Flip and KG: December 1995
December 22, 1995
For nearly six months, Bill Blair was the teacher helping Timberwolves rookie Kevin Garnett make the transition from high school to the National Basketball Association. Just when Garnett thought he was learning his lessons, Blair was fired.
The new teacher is Wolves general manager Flip Saunders, who will conduct class the rest of the season and coach his third game tonight in Boston. The adjustments for Garnett seem endless. This one, however, appeared to temper his enthusiasm about the NBA.
"The guys (teammates) told me to not be surprised by anything that happens in the NBA," Garnett said. "I thought if something was going to happen, it wouldn't be until after the season. I guess I'll just have to deal with the change. The game seems more like a business now."
That was tough for Garnett to say. To him, basketball was always fun, an extension of the video game boom.
To most NBA players, coaching changes are as routine as a new pair of basketball shoes for each game. For Garnett, who joined the Timberwolves out of high school, Blair's firing Monday might have been the final step toward achieving official membership in the NBA. Once your coach is fired, you have arrived.
Take Wolves forward Doug West for instance. West has been around for all five Wolves coaching changes. He probably would think something is wrong if the Wolves go more than two years without firing their coach, although the next move won't be classified as a firing.
Saunders is part of management. If he decides not to keep the coaching job, the move would be termed a shift in duties.
Garnett's shift will be more significant. He and Blair developed a close relationship since the Wolves drafted him in June. Blair was the primary person in Garnett's ear, explaining the intricacies of the pro game.
The key question is how the 19-year-old Garnett will adjust to Saunders, who had little contact with Garnett in terms of basketball strategy.
"Kevin has a real good feel for the game," Saunders said. "He picks up things quickly. What will make it easier for me is that he got a good foundation for what we'll be doing in the future from Bill. A lot of the things Kevin knows already, we'll just be expanding on."
The coaching staff's approach in using Garnett was a minor factor in Blair's dismissal. Management denied the apparent rift, but it was obvious there were those who felt Garnett should have had a more significant role.
Garnett led the Wolves in average minutes played (27.1) during the exhibition season, but he dropped to 18.0 when the regular season began. The reduction was attributed to lack of experience and to Blair's attempts to develop consistency with his veterans.
When Garnett hit a wall in mid-November, shooting 28 percent over a nine-game stretch, Blair had more evidence to limit pressure on the former high school sensation. Even when Garnett had inspired moments, Blair resisted putting him into the starting lineup.
Saunders has no plans to start Garnett at small forward, either, but he already has taken steps to make the 6-foot-11 rookie more effective. He has moved Garnett closer to the basket to help him get higher percentage shots.
"There are some things Flip is doing that Blair didn't do," Garnett said. "Whatever changes are made, I have to pick it up. I'll be expected to."
One of Saunders' immediate objectives is to put the players in better positions on the floor to take advantage of their skills. Under Blair, Garnett often found himself near the three-point line with the ball - looking either to pass or attack a defender one-on-one.
Opponents rarely worried about Garnett that far from the basket. Saunders has subtly steered Garnett away from the three-point area. Garnett has not attempted a three-point shot in the last two games.
"My main thing is developing players," Saunders said. "That's what I did when I was in the (Continental Basketball Association). It's no different on this level, except a lot of these guys are more advanced already in what they can do. We will find ways to make Kevin more of a threat, but in his comfort level."
Saunders said he envisions playing Garnett 20 to 29 minutes a game the rest of the season, backing up Tom Gugliotta at small forward. Garnett played 20 minutes in Wednesday's loss at Orlando.
To help Garnett get off to better starts, Saunders has brought Garnett off the bench late in the first quarter of the past two games. Blair often would wait until the start of the second quarter to use him.
Barring injuries, the new rotation system will continue. So will Garnett's adjustment period.
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