RandBall

Michael Rand started RandBall with hopes that he could convince the world to love jumpsuits as much as he does. So far, he's only succeeded in using the word "redacted" a lot. He welcomes suggestions, news tips, links of pure genius, and pictures of pets in Halloween costumes here, though he already knows he will regret that last part.

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Thursday (KG: A love affair rekindled) edition: Wha' Happened?

Posted by: Michael Rand Updated February 26th at 9:32am 294206761

kggame1) I didn’t go to last night’s Wolves game. I have my reasons: some are practical, some are professional, and some are just plain weird.

From a practical standpoint, it just didn’t fit into my week. With a small baby at home, sleep is a treasured friend and a rare commodity, and I pretty much knew if I went that I would go out afterwards and that the rest of my week could very well be shot. Lame? Yes. I’m lame.

From a professional standpoint, I’ve found that sometimes when I’m at a live event, I forget to focus on the actual game. As much as it would have added to the understanding of the night and KG’s return, from an atmosphere standpoint, to be there … I really wanted to focus on the basketball and try to take the emotion out of it. So I watched on TV, as free of distractions as possible. I didn’t even tweet during the game!

And from a weird standpoint, there was probably a part of me that feared it would be a train wreck and didn’t want to see 20,000 Minnesotans let down. We deserve nice things. It, of course, started like a train wreck … but the total sum of the evening was far from that. It was glorious. Maybe I’ll kick myself 20 years from now for not being there. But in a weird way, I’m more interested in being at KG’s next game than I was in being there last night.

2) It was just one game. A skidding Washington team was the perfect opponent. The Wolves were already improving thanks to their return to health. But if you’ve watched enough bad Minnesota basketball in the past decade — and you know I have — then you know this and need to believe this: the Wolves haven’t played defense like that since KG left.

That’s hyperbole, I’m sure, since you could pick out some game in the last eight years where the numbers say their defense was better. But in the broader sense, they have not played D like that since Garnett left: closing out on shooters, communicating on screens, contesting every shot … these are fundamental things, but they have so often been missing.

When KG blocked a corner 3 to end the first half, keeping the game tied 42-42 … it sounds ridiculous and hard to measure, but it was just a reminder of what good basketball looks like. A 38-year-old KG is a better, more valuable basketball player than a 26-year-old Thad Young — particularly on a team that has been missing these fundamentals for so long. I’m very serious about this.

3) I would like to see KG play forever. That is not practical. Short of that, I’d like to see him for the rest of this year and then one more year — as long as his body is willing and able. Part of it is that I love the symmetry of No. 21 playing 21 seasons. Again, I’m weird.

More of it is that a handful of weeks of this will be a building block, but it won’t be enough. Next year, with the team the Wolves are building, could really start to emerge — not in the sense of contention, mind you, but in the sense of seeing the blueprint start to take shape. It would almost be like KG’s rookie year (26 wins) and his second year (40 wins).

Garnett should be here to shepherd that and to contribute to that. He should get a proper going away around the NBA for an amazing career. And then he should retire in peace, learning from Brett Favre’s 2010 season and Jim Thome’s 2011 season that one year of magic — assuming next year is what I think it could be — does not qualify you for a second year of magic.

For now, though, let’s live in the moment. Last night was a game nobody thought would ever happen — not even KG himself. It was more than nostalgia. It was an honest homecoming, the rekindling of a love affair. And it was beautiful.

TFD: Bill Simmons has kind things to say about Andrew Wiggins, how the Wolves fleeced Cleveland

Posted by: Michael Rand Updated February 25th at 4:45pm 294103441

sadwigginsBill Simmons’ NBA Trade Value column remains a must-read, and this year he has some very kind things to say about Andrew Wiggins and the Wolves’ acquisition of the now-20-year-old:

Whenever I finally write The Book of Basketball 2.0: A Shameless Excuse to Regurgitate Material That You’ve Already Read for More Money, you know that I’m blowing out the “What If?” chapter and adding “What if new Cleveland GM LeBron James had just been patient and waited a few months to make sure Wiggins wasn’t his short-term Scottie Pippen and long-term Perimeter Stud In Waiting before flipping such a monster asset for Kevin Love when that deal would have still been sitting there in January?” Only the ranking remains in question. I love Wiggins. He’s a sure thing.

Simmons knows a lot about basketball — maybe not as much as he thinks he knows, but a lot. It’s nice to know he feels the same way about the Wiggins/Love trade as a lot of us in Minnesota do.

Mid-day talker: Ranking Minnesota's 13 superstars since Kirby Puckett retired

Posted by: Michael Rand Updated February 26th at 7:15am 294076681

kgflipKevin Garnett is back. You already knew that. So is Torii Hunter. Adrian Peterson could be on the way out.

Those three things got us thinking about a list of the superstars who have played in Minnesota since I’ve been an adult — more or less, since Kirby Puckett’s final regular-season game in 1995.

It’s unscientific, but it’s thought out. Patrick Reusse was consulted. There are 13 in all, and they are measured both by their on-field impact and how they resonated with fans.

1) Kevin Garnett: For the combination of longevity (12 years the first time), greatness (MVP award, a top-10 player in the league for many years) and the intangible of being the face of the franchise, nobody tops KG. Some came close, but nobody tops him.

2) Randy Moss: Rookie Randy is about as crazy as it gets for sports fan mania here, and his entire (first) seven-year run was electric.

3) Adrian Peterson: I thought he had a great chance to wind up at No. 1 on this list someday. Now, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

4) Joe Mauer: Say what you want about the rise and fall of Mauer, but the St. Paul kid still has a mighty imprint on the state. Oh, and he also has three batting titles and an MVP award (with the chance to write a better ending and move up this list with some improved seasons in 2015 and beyond).

5) Lindsay Whalen: She galvanized the state with the Gophers women’s basketball team’s Final Four run in 2004. And she brought pro women’s basketball to prominence in Minnesota, helping the Lynx to two WNBA titles. She embodies exactly how the vast majority of Minnesotans want an athlete to play: with charisma, grit, selflessness and modest flash.

T-6)  Brett Favre/Bobby Jackson: I lumped these two together because their tenures were remarkably similar: both had two seasons (sure, Jackson played with the Wolves for a bit, but let’s stick with the Gophers here). One of those years was irrelevant. And one of those years was among the best Minnesota has seen in the past 20 years — Favre with the Vikings in 2009 and Jackson with the Gophers’ Final Four run in 1996-97.

8) Johan Santana: He didn’t quite resonate with fans the way other superstars have, but his greatness (two Cy Young Awards) constantly had fans in awe of his ability.

9) Torii Hunter: When someone asks, “Who was the identity of the Twins when they turned it around in the 2000s,” Hunter is the name and face that comes to mind. The stats weren’t other-worldly, but the flashy glove, improved hitting and affable smile won him many fans.

10) Zach Parise: Another athlete who still has time to move up this list. Like Whalen, Parise embodies how we want our star athletes to play.

11) Justin Morneau: Averaged 30 HR and 118 RBI per year from 2006 to 2009 and won an MVP award. His reception at Target Field for the Home Run Derby left no doubt about how fans feel about him.

12) Maya Moore: The 2014 WNBA MVP’s best years are still ahead of her, which is a scary proposition.

13) Kevin Love: He’s not at the bottom as a cheap shot. Love’s ability is not in question, and his numbers say he was a star. But he accomplished less, team-wise, than any other Minnesota superstar of this era. It wasn’t all his fault, and he made sure we knew it.

Wednesday (Explaining Derrick Rose in Minnesota terms) edition: Wha' Happened?

Posted by: Michael Rand Updated February 25th at 11:06am 294048821

roseThe Chicago Bulls went 62-20 in 2010-11, making it to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the Heat. The unquestioned catalyst and leader of the team was Derrick Rose, who averaged 25 ppg and won the NBA MVP Award in just his third season and at the tender age of 23.

Chicago and Rose seemed primed for years of greatness, with an NBA title (or more than one) a very reasonable and attainable goal. What has happened since is a tale of sports cruelty that those of us in Minnesota probably can’t fully comprehend.

Rose tore his left ACL during the first game of the first round of the 2011-12 playoffs after another great regular season. The Bulls, who went 50-16 in the lockout-shortened regular-season, lost their opening playoff series to Philadelphia (yes, before the 76ers committed full-time to tanking they were pretty decent).

Rose missed the entire 2012-13 season; the Bulls won 45 games without him, but again came up short in the playoffs. He came back for the 2013-14 season, but he ended up playing just 10 games because of season-ending torn meniscus in his right knee. The Bulls still won 48 games, but they lost in the first round of the playoffs.

This year, Rose came back again and had the Bulls looking like a contender. They are 36-21 … but now, again, they will be without Rose for the rest of the year because of more damage to his right meniscus. The Bulls will probably again make the playoffs, and probably again make a quick exit.

If so, that will be four consecutive seasons derailed by an injuries to the same superstar — not just a great player, but an MVP when fully healthy. We’ve tried to fathom that and put it into Minnesota sports terms, but there really isn’t any comparison.

For all the bad luck Minnesota teams have had (self-inflicted and otherwise), their star players have been remarkably durable during good times.

Kevin Garnett in his first go-round with the Wolves was an iron man. Randy Moss missed just three games in seven seasons with the Vikings in his first go-round. Johan Santana averaged 228 innings pitched from 2004-07, his prime with the Twins. Justin Morneau, pre-concussion, was extremely durable — averaging 151 games played from 2005-09. Even Joe Mauer, who has the reputation for missing games, averaged 576 plate appearances per year from 2005-10.

Adrian Peterson? He missed just seven games in his first seven seasons and famously came back from a shredded knee to destroy teams in 2012. Even Percy Harvin, for all his problems, only missed three games in his first three seasons with Minnesota and was never to blame for derailing an entire season with an injury. The Lynx, during their run of prominence the past four seasons, have been gifted with generally good healthy among their top players.

We really only have one-season “what-ifs” here when it comes to injuries. What if Sam Cassell hadn’t hurt his back in the 2004 NBA playoffs. Could the Wolves have won an NBA title? What if Francisco Liriano had stayed healthy in 2006 — could the Twins have done some major damage in the playoffs? What if Morneau hadn’t been injured in 2010? Would the Twins have gone further in the playoffs? (Granted, that was more than a one-year issue, but even a fully healthy Morneau couldn’t have stopped the slide from 2011-present). What if Brett Favre’s ankle wasn’t 50 shades of purple after an illegal hit from the Saints in the 2009 NFC title game? Would he have run for yards instead of throwing an INT in the closing moments of regulation?

But imagine having a star player, with a very good supporting cast around him, getting hurt year after year after year after year. Imagine KG, Moss or Peterson in their primes, leading championship contenders … only to have each year end in shambles because of an injury.

That’s the cruelty in Chicago right now.

Gophers women's basketball a No. 7 seed in latest NCAA bracket projection

Posted by: Michael Rand Updated February 24th at 3:47pm 293897651

zahuiThe Gophers women’s basketball teams’ mid-year swoon, which included four losses in five games to drop their Big Ten record to 6-5, has given way to a torrid stretch as Minnesota heads down the stretch run of its regular season.

The Gophers have won five consecutive games — scoring at least 85 points in every victory (and allowing at least 77 in every game, too) — to sit at 11-5 in conference play, tied for third in the standings.

As a result, Minnesota has moved up in the NCAA tournament bracket projections as well. The Gophers were still teetering a week ago as a No. 10 seed in ESPN’s projections; this week, after big wins over Iowa and Michigan, they’re a much firmer No. 7 seed.

With two more games to go — at likely NCAA tourney teams Nebraska and Iowa — Minnesota figures to be locked into the NCAA field.

The big question now is whether the Gophers can finish in the top four in the Big Ten and make their conference tournament path easier. That will be difficult considering their two tough road games to finish the year, but the Gophers have also shown all year that — in spite of losing Rachel Banham — they can’t be counted out.

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