franchise player to Boston and starting over with Jefferson and a bunch of unproven players.
McHale said the decision to trade Garnett came from owner Glen Taylor.
“It’s always hard when you make a change and decide to trade a guy like Kevin Garnett,’’ McHale said. “It was a management decision and a lot of people were involved with it and basically the owner said, ‘We’re going to make a change.’ You say OK and go about doing it.’’
Minnesota has yet to attract a major free agent, and it has yet to recover from a slew of draft mistakes by McHale and his staff. Randy Foye over Brandon Roy. Kevin Love over O.J. Mayo. The disappointment that was Rashad McCants. McHale couldn’t recover from those misfortunes.
Yet, he seems at peace in the studio. McHale needed a break from the Timberwolves. The NBA TV job allows him to analyze the game without feeling the pressure of being a GM. McHale has forged his own personality on TV and the more time he spends away from the front office, the better he looks to a team interested in bringing him back.
And McHale wouldn’t rule out a return.
“This is the first time since 1980 that I haven’t been associated with a team, an NBA team. That’s a lot of time,’’ he said. “That’s the thing you miss the most, the team aspect of sports. You start doing it when you are a 12-13-year-old kid and you do it until you are 51. That’s a lot of years to be involved in teams so that’s probably the most difficult thing, not being involved with the team.’’
Problem is, the Grizzlies are hoping Gay doesn’t get an irresistible offer from a team under the salary cap that they are unable to match. Memphis owner Michael Heisley could have solved the problem by signing Gay, who entered the weekend averaging 20.9 points and 6.3 rebounds and was shooting nearly 48 percent from the field. Instead, the sides agreed to wait until the summer to negotiate - a situation the Celtics happily avoided by signing Rajon Rondo.
Losing Gay could derail Memphis’s quest for respectability, and based on its performance against the Celtics and a resounding win at Miami last Sunday, that process is further along than many expected. The team has recovered from the Allen Iverson fiasco and has thrived with a younger core. The Grizzlies have one player born in the 1970s - Jamaal Tinsley - and their most experienced player is the well-traveled Zach Randolph, who’s only 28.
The Grizzlies are indeed building a competitive team, but Gay is the most talented of the bunch.
“There’s a lot of tough love going on and trying to get them to understand what’s important,’’ coach Lionel Hollins said. “And it’s all about the team, not so much about the individual . . . I think we have good character on our team and guys who like to compete and win and I think that’s important.’’
You hope for Hollins’s sake that Gay’s situation doesn’t become a distraction because the better he plays, the more attractive he looks to cap-friendly teams who have money to throw at a 23-year-old, high-scoring swingman.
It will be interesting to see how Tracy McGrady’s presence affects the playoff-hopeful Rockets. McGrady (above), the league’s highest-paid player this season ($23.2 million), made his season debut last week and wants to be part of the rotation, but the Rockets have fared well without him and there is little chance he will return to Houston next season. The Rockets could showcase McGrady, who is coming off knee surgery, prior to the trade deadline, but that would hinder their plan to rely on younger players such as Trevor Ariza and Chase Budinger . . . In the “are you kidding?’’ category, the NBA fined Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings $7,500 for tweeting too soon following a game. Did Jennings criticize an official? Bad mouth an opposing player? No, he simply congratulated his teammates for reaching .500 following a win over Portland. Here was his Twitter reaction: “I understand I got fined, but 7500? For being happy over a win, you would of thought I said something bad. I mean it was a big win for us.’’ . . . Former Celtic Mikki Moore’s decision to have bone spurs removed from his right heel has left Golden State with no center because Andris Biedrins remains out with a back injury. Don Nelson is doing a horrible coaching job this season but perhaps the Warriors’ myriad injuries is an excuse to keep him employed. The Warriors are suiting up nine players. Vladimir Radmanovic, considered a small forward, likely will start at center . . . Miami coach Erik Spoelstra is attempting to teach second-year point guard Mario Chalmers a lesson by benching him for erratic veteran Carlos Arroyo. Chalmers is experiencing a sophomore slump after a promising rookie season . . . Former UMass forward Tony Gaffney is back in the state after suffering a broken foot playing in Israel. Gaffney was the final cut in Lakers camp and could have a shot at the NBADL when he heals . . . NBA TV has chosen the Thunder-Lakers game for its Tuesday night broadcast.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.