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Friday, September 30, 2016

Fred Kerber's 12 Man All-Time NBA Team

Veteran New York Post basketball writer Fred Kerber selected his 12 man All-Time Pro Basketball Team in his February 11, 2015 column. Kerber fully recognized the difficulty of this task, noting, "Picking a 12-man, all-time All-Star team is about as easy as picking the best color, the greatest movie, the finest ice-cream flavor." Kerber quoted Basketball Hall of Famer Willis Reed: "It's all in who's doing the looking. Older guys are partial to the older players, younger guys go with more recent players. Pick a team and you can probably come up with a second team that could beat the first any given night."

Several years ago, I selected a Pro Basketball Pantheon comprising 10 retired players (in chronological order, those players are Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan) plus four (then) active players who I projected to be Pantheon-worthy (Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James). I did not rank the players within my Pantheon, nor did I fix the size of the Pantheon at 10 or 12 or 14; I simply considered those 10 retired players, plus the four top contemporary players, to be in a group above the next category of players. That next group would include (but not be limited to), in chronological order, Bob Pettit, Rick Barry, Moses Malone, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen--all-time greats but players who did not have quite the peak value, dominance, versatility and/or longevity of the Pantheon members. Of course, as Reed noted, intelligent observers could easily come to different conclusions/rankings.

Kerber divided his 12 players into two groups. His starting five is Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird and Bill Russell. Kerber's seven reserves are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Julius Erving. Kerber tapped Red Auerbach as the coach. He did not formally select an honorable mention group but he did single out Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek and John Stockton as an extraordinary quintet that, in his estimation, just could not make the cut versus the 12 players listed above.

Kerber pointed out that his starting five won a combined 30 NBA titles, led by Russell's 11 and followed by Jordan's six, Johnson's five, Duncan's five and Bird's three. He also wrote a paragraph about each of his 12 players, plus Coach Auerbach. I will quote briefly from each of those capsule summaries and then add some of my own comments:

Jordan: Kerber stated that this might change "in 100 years" but for now "Jordan universally is acknowledged as the greatest ever."

I would not say that Jordan is "universally" considered to be the greatest basketball player ever, because Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain certainly have their supporters as well. A good case could be made for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but he alienated so many members of the media that seemingly no one wants to publicly make that case. Still, it would be more precise to say that Jordan is "widely" considered to be the greatest basketball player ever. I think that it is indisputable that Jordan is the greatest basketball player of the post-ESPN era and the player who many, if not most, of today's superstars admire the most. Jordan is also the only player from the past 40 years who can honestly say that he was the best player on six NBA championship teams--and the fact that Jordan went 6-0 in those Finals while winning six Finals MVPs creates a mystique that will be almost impossible for any player who follows Jordan to overcome.

Johnson: "A five-time NBA champ, three-time Finals MVP, Olympic gold medalist, 12-time All-Star, Johnson forged a rivalry with Larry Bird dating to the NCAA Final that became legendary--and the basis of a Broadway play."

The media elevated Bird over Johnson for most of the 1980s--tapping Bird as the 1980 Rookie of the Year (Johnson had to "settle" for the 1980 Finals MVP) and as the 1984-86 regular season MVP--before Johnson won regular season MVPs in 1987 and 1989-90. During the late 1980s, some pundits were starting to proclaim Johnson to be the greatest basketball player ever. Even Bird joined that chorus, shaking his head in disbelief after Johnson's "junior, junior skyhook" sunk Bird's Celtics in the 1987 Finals; Bird called Johnson "The best I've ever seen." However, Jordan defeated Johnson in the 1991 Finals--with a lot of help from Pippen--and Johnson's HIV positive status forced him to retire, preventing a possible Finals rematch in 1992.

I think that Johnson, more than any player in pro basketball history, could be teamed up with any four decent players and turn that quintet into a very competitive team. That does not necessarily mean that Johnson was the greatest player ever--he was not as good defensively as Jordan or Russell or several other Pantheon members--but it puts him in a special, hard to define category. Young fans may believe that LeBron James has that quality but what I see from James is a mixed bag: he has won three championships but he has also left several championships on the table because of inexplicably passive play. Johnson never left any championships on the table; he lost to all-time great players/teams in their primes (the Malone/Erving Sixers, Bird's Celtics, the Bad Boys Pistons, the Jordan/Pippen Bulls). There is no footage of the 1980s equivalent of Jason Terry outdueling Johnson in the fourth quarter of key NBA Finals games.

Back to the point about Johnson's incredible versatility as a teammate. Russell needed a point guard and someone to be a scoring threat. Jordan needed Pippen (and never advanced past the first round of the playoffs without him). You can go down the line and most of the great players needed a certain kind of accompanying star and/or supporting cast to maximize their greatness--but Johnson legitimately could play all five positions and he exuded a team-first ethos that smoothed over any potential ego conflicts (Abdul-Jabbar was hardly a barrel of laughs to play with for most of his career and it was amazing to see the joy that radiated from him after he had played with Johnson for a little while). Johnson won a championship while paired with point guard Norm Nixon in the backcourt and then he won championships paired with shooting guard Byron Scott. Johnson won championships with Abdul-Jabbar as the main post up scoring threat and then he won championships as a post up scoring threat when Abdul-Jabbar had to accept a lesser role due to his age/declining skills. Johnson made it to the Finals with an aging James Worthy, a young Vlade Divac, journeyman Sam Perkins and not much else in 1991--and it took the combined efforts of Jordan/Pippen in their primes to prevent Johnson from winning a sixth title.

I think that the sudden, shocking end to Johnson's career combined with Jordan's immediate meteoric rise has actually resulted in Johnson being somewhat underrated by today's commentators.

Duncan: "(His) brilliant consistency and superb skill set, especially for a big man, has led to five titles, three Finals MVP honors and two regular season MVP awards."

Although his playing style is different from Abdul-Jabbar's, Duncan is similar in that (1) he is underrated and (2) a main reason that he is underrated is that he never sought out media approval. Abdul-Jabbar was actively hostile to the media for much of his career, while Duncan was indifferent as opposed to hostile, but the result has been the same. Abdul-Jabbar won more championships than anyone from the end of the Russell era until the emergence of Jordan but his name often gets pushed aside in the greatest player of all-time conversation. Duncan is not as great as Abdul-Jabbar but he is similarly underrated. In the post-Jordan era, Duncan has five rings and Kobe Bryant has five rings. It is true that neither player was the best player on all five of those championship teams but both players were vital contributors to all five of their respective championship teams and both players were the best player on multiple occasions.

It will be interesting to watch the Spurs this season. On paper, Duncan's replacement Pau Gasol is a better player now than Duncan was last season (though Gasol is also past his prime) but I suspect that Duncan had an impact (particularly on defense and as a leader) that is not captured statistically--but will be evident in the won/loss column.

Bird: "He did it with scoring, passing, rebounding and an ability to bring out his best in the clutch." The statistics may not bear this out but there has never been a player I rooted against who I feared more in the clutch than Bird in his prime (I rooted against him because I was--and am--a diehard Erving fan). It just felt like if the game was close and Bird got the ball then he was going to make the shot.

What people forget is that during Bird's first few seasons he rebounded like a center and he was not a particularly productive three point shooter. As the game changed and the players around him developed, Bird's role changed; he became more of a scorer and more of a perimeter player. People also forget that for the first four years of Bird's career he and Erving had the best rivalry in the sport. Erving started slowing down at age 34, just as Bird hit his peak, but before that they were very evenly matched--and it is a safe bet that the ABA version of Erving would have run circles around Bird; a lot of people may scoff at that idea but that does not make it untrue.

By 1986, the mainstream media had pretty much decided that Bird was the greatest basketball player of all-time (look at magazine cover stories from that time if you doubt this)--but then Johnson led the Lakers to back to back titles (a feat not accomplished since Russell's Celtics did it in 1968-69), with one of those championships coming at the expense of Bird's Celtics, and Johnson's 5-3 championship lead over Bird (including 2-1 in their head to head matchups) made it difficult to take seriously the idea that Bird was greater than Johnson. Both players had great supporting casts but after a decade of battling for supremacy Johnson led in the category that mattered most--rings--and thus people stopped declaring Bird to be the greatest player of all-time.

Russell: "The guy won 11 championships with the Celtics, OK? Joe DiMaggio won nine, Babe Ruth won seven." The modern commentator has all the answers about Russell: Too small to play center against Shaquille O'Neal, not a good enough scorer to win without great teammates, benefited from playing in an era with (supposedly) watered down talent compared to the NBA today which has players from all corners of the globe. Regarding the size issue, Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace proved that undersized players can be dominant rebounders in the modern NBA. O'Neal lost playoff series to Olajuwon (who was not much bigger than Russell, despite being listed at 7 feet) and to a Chicago team that guarded him with (at different times) Luc Longley, Bill Wennington and even the 6-6 Rodman. Russell won championships in virtually every season that he played organized basketball from high school through the NBA: 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons, two NCAA titles in three seasons, two high school state championships; that works out to 15 championships in an 18 year period, plus an Olympic gold medal, so to suggest that such a dominant winner could not adopt his game/skill set to the modern era is an insult to Russell's greatness. He thought the game through as well as anyone who has ever played and he had a mean streak (in the best sense of the term, as an extremely competitive person) that takes a back seat to no one, including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

When I first started studying basketball, I was sure that Wilt Chamberlain was greater than Russell and that if they had switched teams then Chamberlain would have accomplished at least as much as Russell did--but now I am not so sure. I still think that Chamberlain got a raw deal from the media and I certainly think that in more ideal circumstances Chamberlain would have won a lot more than two championships but Russell's mindset was just so much different than Chamberlain's that I am not sure Chamberlain could have ever sustained the team success that Russell did, no matter the circumstances. It is kind of like comparing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James; James has the more impressive physique and perhaps the more impressive statistics (depending on how you evaluate the numbers) but Bryant just figured out how to win on a more consistent basis.

My favorite Bill Russell story is about his final game, the seventh game of the 1969 NBA Finals. The L.A. Lakers had planned to release balloons from the ceiling of the arena and have a band play "Happy Days Are Here Again" after they beat Russell's Celtics to win the title. Russell got a copy of the plans and took it to the locker room, where he addressed his team (he was the player-coach) and told them that a lot of things could happen in this game but what could not happen is for the Celtics to lose--and they would have a lot of fun watching the Lakers take those balloons down one by one. The Celtics won 108-106.

Abdul-Jabbar: "None matched Abdul-Jabbar for excellence over the length of a career." The young Abdul-Jabbar gave Chamberlain--who was still a force to be reckoned with--all that he could handle in the early 1970s and in the mid to late 1980s Abdul-Jabbar was still making the All-NBA Team ahead of a crop of younger stars including Olajuwon, Moses Malone and Patrick Ewing. Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook was the single greatest weapon in the history of the sport; it was unstoppable and he could deliver it with either hand out to a range of 15 feet. Abdul-Jabbar was an excellent rebounder for the first half of his career (i.e., a solid decade, which is a full career for many players), he was a great passer and he was an intimidating defensive presence in the paint. He was listed at 7-2 but I have stood next to him and am not the only person who thinks that he is even taller than that; the first thought that I had when I met a then nearly 60 year old Abdul-Jabbar was "What would it have been like to drive the lane 20 years ago and try to score over this guy?" Erving has consistently said that Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest player he ever faced. Abdul-Jabbar blew me off for an interview--twice--like he blew off many other people (and it's a shame, because I was actually going to ask him intelligent questions that would have led to a great dialogue) but I don't have to like the guy to give him his proper respect. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the most underrated great player in pro basketball history.

Chamberlain: "'Nobody roots for Goliath,' Chamberlain said numerous times." Chamberlain is without question the most statistically dominant player in pro basketball history. He holds the record for having the most records! Some of his records--like career scoring--have been broken but many others (including 50.4 ppg average for a season, 22.9 rpg average for a career) will never even be approached. He is wrongly tagged as a loser despite winning two championships with arguably the two greatest single season teams in pro basketball history (1967 76ers, 1972 Lakers). Did Chamberlain focus too much on his own stats and not enough on winning? Maybe, but it could be argued that he did what his teams needed him to do and what his coaches asked him to do. He is criticized for his poor free throw shooting but no one mentions that Russell's free throw shooting was almost as bad. Purely based on his productivity in three fundamental basketball skills--scoring, rebounding and passing (he is the only center to lead the league in assists)--it is difficult to argue against the proposition that he was the greatest basketball player of all-time. Yet, there is this guy named Russell (see above) whose teams routinely outperformed Chamberlain's. The Chamberlain-Russell debate is one of the great ones in all of sports. I have talked with a lot of players who played with and/or against both men and the firsthand opinions are very divided. As I mentioned before, I used to lean toward Chamberlain but the more I study and learn about the sport the more I start to lean toward Russell. When I watch LeBron James, I feel like I am watching the modern day Wilt Chamberlain; he has the most impressive physical tools and he sets amazing statistical records and he wins a lot--but yet it feels like something is missing. "He" in that sentence could apply to Chamberlain or James.

James: "There are hype and expectations. And then there was whatever you want to call it that physical specimen James faced jumping to the NBA out of high school." Maybe I seem overly critical of James at times but I feel like to whom much has been given much should be expected. James cannot be evaluated based on the standards applied to normal people or normal NBA players, because he is not normal. Kerber is right that James faced enormous hype and that James has delivered a lot despite all of the pressure and expectations. James became one of the greatest players of all-time and things could have easily gone the other way: he could have gotten injured or become complacent or just crumbled underneath all of the scrutiny. James has had a remarkable career--but I believe that he left some championships on the table and I don't think that he is wired quite the same way as Russell, Jordan or Bryant. If I could have any one of those four guys (each in their respective primes) for a game seven, James would be my fourth pick; mind you, I would take James over all but a handful of players in the history of the sport but I would never trust him in that situation more than I would trust any one of the other three. Maybe that is not fair, maybe I am wrong, but that is my take.

Bryant: "No human could do it. Only health--three serious injuries in three years--has been able to slow down the Lakers great." Bryant never really lost his skills--they were just taken away from him, in a cruel moment, when he ruptured his Achilles while trying to carry an undermanned Lakers squad to the playoffs. Bryant was never the same after that injury, an injury that has completely ended many careers; Bryant fought hard to come back and he ended his remarkable career with a stunning 60 point outburst but he never regained the MVP form that he displayed up to the second when his Achilles popped. The "stat gurus" never much liked Bryant's game and the mainstream media always preferred the gregarious O'Neal to killer Kobe but all Bryant cared about was winning rings and he collected more of them than anyone in the post-Jordan era except for Duncan (and Robert Horry, who bagged seven as a key contributor alongside Olajuwon with the Rockets, O'Neal/Bryant with the Lakers and Duncan with the Spurs). Bryant was the first of the presumed heirs apparent to Jordan who actually made a credible run at matching Jordan's greatness; he did not quite make it, mind you, but a case could be made that Bryant is the best player of the post-Jordan era. Many would take James and some would take Duncan but Bryant at least has to be in that conversation.

West: "His bite-you-to-death defensive style supplemented his 'Mr. Clutch' shooting skill that produced a .474 career mark." West is supposedly too small to be great in the modern era? Really? He's just as big as Stephen Curry and a much better athlete who was an elite performer at both ends of the court. West would be unstoppable today with the no hand checking rule and he would also be the best defensive guard in the NBA as well.

Robertson: "Robertson AVERAGED a triple-double in 1961-62: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists." The "stat gurus" will minimize Robertson's numbers by citing pace and the small number of teams in the league and who knows what else. All I know is that pro basketball has been around for almost 70 years and Robertson is the only player not only to average a triple double for an entire season but to average an aggregate triple double for the first five seasons of his career, which is even more remarkable. Robertson will tell you to this day that he was every bit as good as Jordan and a lot of Robertson's contemporaries feel the same way

Erving: "Erving was as universally admired and respected for his class and dignity as for his skills." Erving is renowned for his leaping prowess--he won the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest at 26 and came in second in the inaugural NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 1984 at 34--and he is praised for being an ambassador for the sport but what too often gets lost in the mix is just how great of an all-around player he was. Erving absolutely belongs in the greatest player of all-time discussion, both based on peak value (a credible case can be made that no one has ever played basketball better than Erving did in the 1976 ABA Finals, when he led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots) and on sustained excellence over a long period of time (as detailed in my four part series about his extremely underrated playoff career).

A player who retired almost 30 years ago and who spent nearly the first third of his career in a forgotten league that did not have a national television contract is not going to win a battle for recognition against global icons Michael Jordan and LeBron James. I get that--but anyone who objectively looks at what Erving accomplished and how he accomplished it has to give Erving much respect.

Auerbach: "Auerbach won 938 games, nine NBA championships (in 10 years) with eight consecutively. He also oversaw seven more titles as Boston's president and general manager." Auerbach bristled at being compared to Phil Jackson, who eventually broke Auerbach's record by winning 11 titles as an NBA coach; Auerbach growled that he both built and coached his championship teams, while Jackson inherited ready made teams that he then coached. Auerbach is no doubt smiling down now as he watches Jackson struggle to put together a winning squad in New York; maybe Auerbach was right all along when he compared himself to Jackson.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:44 AM


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Placing Kevin Garnett's Career in Proper Context is Complicated

Kevin 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:25 AM