Placing Kevin Garnett's Career in Proper Context is ComplicatedKevin Garnett recently announced his retirement, ending a 21 season career that was highlighted by one NBA championship (Boston, 2008), one regular season MVP award (2004), one Defensive Player of the Year award (2008), four rebounding titles (2004-07) and nine All-Defensive First Team selections. Garnett will be a first ballot Hall of Famer, albeit one who will be overshadowed by two other first ballot Hall of Famers in his class (Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan).
Garnett's impact extended beyond the court, because he directly or indirectly influenced changes in how the business of basketball operates. He entered the NBA in 1995 as a 19 year old known as "The Kid" and "The Big Ticket." He was the first basketball player to make the preps to pros jump since Darryl Dawkins in 1975 and the first to become an All-Star after doing so since Moses Malone, who jumped from high school straight to the ABA in 1974 and eventually became a three-time NBA MVP. In contrast, Dawkins enjoyed a 14 year NBA career but he never made the All-Star team.
Garnett's successful NBA debut paved the way for Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and several other future Hall of Famers to jump straight to the NBA from high school--but the failures of many other high school players who attempted the same feat (and shall remain nameless here) ultimately led to the NBA instituting a rule preventing teams from drafting or signing players who had just finished high school. After Garnett emerged as an All-Star in 1998, he signed a then-mind boggling six year, $126 million contract extension that precipitated the 1999 lockout as owners scrambled to change the rules regarding rookie contracts and maximum contract size. Garnett's huge deal was grandfathered in, though, and is a major reason that Garnett has the highest career earnings of any player in NBA history.
Despite Garnett's fat bank account, no credible analyst would propose that he is one of the top 10 players of all-time or even one of the top 20 players of all-time; even his staunchest supporters would hesitate to rank him higher than somewhere between 21-30 among the best of the best.
However, the "stat gurus" always loved Garnett and one of the major themes repeated by many of the "stat gurus" when "advanced basketball statistics" were first gaining attention was that Garnett's value was not fully appreciated by old school talent evaluators but was only captured by proper numbers crunching. I found the whole spectacle ridiculous for a variety of reasons: (1) Garnett achieved fame, wealth and awards long before most people had any idea that "advanced basketball statistics" existed, so he was hardly underrated or ignored by conventional player evaluation methods; (2) many of the statistical systems that supposedly proved Garnett's efficiency had serious flaws; (3) the underlying premise that Garnett was the best player in the league ("stat guru" Dave Berri tapped Garnett for that honor not once, not twice but four years in a row!) is demonstrably false. In fact, the insistence by so many "stat gurus" that Garnett was underrated when he clearly was not underrated was one of the first warning signs to me that many "stat gurus" were not pursuing truth but rather creating story lines that would justify them being hired by ESPN or by NBA front offices (and this plan worked out very well for the "stat gurus," even if it made ESPN's NBA coverage--in both TV and print formats--unbearable at times and even if it made teams like the Philadelphia 76ers deplorable and unwatchable).
Addressing the first point, no one needed to crunch numbers on a fancy spreadsheet to figure out that Garnett was a very good player; the eye test showed that he was a mobile seven footer who scored, rebounded, passed, blocked shots and accumulated steals. He set solid (and, arguably, illegal) screens, he could guard multiple positions and he was durable. Those reasons explain why Garnett was able to go straight from high school to the NBA and quickly become the highest paid player ever while receiving All-Star selections and other honors. It is absurd to suggest that no one understood Garnett's worth until Dave Berri and other "stat gurus" showed up.
Regarding the second point, I have always insisted that if we are going to buy the premise that a given player is the best in the league because statistical system "X" says so then we also have to buy the premise that the other conclusions of statistical system "X" are valid, because the same methodology informs those conclusions. For example, let's take Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). According to that metric, in the past 20 years LeBron James has been the best player in the NBA eight times. Maybe you buy that premise, maybe you don't, but let's dig deeper. The other multiple leaders since 1996-97 are Kevin Garnett (three times) and Stephen Curry (twice). VORP tapped Shaquille O'Neal as the best player once and it never placed Kobe Bryant higher than third (VORP only placed Bryant in the top five in the NBA three times during his entire career). Tim Duncan also was only listed as the best player once. Maybe you are still on board with VORP, so try this on for size: VORP ranked Steve Francis as the best player in the NBA in 2000-01. If you still take VORP seriously, I don't think that I can help you understand basketball (or anything else). According to VORP, Tim Duncan was the best player in the NBA in 2001-02 and Kevin Garnett was the second best player. I disagree with that but maybe you don't think those particular rankings are outlandish, so please note that in 2001-02 VORP ranked Brent Barry as the fourth best player in the NBA (O'Neal was eighth and Bryant 12th as they somehow defied "advanced basketball statistics" to lead the L.A. Lakers to a third straight championship).
So, if you are using VORP (or Berri's statistical gibberish, which produced similarly bizarre results) to support the idea that Garnett should have won three MVPs, then you are also co-signing on Francis winning one MVP and Brent Barry being an All-NBA First Team caliber player in 2001-02. This kind of nonsense explains why I spent so much time decrying "stat gurus" and "advanced basketball statistics" during the early years of 20 Second Timeout (with age I have come to realize that it is difficult to turn fools away from foolishness, particularly if the fools can make money by propounding said foolishness).
As for the third point, I don't believe that Garnett was ever the best player in the NBA; Berri and VORP are way off base by suggesting that he should have won multiple MVPs and even the official MVP voters lost the thread a bit in 2004 when they were so excited about the possibility of Garnett finally winning a playoff series that they gave him the MVP. The best thing that Garnett did in the 2003-04 season is stay healthy; he played in all 82 games, while Bryant, Duncan and O'Neal each missed at least 13 games. If the MVP voters used durability as the tiebreaker when choosing Garnett I can accept that but I am not buying that Garnett deserved the MVP because VORP and Berri said so.
Garnett was certainly a viable MVP candidate in 2004 but Duncan--already a two-time NBA champion--essentially posted the same numbers in 2004 that he did in 2003 when he won the second of his back to back MVPs. The San Antonio Spurs went 51-18 when Duncan played but just 6-7 in the games that he missed, which kind of suggests that Duncan was rather valuable. Similarly, the Lakers went 48-17 with Bryant and just 8-9 without him. The Lakers posted a 15-4 record when Bryant scored at least 30 points.
Garnett paid a lot of attention to his individual numbers, particularly during the first half of his career. During his prime, Garnett bragged that he produced "20-10-5" (averages of at least 20 ppg, 10 rpg and 5 apg) on a yearly basis. While that was true from 2000-2005, it is also true that his Minnesota Timberwolves went 5-13 in the playoffs during the first four of those seasons, never making it out of the first round. After adding two-time NBA champion Sam Cassell and 1999 NBA Finalist Latrell Sprewell to the roster, Minnesota advanced to the 2004 Western Conference Finals before losing in six games to the Lakers, who somehow overcame the non-MVP caliber VORP numbers of Bryant and O'Neal. Garnett's Timberwolves then missed the playoffs each of the next three seasons.
After the first of Garnett's six straight 20-10-5 seasons, Minnesota lost 3-1 to Portland in the first round of the 2000 playoffs. Scottie Pippen, in the twilight of his career at 34 years old, averaged 18.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 4.3 apg for Portland in the series. He shot just .419 from the field but he shot .421 from three point range and nearly a third of his field goal attempts were from beyond the arc, so his shooting was actually rather efficient overall. Pippen led Portland in scoring and rebounding during the series, while ranking second in assists. Garnett averaged 18.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 8.8 apg but he shot just .385 from the field, without the benefit of a lot of made three pointers to offset all of his errant attempts. He led Minnesota in rebounding and assists while ranking second in scoring to Terrell Brandon, who averaged 19.5 ppg on .508 field goal shooting.
A few years later, Pippen--never one to mince words--made some pointed comments about Garnett: "He really set the tone for self-destruction. 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." Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley had both previously criticized Garnett for not having a go-to scoring move in the post and for not carrying enough of the scoring burden down the stretch in close games.
Here is my June 2007 take on Garnett just before he was traded to Boston:
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.The arrival of Julius Erving in Philadelphia turned the 76ers into instant, perennial championship contenders and he stuck it out with the franchise until they finally won a title. Isiah Thomas joined a 16 win Detroit team and transformed them into back to back champions a few years later during an era when the NBA was dominated by Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Jordan joined a bad Chicago team and eventually led the Bulls to the top of the heap. Garnett strung together a bunch of first round losses, made it to the Conference Finals once and then wanted to flee Minnesota after missing the playoffs for three years in a row.
The trade to Boston was perfect for Garnett, for it teamed him up with two future Hall of Famers (Paul Pierce and Ray Allen) who were more than happy to do the clutch scoring down the stretch of close games. The Celtics also had a deep roster surrounding their All-Star trio, including a young point guard in Rajon Rondo who was the best player on the court at crucial times during the 2008 championship run.
The Celtics rolled to a 66-16 regular season record in 2007-08 and Garnett finished third in the regular season MVP voting. I would argue that this was perhaps the best season of his career even though he did not come close to 20-10-5, because Garnett was entirely focused on winning a championship, as opposed to putting up gaudy individual numbers to convince critics that it was not his fault that his team was losing. It is worth remembering, though, that Pierce--not Garnett--won the Finals MVP as the Celtics defeated Bryant's Lakers in six games.
Boston made it back to the Finals in 2009 but Bryant won the Finals MVP as his Lakers triumphed in seven games. Garnett battled injuries and declining skills during the rest of his career, making stops in Brooklyn and then Minnesota again before finally deciding to retire.
Duncan was without question the best power forward of this (or any) era. He averaged 19.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 3.0 apg and 2.2 bpg during his regular season career, increasing those numbers to 20.6 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 3.0 apg and 2.3 bpg during the playoffs. Garnett averaged 17.8 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 3.7 apg and 1.4 bpg during the regular season and 18.2 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 3.3 apg and 1.3 bpg during the playoffs. The numbers look comparable, though Duncan enjoys at least a slight edge across the board except for assists. However, Duncan had a much greater impact; he anchored the Spurs in the paint at both ends of the court, while Garnett far too often drifted away from the paint. Garnett had much more jumping ability than Duncan, yet Duncan blocked more shots. It is not a coincidence that Duncan won five championships and contended for titles throughout his career while Garnett won one championship and went through long stretches during which he did not contend for titles.
Garnett made the All-NBA First Team four times. Bryant and Karl Malone hold the record with 11 All-NBA First Team selections each. Duncan made the All-NBA First Team 10 times, matching Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Players with nine All-NBA First Team selections include Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (Julius Erving made the All-ABA First Team four times and the All-NBA First Team five times for a total of nine First Team selections).
Garnett's nine All-Defensive First Team selections are tied for first all-time with Jordan, Bryant and Gary Payton. Garnett's Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008 was well deserved, as his work at that end of the court played a major role in turning Boston into a dominant defensive team.
Much is made about Garnett's trash talking and toughness but I was never much impressed by either quality with Garnett. While I prefer athletes with a quiet demeanor like Erving, Duncan and Bjorn Borg, I have also rooted for and appreciated flamboyant performers such as Muhammad Ali, Reggie Jackson and Deion Sanders; I don't mind if you talk and strut if you back up the words and swagger by winning championships. Garnett spent more than 20 years running his mouth and he has exactly one championship to show for all of that noise--and he was not the best player on the court during that championship series. Ali, Jackson and Sanders were at their best when they faced the best. Regarding toughness, I don't remember Garnett confronting Charles Oakley or other real tough guys; when I picture Garnett yapping I picture him screaming at guys half his size and/or half his ability. OK, he tapped Duncan on the head once--and Duncan looked at Garnett like Garnett was crazy. Garnett did not intimidate Duncan and Garnett seemed far from enthusiastic about tapping anyone on the head who might have remotely considered responding in kind.
In his prime, Garnett was a first rate rebounder and defender. He scored and passed well, though not well enough to carry a team very far without substantial help. Garnett was a great player but he was never the NBA's best player. I think that the criticisms that Pippen, Magic and Barkley made about Garnett during Garnett's Minnesota days were valid and I don't think that the Boston championship refuted those criticisms; that championship proved that Garnett was willing and able to reduce his role to fit in on a title team (and he deserves credit for doing that) but it did not prove that Garnett was at the same level as his contemporaries O'Neal, Duncan, Bryant and James, players who performed at an individually dominant level during multiple championship runs.
Perhaps this article may come across as more negative than it is intended to be but I am simply trying to place Garnett's career in proper context, which is not easy to do after years of media rhapsodizing and reams of "analysis" that supposedly proved that Garnett was perennially the NBA's best player when O'Neal, Duncan and Bryant were all in the primes of their careers. It is not necessarily Garnett's fault that his value was overstated at times but as an analyst/commentator I feel duty bound to correct the record as the books close on a great--but not Pantheon level--career.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:25 AM