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My Lying Eyes vs Yours: How Good is KG Right Now?

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This post comes out of an interesting exchange that I had with Brendan O'Hare yesterday in his 5 Observations article. In the article he levied some criticisms at Kevin Garnett for his "maddening" play against the Lakers, which was fair. But in the comments, several posters were more pointed with their criticism including some sentiment that "KG is done". This doesn't at all fit my observations of KG this year, so I commented as well, which led the exchange with Brendan in which I made these four claims:

Garnett is still...

1) The best defensive player in the NBA.

2) A very good offensive player.

3) A very good rebounder.

4) One of the best 1-on-1 post defenders in the NBA.

Brendan's response was by making those four claims I was "giving KG too much credit", because if those four things were true he'd be essentially "the best forward in the NBA". While that wouldn't be true (LeBron James, at least, is a forward that tops those claims), Brendan's response isn't far off for me...I DO believe that Garnett is still, currently, one of the elite players in the NBA. But saying something like that, especially this year, clearly requires that I support my stance. So, let me start off by acknowledging some obvious counters to my statemtent:

  • I am aware that Kevin Garnett is currently 35 years old, will be 36 before this year's Finals, and is currently in his 17th season in the NBA.
  • I witnessed the first few weeks of the season, when Garnett strongly resembled the worst of his 2010 self in terms of lack of mobility or explosiveness.
  • I am aware that he did not make the All Star team this year, the first time that's happened since his rookie year of 1996.
  • I am aware that his averages of 15 points and 8 boards over 31 minutes are not the substance of legend.
  • And yes, I am an unabashed Garnett fan so I'm aware that my point of view could be skewed.

But now, like my man Jules said in Pulp Fiction, please allow me to retort. Because in my opinion, those first few bullet points have created a narrative among the media and even the fan base that obscures the level that KG has been playing at since he got his legs under him. The narrative is that Garnett is old and in decline, so thus everything he does this year should be viewed through that prism. That expectations for Garnett himself (as well as this team as a whole) have to be tempered and caveated with "yeah, but they're old..." I think looking at things things this way can skew our thoughts, though, and that if we look at things as they are we'll find that Garnett (and again, the team as a whole) are in a better place than we realize. So let me make my case, and then you can weigh in with whether you agree or whether I'm full of it. Let's go back to my 4 claims from yesterday, and flesh them out:

1) Garnett is still the best defensive player in the NBA.Last season KG finished #2 in the Defensive Player of the Year vote and 1st team All Defense, so it is not a stretch at all to state that he entered this season as one of the very short list with a case as best defender in the league. This season, the Celtics' team defense ranks #3 in the NBA despite a slow start and a revolving door of injured big men. If you're an adherent to basketball-reference's estimated individual defensive stats, Garnett is by far the leader on the Celtics in b-r estimated defensive rating (top-5 in the NBA) and estimated defensive win shares (top-10 despite fewer minutes). And as always, Garnett leads the big minute players on the team in actual defensive rating and differential defensive margin on/off court.

In short, Garnett was on the (very) short list of best defensive players in the league coming into this year, and thus far every objective measure strongly suggests that he is still at that level in 2012.

2) Garnett is still a very good offensive player. Everyone from Brendan to Doc Rivers has clamored for KG to be more aggressive offensively, and his reliance on the jump shot has long driven Celtics fans batty. Acknowledged. But on the other hand, KG’s ability to stretch the opponent with his jumper, set up his teammates off the pass, operate effectively out of the post, and set loads of screens keeps him among the better team-offensive impacts in the league for forwards and among the top Celtics. Garnett currently ranks #11 among all big-minute forwards in the heavily scoring-based PER stat (he's just behind Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki, slightly ahead of Josh Smith and Chris Bosh), and he ranks #17th in the NBA across all positions in the heavily scoring efficiency-based win shares/48 min stat. But numbers aside, the Celtics' offense just visibly performs better when Garnett is on the court, despite the fact that the other bigs are actually decent offensively. Brandon Bass is very arguably the best non-KG offensive big we've had during these last 5 years, Wilcox is probably the most athletic finisher we've had, and even the youngsters (J.J. and Steamer) have shown flashes of solid offensive tools when they've gotten minutes. But, mainly for the reasons listed above, when KG is on the court he just brings so much more to the offense. And as he showed again last night, when called upon in key situations KG does have the ability to hit big shots. He's still, "even now", a very good offensive player.

3) Garnett is still a very good rebounder. Garnett's manner of playing defense has always been to play a LOT of help defense. He spends more focus and energy rotating onto others and orchestrating the team D than he does on his own man when that man doesn't have the ball. As a result, when the shot goes up, KG is not often in great position to box out his own guy. When he was at his athletic peak this wasn't much issue, as he could use his quickness and explosiveness to just go get the ball at its highest point. In 2010 when his knee was at its worst, it was a big issue because KG could hardly rebound at all in the post season. Now, it's a middle area. KG can't dominate the glass anymore individually, and opponents are better able to beat him to the peak rebounds when they have better position. But that said, he's still 6th in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage and has pulled down 9.5 boards in 31.9 minutes since moving to starting C. Of the four points this might be KG's weakest area, since team rebounding is obviously a weakness for the Celtics this year, but individually Garnett is still at the least a very good rebounder.

4) Garnett is still one of the best 1-on-1 post defenders in the NBA. Most of the Garnett's defensive reputation comes from his help defense, but he's still an excellent 1-on-1 defender as well. This article from ESPN the magazine did a good job anecdotally pointing out some of Garnett's post defense tricks, as they described one of his battles with Dwight Howard this year. From the article:

"During the second quarter of a January game against Orlando, Kevin Garnett pushed Dwight Howard out of the paint. A moment later, as the Magic center reached up to catch an entry pass, Garnett shoved him even farther from the hoop. Howard took two dribbles, got stuck and kicked it out to Hedo Turkoglu. When the forward tried to send it back to his big man, KG knocked the ball away, sprinted down the court, took the pass under the hoop and, as three defenders converged on him, kicked it out to Brandon Bass for a wide-open jumper. Swish.

Again, it was just a little thing: Garnett making sure his opponent didn't get good positioning. But it's amazing how the 35-year-old forward can turn small things into momentum-changing swings. Until that sequence, Howard had been torching the Celtics centers, scoring 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting. But after KG became his primary defender, Howard went 0-for-8 the rest of the way, and a 32-30 Celtics lead became a 31-point beatdown, with Boston holding Orlando to franchise lows in points (56) and field goals (16)."

Because it is easy to remember just the good or just the bad when looking at anecdotes, the best support for how a player does as a 1-on-1 defender would come from Synergy. Which I don't have. But from that same article...

"Add up all possible defensive scenarios and opponents scored 0.786 points per possession against Garnett last season, putting him in the 89th percentile.

As for this season? Through Feb. 13, opponents were scoring 0.646 points per possession against the Celtics big man. Howard may not want to admit it, but KG has actually gotten better."

Conclusion: I know that for some reason many readers of this site aren't yet believers in +/- stats. I find that a shame, because it really is very useful information, but some aren't ready yet to be convinced. Fair enough. But what I can say about +/- is that more and more NBA front offices are basing more and more of their free agency decisions on +/- analysis. The defending champion Mavs rely on it heavily. And the Boston Celtics front office also relies on it heavily, and has for a long time. And apparently Doc Rivers is also a big believer in +/- according to the broadcast team for the game last night, as he was quoting that info to them before the game.

I say all of that because, if all of the things that I wrote above about Garnett's great play this year were true, I would expect this to play out in the +/- numbers. We're 41 games into the season...not enough for rigorous adjusted plus-minus (APM) work (need more data for that), but we can definitely see some trends at this point. Basketballvalue.com hasn't updated their Celtics coverage for awhile, but I also keep track of the +/- trends for the Celtics, and 41 games in I estimate Garnett's on-court/off-court +/- as +17.6 points/100 possessions. That mark would put him at #2 in the NBA this year, according to basketballvalue's most recent update. And for those that really want to see more data for +/- results, know that Garnett was #3 in the NBA in regularized APM for the 2011 season and is currently ranking #6 in the NBA in basketballvalue's 2-year APM calculation.

I'm a Kevin Garnett fan, and even I recognize that in his 17th NBA season he is no longer as good as he once was. He is no longer the best player in the NBA. But he is a lot, LOT closer to the top of the league than pretty much anyone seems to realize. At least in my opinion. Or maybe my eyes are lying to me. If they are, though, they're lying to the numbers as well. And unlike me, the numbers (when used correctly) have no reason to be biased.

Be respectful and keep it clean. Thanks.

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