George Costanza, Danny Ainge, and Are the Timberwolves Better off Without Garnett?

In the seventh season of Seinfeld was an episode where George Costanza was angling to become the assistant general manager for the New York Yankees. This position was attractive because it would give Costanza the opportunity to help decide trades (the dream of so many).

In this episode Costanza says I think I got it. How ’bout this? We trade Jim Leyritz and Bernie Williams, for Barry Bonds, huh? Whadda ya think?
That way you have Griffey and Bonds, in the same outfield! Now you got
a team! Ha ha ha.

Costanza never landed this gig with the Yankees. But someone very much like Costanza must have gotten a hold of the Celtics this past summer. After the Celtics missed out on a chance to draft either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, someone – much like Costanza — must have approached Danny Ainge (general manager of the Celtics) and said “I think I got it. How ‘bout this? We trade the #5 pick in the draft, along with players we don’t want, for Ray Allen. Then we trade Al Jefferson, and another collection of players we don’t want, for Kevin Garnett. Whadda ya think? That way we have Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett in the same line-up! Now you got a team! Ha ha ha.

As silly as all this sounds, this is what the Celtics did. “Costanza” and Ainge managed to take the #5 pick in the draft and Al Jefferson – the only two assets the team had that anyone might want – and turn these into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.

After channeling a 19th century Italian economist last week I was able to project that the Celtics should be pretty good after these two moves in 2007-08.

How about the Timberwolves? (I will get to the Sonics soon).

Looking back at o5-06 and 06-07

Last year the T-Wolves won 32 games. The year before the team won 33 contests. When we look at Wins Produced we see a bit bigger step back.

Table One: The Minnesota Timberwolves in 05-06 and 06-07

The summation of Wins Produced for Minnesota in 2005-06 came to 36.0 victories. In 2006-07 this summation came to 31.4. Much of this decline can be traced to Kevin Garnett. Two years ago he led the league in Wins Produced – with 26.5 wins — and Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48], with a mark of 0.430. This past years KG declined to 20.6 wins and a WP48 of 0.330. Relative to every other NBA player not named Jason Kidd, Garnett was incredible in 2006-07. Relative to the KG we saw across the past few years, he was not quite as good.

Of course, as noted in Speeding up Time for Bill Simmons, Garnett has not had much of a supporting cast in Minnesota. So even if he had been his usual self, the Timberwolves would have still missed the playoffs.

Obviously Minnesota can miss the playoffs without KG as well. And that is the path they appear to have chosen.

How much worse off are the T-Wolves without Garnett?

The surprising answer is “not much”. Last year Al Jefferson had a WP48 of 0.252. Had Jefferson played 2,995 minutes like Garnett, Jefferson would have produced 15.8 wins last year, or only five wins less than KG. If we couple Jefferson with Garnett’s supporting cast – easily the worst in the league – Jefferson and the T-Wolves would be expected to win between 26 and 27 games.

A bit of improvement on the part of the Jefferson – who desperately needs a nickname – or his supporting cast and you can easily see Minnesota winning 32 games next year.

So did “Costanza” and Ainge really rip off McHale? If the goal is to build a 20 to 30 win team in Minnesota that has no hope of competing for a title, and to do this cheaply, then the Garnett trade keeps McHale and the T-Wolves right on target.

Of course if the objective is to be a title contender, then it would have been easier to do this with Garnett. At least, this would have been easier a few years ago.

But we can’t go back in time. The real problem with the Garnett trade from the T-Wolves perspective is not that they are really that much worse off, it’s that this move marks the end of an era. With a player like Garnett the Timberwolves should have been consistent contenders for a title. Again, as noted in the Super-Star column, the hard part in building a champion – which requires the right combination of stars and complementary players – is finding the Star (or stars). Minnesota had the Star, all they needed was the complementary pieces.

Now Minnesota is back to square one without a true star (unless Jefferson gets a bit better) or the necessary role players. Which puts them in the same position as many other NBA teams – out of playoff contention and clearly able to make vacation plans for May.

– DJ

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