Greatest Players in NBA History: Kevin Garnett

In this blog I pick one of the top players in NBA history as voted on in this project and discuss some of his career accomplishments…in other words, what made him so great that he deserves a spot among the greatest? This week’s player is Kevin Garnett, either a jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none or one of the most complete players in NBA history that also has had the biggest on-court impact of his generation…depending on who you ask.

KG is one of the most unique players that the NBA has seen.  He is over 7-feet tall (though he is officially listed at 6-11, and anecdotally refers to himself as being 6-13), with mantis arms, a wiry frame, and wing-like quickness.  He eschewed the center slot that would be traditional for a 7-footer, and instead crafted a game that masters elements of both the inside and outside portions of the court.  He is an effective interior post player, but he also has a deadly 19-foot jumper and can run the offense from the high elbow.  He might play at the top of your zone on defense, but he’ll also blow up the pick-and-role and challenge shots at the rim, and then grab the rebound.  As you’ll see in the four facts below, this versatility has led to combinations of accomplishments that have rarely or sometimes never been done before. 

But like all of the greats, what really sets Garnett apart is his mentality.  In a league with perhaps too many games, it has become tacitly accepted for players to not get up for every game, or to maybe coast a bit in practice ("We talkin’ ’bout PRACTICE, man!"  But not Garnett.  Garnett plays absolutely every minute of every game like his team was down 1 point in game 7 of the NBA Finals and he had to will them to victory.  He’s up ALL the time.  There are Bill Brasky-like stories of Garnett running windsprints on the sidelines when pulled out of practice or forcing Celtics captain Paul Pierce to keep up with him in training camp.  The word "intensity" has been used so often to describe his on-court demeanor that it has become almost a punchline, with teammates and detractors alike making fun of his routine to headbutt the basket support before every half. 

And more-so than most players, with Garnett it really does seem to be a case where everything about him can be spun in either a positive or negative direction, depending on the perspective.  By becoming the first preps-to-pros player in 20 years Garnett either pioneered a new direction for the NBA, or he opened the door to the flood of underaged and underpreapared players that weakened both the NBA and the NCAA.  If Garnett plays another season beyond this one, even at the league minimum, he will be the highest paid player in NBA history…but his contract was blamed for the 1999 NBA lockout and for crippling the Wolves’ championship hopes.  He is either a fake-thug bully on the court, or the greatest teammate and player of mind-games since Bill Russell.  Garnett is often criticized for not being selfish or clutch or post-oriented enough on the court, yet according to the advanced stats his impact is almost off the scales in a positive direction.

For every pro there’s a con, and for every con there’s a pro.  I’ll let you decide where you come down on his value.  But before you weigh in, here are four interesting facts about Garnett:

1) Box score stats.  In NBA history, Garnett is the only player in the 20k points/10k boards/5k assists/1500 steals/1500 blocks club (It’s possible that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar might also be in this club if steals were recorded during his first four years, but no one else is even potentially on the list).  Garnett also holds the record with six consecutive seasons averaging at least 20 points, 10 boards, and five assists, breaking the marks formerly held by Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird.

2) Garnett is the only forward in NBA history to have won both a Most Valuable Player and a Defensive Player of the Year award.  The only other players to do it at any position were Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson. 

3) In 2004 Garnett won the 2nd-most lopsided MVP vote in NBA history (behind Shaq in 2000), totaling 120 out of 123 first place votes.  In that season Garnett became the only player since the 1976 NBA/ABA merger to lead the NBA in both points and rebounds in a single season, and he also notched the single-season record among power forwards in the advanced box score stats PER, Win Shares, and Wins Produced.

4) In his prime, Garnett measured out as by-far the highest impact player in the NBA according to a multi-year Adjusted Plus Minus study conducted by Dr. Stephen Ilardi, now consultant to the Phoenix Suns.  In that study, which ran from the 2003/04 season through the 2008/09 season, Garnett’s APM of  +14.07 was so far beyond second place (LeBron James, +9.5) that this gap was larger than the distance between the 6th best player and the 50th player on the list.  Garnett also dominates the defensive APM studies, as the leader by a distinct margin in every published multi-year APM study encompassing 2003/04 through 2010/11.

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Here is his basketball-reference player card which includes career stats.