Appreciating GPA part 3: Kevin Garnett

Intro:  As any who have read my posts here know, Garnett is the one that brought me to this table.  He has been my favorite player for a decade, so I am both more biased and more informed than most of you about his strengths and weaknesses as a player.  KG finally being on a team with the talent to compete, and then actually going out and winning…and winning the right way, with a strong TEAM dedicated to unselfishness, defense and hard work…that was one of the highlights of my year.  It was also no surprise to me, as I expected nothing less.  So without further ado, I conclude this All Star Break appreciation series with Mr. Kevin Maurice Garnett.  The Kid.  The Big Ticket.  KG.

Skills: Kevin Garnett is in the argument for best all-around player in NBA history.  Let that marinate for a minute, then consider how that could be.  Garnett is the best rebounder of this generation, using his length, athleticism and timing to clean the glass.  Garnett is arguably the best defensive player of this generation, combining the physical gifts mentioned above with an almost personally fierce desire to prevent both his man and the entire opposing team from scoring.  Garnett is one of the better passing big men in NBA history, with the ball-handling and court vision to have once been his team’s emergency point guard in a playoff series.  And Garnett is one of the better scorers of his generation, mixing a consistent jumpshot with good post moves, a strong face-up game and an unblockable fade-away to keep himself among the league’s leading scorers despite that being arguably the weakest part of his game.  Finally there are the intangibles, where KG is considered one of the best leaders in the league, one of the most intimidating defensive presences in the league, and one of the most unselfish superstars ever that has always been dedicated to making his teammates better.  Put that all together and you’ve got a package that very few players can top.

Team accomplishments/teammates: In his 12 pre-07 seasons, Garnett’s teams compiled a record of 501 – 451, an amazing win percentage for such poor caliber teams.  Only 3 times in 12 years did KG play next to an All Star that season (Tom Gugliatta in ’97, Wally Szczerbiak in ’02, and Sam Cassell in ’04) and each of the 3 were 1-time All Stars that were either injured or off the team (or both) within a year.  The teams that Garnett played on tended to be KG and not a lot else, but despite that KG’s teams still made the playoffs in the stacked West in 8 straight seasons between his rookie season and when the wheels came off in ’05. 

Garnett led four 50-win teams, but his best team was the ’04 squad that won 58 games and was a legitimate title contender before injuries helped fizzle them out in the WCF against the Shaq/Kobe/Karl Malone/Gary Payton Lakers.  With starting PG Sam Cassell and back-up PG Troy Hudson both injured, Garnett was forced into playing PG for large stretches in that series.  Garnett was amazing that postseason, averaging 24 points, 15 boards and 5 assists over the 18 games.  That wasn’t surprising, though, as KG made a habit of putting up video game numbers in the playoffs for the Wolves.  From the 19-point/11-rebound/9-assist averages of the ’00 postseason to the 24-point/19-rebound/5-assist averages of ’02 to the 27-point/16-board/5-assist averages of ’03…him raising his game in the playoffs was a pretty standard thing.

Stats and Awards:
Garnett’s pre-2007 list would be way too long if we listed them all, so let’s just touch on the highlights: 2004 MVP, 10-time All Star, 8-time All NBA (3-time 1st team), 8-time All Defense (6-time 1st team).  Garnett led the league in total points scored and rebounds in ’04, the first to do that since Wilt Chamberlain way back before the NBA/ABA merger.  KG is one of only 5 players in history to lead the NBA in rebounds 4 times (Wilt/Russell/Mo Malone, Rodman the others).  If you look purely at offense, Garnett joins Kobe, Iverson, and TMac as the only players in the top-10 in points and top-15 in assists since 2000.  If you look purely at defense, Garnett joins Ben Wallace and Shawn Marion as the only players in the top-15 in both blocks and assists since 2000.  KG is alone as the only player in the top-15 in points, rebounds, assists, steals, AND blocks in the 2000s.  As far as advanced stats go, Garnett led the league in PER twice, led the league in Win Shares once, has led the league in every +/- stat several times over his career, and has been tabbed by both Wins Produced and Wins Above Replacement Player as the best player of the 2000s.

Great Player Comparison: For Garnett’s contemporaries, I chose 3 of the best power forwards of this or any generation: Tim Duncan, Chris Webber and Dirk Nowitzki.  Each of the 4 play PF in different ways, ranging from almost center to almost small forward, and all 4 helped re-define the way the position is played.  But since each had such variance in career situations (Webber’s injuries, Dirk’s and KG’s early career adjustments), I decided it’d be more accurate to compare them based on their best single seasons at their absolute peaks.

That 1-year snapshot highlighted each player at their very best, and epitomized what makes them great.  Dirk is the most efficient scorer of the crew, dominating the true shooting percentage, offensive win shares, and offensive rating categories but having a weaker all-around game and weaker defensive numbers.  Webber has the strong all-around game with high marks in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks…but his efficiency was much lower than the rest of the crew and he also had some injury issues which made him a notch lower overall (lowest PER, lowest win shares, lowest Offense/defense rating differential). 

Then, you get to the main event: Duncan and Garnett.  Like always, the sum of their numbers is always just about exactly the same.  In their peak seasons both won MVPs and led their teams to 58-24 records.  On the court, Duncan was a bit better as an interior defender and low-post scorer (slight advantages in blocks, FG%, and free throws drawn) while Garnett was a bit better all-around (more rebounds, assists, steals).  In the advanced stats, KG scored a bit higher marks to lead the group in PER, Win Shares, and Defensive Rating while Duncan took him out in offensive rating and offensive win shares.  In short, comparing Garnett and Duncan at their absolute peaks yields two very even players.  In a perfect world, these two will get to face each other at least one time head-to-head in an NBA Finals before they fall off so that we can finally see this matchup on the big stage...where it was meant to be.

Place on the 07-08 Celtics and beyond:

“Losses”: KG has definitely adapted his game since he’s been on the Celtics.  Some believe this is due to age, but I honestly believe it is mainly for the same reasons that Pierce and Allen modified their’s: to help the team win.  On the court, Garnett no longer is the offensive centerpiece that he was when he broke Larry Bird’s run of consecutive seasons averaging 20 points/10 boards/5 assists…on these Celtics, Rondo and Pierce are the ones with the ball in their hands the most, initiating the offense.  Likewise, because Pierce/Rondo are penetrators and Perk is only effective near the rim, KG relies even more upon his jumper now than he did in Minnesota which makes many of his long-time critics feel vindicated that he is “just a jump-shooter” and not a true offensive impact player.

Off-the-court, Garnett has lost his status as a lovable loser.  While this is a great thing, it also means that the hate and criticism has come out of the woodworks for him more-so than for his teammates.  The exact same fire and intensity that made him a fan favorite as an underdog has been getting him excoriated as a cowardly/frontrunning bully by many fans this season. 

Garnett also lost his home-town hero fan-base.  Duncan and Kobe were home grown for the teams they won titles on, so Spurs and Lakers fans would go through walls for them.  Boston, though, is (rightfully) Pierce’s city.  So while Celtics fans appreciate that Garnett helped them win a title, they just aren’t as invested in him and frankly may be irritated that Garnett’s shine might come at the expense of their Captain.  As such, there are very few people beating the drum that Garnett deserves mention with the true All-Time greats of the league.  Keep in mind that in NBA history there are only 22 players that have both an MVP and a championship…exactly 4 are playing today: Shaq, Duncan, Kobe, and KG.  Most already have Shaq and Duncan in the pantheon, and there is a HARD push from Laker nation to get Kobe included as well.  Not so much for KG, though, whereas had he been in Pierce’s shoes for the past decade building up love and admiration from the Boston faithful and really showing what he could do at max output…I believe he’d be getting a similar push from the East as Kobe is getting from the West.  Maybe this is a small loss in the big scheme of things, but it’s one that I notice.

“Gains”: On the flips side, KG has also gained a tremendous amount through this 1.5 years.  By winning a title, he is forever separated from the Karl Malone/Charles Barkley/Patrick Ewing category of “greats that couldn’t win the big one”.  This put an absolute floor on his legacy of no worse than top-25 All time, and since he still has more gas in the tank he now has room to start moving up the legacy list.  Also, because he won his title with the Celtics, he has been able to enjoy the patronage and endorsement of a legend like Bill Russell, who is probably the one player that KG would admire above all others. 

On the court, Garnett has owned his offensive shift from initiator to finisher and become a more efficient scorer.  He has been operating at career-best shooting percentages these last two seasons, has set a new career-high in offensive rating, and has to be among the league leaders in the uncounted stat of picks-that-lead-to-open-shots-for-teammates.  His consistent jumper teams with Allen’s to keep the floor opened up for Rondo’s/Pierce’s drives or Perk’s/Powe’s dunks.  More importantly, because KG no longer has to do EVERYTHING for his team, he is able to specialize in his favorite area…defense.  He has shown in Boston that not only is he a great team defender, but he also can clamp down on the very best as a 1-on-1 defender as well.  I’m sure that KG has his Defensive Player of the Year trophy right next to his MVP award on his mantle, and I’m not convinced that he doesn’t believe the DPoY to be the higher honor.

Bottom line:
Garnett is one of the best players of this or any other generation, and is now what he always wanted to be above all else: a champion.  As KG asked his critics just after kissing the Leprechaun on a Boston championship night… “What are you gonna say now?  What can you say now?”

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