Timberwolves’ handling of Flip Saunders’ death caused rift with Kevin Garnett

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When Kevin Garnett rejoined the Timberwolves, there was talk of him eventually joining Flip Saunders in management or maybe even ownership.

Instead, Saunders died before last season. Garnett played out the year under interim coach Sam Mitchell and interim general manager Milton Newton, saw Minnesota fire those two then retired.

Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press:

Garnett believes that promises were broken and he left last summer after a tense buyout negotiation with owner Glen Taylor.

“I love those young guys,” Garnett said, referring to the Wolves’ young core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine that he mentored in his final season. “I told Thibs I want to work with him, but obviously me and Glen don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things and that’s how it’s going to be.”

Garnett envisioned having a large role in the decision-making process, particularly when it came to the move to fire GM Milt Newton and coach Sam Mitchell — Garnett’s close friend — after last season.

Garnett also told the AP that he was upset with the way the team handled a memorial service for Saunders, the coach who drafted Garnett as a skinny teenager out of Farragut Academy High School in Chicago in 1995.

Saunders was honored in an emotional service before the team’s home opener against Portland last season. It included a touching video tribute, with players, coaches, media members and others speaking about the impact Saunders had on their lives.

One glaring absence was Garnett, who said he “couldn’t put a lifetime of friendship into three minutes.”

“How do you put a time limit on something like that?” Garnett said. “And then, too, I thought he wasn’t celebrated the proper way. You have high school banners, you have (expletive) hockey banners (hanging in the rafters). You couldn’t put a Flip banner in Target Center, some place that we helped build? … We established that market. I helped grow that with him. You can’t put him in the (rafters)?

“So I just had problems with how they were shoving this down all of our throats. The young guys, they weren’t invested enough to really understand what was going on. I chose to be mute, to be professional and keep all the negative energy down. There was a bigger message I wanted to tell, but I supported it and just kept my mouth shut.”

Taylor told the AP in February that the Wolves reached out to Garnett in hopes of arranging a ceremony to retire his jersey.

“We think that’s the appropriate thing to do,” Taylor said. “At this time he hasn’t commented on a timetable. We just have left it open.”

Garnett said he has never heard from the Wolves.

Here’s the video tribute:

Every Timberwolves player at the time besides Garnett appeared. The team also wore jersey patches.

Garnett obviously cared deeply about Saunders, and losing a friend can be trying. If Garnett didn’t feel comfortable participating in the tribute video, that’s totally fine.

But why criticize it for existing? What makes that the wrong way to honor Saunders and a banner the right way? Why does the banner have to be raised immediately after his death?

Saunders dying shook the franchise, and everyone – including Garnett – was left to deal with it. That isn’t easy, and everyone tried their best. Just as I’ll excuse Garnett’s unfair criticism as a byproduct of a tragic, difficult-to-handle situation, he should give the team employs charged with memorializing Saunders latitude to do so as they deemed best.

As far as broken promises and Garnett’s number being retired, who knows? This is a he-said, he-said situation.

But I know this, the Timberwolves paid Garnett his full $8 million salary this season, according to Basketball Insiders and Yahoo Sports. They could have demanded he report or forfeit that money. Instead, they gave him a lucrative sendoff into retirement.