Kevin Garnett's LegacyIt seems likely that this NBA offseason will be dominated by speculation about when/if two of the NBA's biggest stars--Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett--will be traded. Speculating about what might happen in various trade scenarios has never been my cup of tea, so I will wait until something actually happens on either front before offering any Bryant or Garnett trade analysis. It is much more interesting at this point to consider Bryant and Garnett's place in NBA history as things stand now. Regarding Bryant, that is pretty easy: if Bryant retired today, he would be remembered as a three-time NBA champion, a two-time scoring leader and someone who ranked among the top offensive and defensive players in the game. Garnett's legacy, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult to define. Yes, he won the 2004 regular season MVP and he has captured the last four rebounding titles but he has not made the All-NBA First Team since 2004. For quite some time, the main knock against Garnett was his inability to lead the Minnesota Timberwolves past the first round of the playoffs. In 2004--with significant help from Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell--Minnesota made it to the Western Conference Finals but since then there has been no talk about Garnett failing to advance past the first round because Minnesota has not even made it to the playoffs. That's right, the last time the "Big Ticket" played in a playoff game Shaq and Kobe were on the same team--and that seems like another lifetime ago. Garnett should be happy that so much attention has been paid to the breakup of the Lakers and the emergence of a new generation of young stars in the NBA that no one has really seriously raised the issue of Garnett basically disappearing from the upper echelon of the NBA since he won his MVP award.
Granted, Garnett has not been blessed with a tremendous supporting cast during most of his time in Minnesota--but young LeBron James just took a team that does not have a single All-Star all the way to the NBA Finals. Garnett has never publicly demanded to be traded and has only rarely voiced much criticism of Minnesota's front office for failing to improve his supporting cast. Garnett has generally been praised for his "loyalty," although ESPN's Stephen A. Smith has criticized him for not being more vocal about wanting to be traded. "Loyalty" is not the only possible explanation for Garnett's behavior, though. Maybe he really is content to finish his career in Minnesota, collecting huge paychecks while neither being criticized for failing to win nor having to deal with the pressure of leading a bona fide contender.
Garnett has put up gaudy numbers during his career--20.5 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 4.5 apg--but it could be argued that he has less impact on winning and losing then perhaps any other player who has ever won an MVP. Go through the list of MVP winners and try to find another one whose teams missed the playoffs for three straight years while he was healthy and in his prime. Garnett once boasted in a TV ad about how he puts up "20, 10 and 5" (referring to ppg, rpg and apg) year in and year out but one wonders if achieving those stats means more to him than putting up 50 (regular season wins) and 16 (the number of playoff wins it takes to win a championship). Tim Duncan seems utterly unconcerned with attaining certain specific individual statistical totals; he does whatever his team needs him to do to win on a given night.
Another problem for Garnett is that he does not control the paint defensively the way that great big men generally do. When Flip Saunders coached Minnesota, he often used Garnett at the top of the key in a 3-2 zone and Garnett was praised for his ability to hawk opposing point guards--but Garnett belongs under the basket blocking shots. Hakeem Olajuwon was even more fleet of foot than Garnett, as shown by Olajuwon's steals totals, but Olajuwon played underneath the basket and protected the paint--and led the Houston Rockets to two championships. No one would suggest that Duncan is more athletic or a better leaper than Garnett but Duncan has 1840 blocked shots in 746 regular season games (2.5 bpg) while Garnett has 1576 blocked shots in 927 games (1.7 bpg). Anyone who watched the Spurs sweep the Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals understands that for every shot Duncan blocks there are several others that he alters with his presence.
Scottie Pippen, who played on six championship teams in Chicago and was on the 2000 Portland team that beat Garnett's Timberwolves 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs, once said of Garnett, "He's very productive but unproductive. He gets you all the stats you want, but at the end of the day his points don't have an impact on [winning] the game. He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm, but in the last five minutes of the game he ain't the same player as in the first five." Garnett is truly puzzling and contradictory. He undoubtedly plays hard and by annually leading the league in rebounding he shows a willingness to go inside and do the "dirty work." Yet, despite his work ethic he has never developed a go-to offensive move in the post. Garnett did not command enough respect from Cassell and Sprewell to keep them in the fold after the team's one successful playoff run. Garnett's numbers guarantee him a spot in the Hall of Fame but he seems to lack that certain something that the game's truly great players possess. He certainly is still young enough and healthy enough to be a major contributor to a championship team and if he does so then he will greatly change how he is perceived, much like John Elway did--but it just seems like Garnett is destined to be a guy whose statistical resume is impeccable but who will always have more explanations/excuses for postseason failure than examples of postseason success.
I said that I don't like to speculate about trades but I have to mention one scenario that would be fascinating, however improbable it may be due to the salary cap or other reasons: Garnett joining forces with Bryant on the Lakers. Garnett could continue to put up his cherished "20, 10 and 5" while Bryant took the responsibility of making the big baskets down the stretch in the fourth quarter--and Garnett would be productive enough in the first three quarters that Bryant would not have to wear himself out before the final 12 minutes.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:21 AM