Not only was Tim MacMahon of the Dallas Morning News kind enough to join us for a Q&A session in the first portion of the Daily Babble, he also took the time to take a part of one of our questions and build it into a full-length post over at SportsDay. Asked what would happen if we put all the Mavs' and Celts' players into one pool and re-drafted two new teams (Tim qualified his answer by suggesting that it would be for a three-year window, as both teams are current championship contenders), Tim said Dirk Nowitzki would go ahead of Kevin Garnett and then followed it up with a post on Dirk's superiority to KG. So in the same day we welcome Tim to the CelticsBlog air, er, web waves with open arms -- particularly for his endorsement of the Pugnacious Papoose Caboose -- we feel compelled take some time to rebut his most controversial claim of the day...
The majority of Tim MacMahon's case for Dirk Nowitzki over Kevin Garnett seems to be made with individual statistical evidence and team records. Right there is where it seems to me that Tim goes off the beaten path with regard to evaluating KG.
Never mind that the individual numbers seem to show that Dirk has consistently been a few points better of a scorer than KG...and worse everywhere else.
As far as the ultimate numbers -- wins and losses, particularly in the playoffs -- are concerned, undoubtedly, Dirk's been a part of more successful teams. He has also generally been on teams that had better coaching, better front office management and most importantly a better supporting cast (and thus higher standards) with quite a bit of regularity. Prior to this season, KG played on several immature and poorly coached Minnesota teams that were good enough to go to the playoffs but not succeed once there (see: Marbury, Stephon and Saunders, Flip) and one nearly elite-level team before getting sucked into a storm of rebuilding in Minny. Garnett led that elite-level team to the Western Conference Finals, where it happened to have the misfortune of running into the 2004 Los Angeles Lakers, an ultra-talented team with four future Hall of Famers in its starting lineup (and a date with destiny that went horribly wrong against the Pistons, but that's another story for another time).
But again, all of this is beside the point.
The point is that the individual numbers don't -- and likely never will -- really do KG justice. That is a pretty crazy thought to ponder when one considers that we're talking about a guy with nine consecutive seasons of averaging a 20-10 (in some cases, significantly more than that) and four consecutive rebounding titles.
But, really, it's true. The individual numbers don't do the trick. Because they don't adequately reflect defense -- the stuff of championships -- leadership, energy or his effect on his teammates.
Prior to this season, the Celtics hadn't cracked the league's top ten in defensive efficiency since 2002-03, which also coincided with their last extended playoff run (they finished seventh in defensive efficiency that year). This year, they have yet to vacate the league's top spot. Undoubtedly, a portion of that can be attributed to the addition of stalwart assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, but the single biggest factor in the team's one-year jump from 16th to first has no doubt been the additon of a man topped only by Tim Duncan in his ability to do just about everything right on defense just about all the time.
On Tuesday night in Houston, the Rockets attempted to pick-and-roll the Celtics to death. But they didn't do much screening with Luis Scola. That's because, as Doug Collins noted on TNT, the Rockets were terrified of bringing KG into the play to disrupt their offensive sets. This is just the most recent example of many related to his personal impact on this team's defense all season. He shuts his man down. He is a great help defender. He rotates perfectly. He has the quickness to hedge and recover with ease. His long arms lead to a few blocks, steals and deflections per game to boot. That the C's are five points better per 100 possessions defensively with KG on the floor than they are without him should come as a shock to no one. The primary reason the Celtics are being touted as a championship contender is because of their stifling defense. The primary reason their defense is stifling is thanks to Kevin Garnett continuing to do exactly the sort of work he has been doing for his entire career at that end of the floor.
I can't put together two paragraphs on Dirk Nowitzki's body of work defensively. That would be because he doesn't have one that merits it. Dirk is a big man who often insists on playing like anything but what he is, and it has resulted in his largely deserved reputation as a soft defender, particularly on the interior. He can't do the job that KG does in man-to-man, and he certainly doesn't have the impact that KG has on a team's defense.
All that thus far is solely in regard to the difference KG can make with his own physical efforts on the floor. Part of what makes this guy so special is that that's just the half of it, particularly on the defensive end.
Kevin Garnett is a leader, both through his words and by example. When he came to town, he immediately started pushing those around him and inspiring them to make themselves into better players. For any non-fans who were wise enough not to watch the Celts with much regularity over the last couple of lean years, it's worth noting that Paul Pierce spent a long time as an absolutely putrid defender, particularly over the past few seasons. The national announcers who keep raving over Pierce's increased effort defensively? They're right. Pierce didn't become an all-world defender by any stretch, but he is no longer losing his man for open looks and lay-ups several times each night, and he is consistently busting his gut to pressure the ball and fight for loose balls in scrums. Ray Allen, another scorer with a history as a notoriously poor defender, has picked up his intensity on that end as well. The Infuriated Infant managed to keep Tim Duncan from murdering the Celtics in a victory over the Spurs during Garnett's absence earlier in the year thanks to study sessions with KG on how to guard the Big Fundamental.
All of those occurrences are direct results of Kevin Garnett's arrival and his leadership. Oddly enough, those are all also the type of things that help make the worth of a team as a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
As for Dirk's leadership, well, it seems like the most effective way to assess that would be to refer you to Tim's commentary in response to a question of mine earlier this week:
SW: Brutal honesty: Does Dirk Nowitzki have what it takes to be the best player on a championship team? Why?
TM: Best player? Yes. Leader? Probably not after what happened in the Mavs' last two playoff series. That's one of the primary reasons why I thought the Kidd deal was a wise move.
Not the world's greatest endorsement, indeed, and this from someone who watches Dirk on a day-to-day basis.
Sadly, thie commentary in this piece will come across as particularly harsh against Nowitzki, and it really isn't meant that way. Dirk is an excellent player who has established himself as one of the premier performers in this game. The stats Tim cites in his piece back that up, and the fact that Dirk has been the best player on teams that have gone deep into the playoffs does, too. He is a great scorer and seems like a decent guy to boot. It should go without saying that I would take this guy on my team any day of the week.
But when all is said and done, even as he nears the completion of a full decade in the Association, of the many questions surrounding the Mavs, whether or not Dirk Nowitzki can be the leader of a championship team, and whether or not he has the heart, grit, toughness, intensity and mental stamina of an ultimate winner remain key among them. That the general leaning seems to be toward the "or not" end of the spectrum isn't all that encouraging, either.
In contrast, of all the questions about the Celtics heading into this post-season, none are about their on-court leadership or intensity, and very few are about their defense, which has long been considered to be the biggest asset of championship teams. Those lack of questions are direct results of the presence of one Kevin Garnett.
I think I can live without the extra couple of points per game.