image via cdn.wn.com
Think about this. When Kevin Garnett, former league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year (one of only 4 players in history to achieve this double, by the way) rides off into the sunset and the retrospective look at his 'legacy' begins, will the story be one of unfulfilled potential?
The idea seems absurd. The man's resumé is as impressive as any in the NBA. But part of what makes a truly great player is not just jaw-dropping talent or bloody minded perseverance (both of which Garnett has in spades), but what you might call the 'killer instinct', or the ego of a star - the ability and, more importantly, the inclination to put a team on one's back and carry them again and again, even if it means taking more shots than anyone else, or sacrificing one's own efficiency. The Lakers have a higher team FG% when Kobe Bryant is on the floor, because when it all breaks down, he's the guy taking the off-balance fading shot - because he's the guy with the best chance of making it.
Personally, I think that's the key to the effectiveness of the "superstar model" of building a team - that the star takes shots that are 40% for him but would be 20% for any of his teammates, increasing the team's overall efficiency even if it means low individual efficiency. And that's what KG seemingly couldn't bring himself to do - take the volume shots, the low percentage shots that paradoxically could have helped his team.
That's not to say Garnett isn't a competitor, or that he didn't do absolutely everything he thought would help his team - that 'intense' has become a cliché when referring to him is testament to his desire and competitive spirit. But on the offensive end at least, he has always seemed to lack the drive to truly make the most of his talents. Watching Game 3 of the Miami series, in between wild fist-pumps of joy, was I the only one thinking "Where the heck has this KG been hiding?"
As a KG fan, I came to hate the usual arguments made against him - unselfish to a fault; allergic to the clutch; Mr. First Round Exit. It seemed to be a secondary symptom of what Pat Riley calls "The Disease of Me" - we were all too used to stars demanding the ball in crunch time and playing 1-on-5 to understand the things Kevin did for his team. But then it started to dawn on me - what if that's just how it works? Wade, Kobe, even Jordan are guys you could call volume shooters - and they all have rings. Flip Saunders once said "if KG is open for a 10-footer and there's a guy open for a 5-footer, he'll give the other guy the ball... in Minnesota [we didn't] want the guy who is open from 5 feet to end up with the ball". He later said "You can't fault a guy for being unselfish" - But perhaps this time we should.
I would like to point out here that I can't definitively say that KG would have won more if he had passed the ball less. Nor is the Wade/Kobe comparison fair - not only are they guards, but their championships were won with more help than KG ever had in Minnesota... Indeed, there is a good chance the opposite is true, that Kevin was right all along and that the criticisms of him were just the product of expectations brought on by more selfish stars. But even just from an individual standpoint, it's interesting to imagine what could have been if he had averaged 30 ppg in him prime instead of 24 (which I believe is very much possible, given his incredible offensive skillset and athleticism). Would we talk about KG alongside Bill, Wilt and Kareem? It would certainly help his case for being the greatest big man of his generation.
Like Flip says, it's hard to criticize someone for playing unselfish basketball. Especially as Celtic fans, we embrace the idea of Ubuntu, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.Yet as we wait for the off-season to begin while Dallas and Miami play for the hardware, maybe it's time to look back on KG's career and wonder what could have been.