NBA Top 50: Kevin Garnett (No. 4)
Thanks to my overwhelming ego, I have not dared say this yet in our journey from 50 to 1: this choice, Kevin Garnett, won a coin toss against Tim Duncan. When I looked at the 2008-09 season and who I felt would be the best players in the NBA, I couldn't go one way or the other between Big Fun and the Big Ticket. So KG took tails and the No. 4 spot. I'm not ashamed of the arbitrary decision, though: it's probably the right choice by a smidgen.
Duncan gets mentioned as the greatest power forward ever, and might end up in a whole lot of top 10 all-time lists. But Garnett has been just as good through it all. Duncan has eight all-defense first team appearances. Garnett has seven. KG sits just a touch lower on all-time rebounds and blocks per game lists than Duncan, which can be in part attributed to Garnett's rookie season, where as a 19-year-old he played less than 30 minutes a game. In fact, during the pair's primes, KG led the league in rebounds four times. Duncan only finished as high as second once.
All this begs the question: is Garnett as good a defender as Duncan?
It's a tough case to make, when you consider San Antonio has been at or near the top of defensive rankings for basically the entirety of Duncan's career, while Garnett's Minnesota team fluttered about depending on the personnel. I think 2007-08 in Boston is telling, though. For the first time since Chauncey Billups, Garnett had a point guard who couldn't be described as a matador. Sam Cassell, Troy Hudsen ... could Duncan anchor a defense with marshmallows and still find himself with the No. 1 defense? Give Garnett a Rajon Rondo, it's a better comparison. In fairness, Rondo's a better stopper than Tony Parker. But look at all the other defensive aid Duncan has had: Bruce Bowen, David Robinson, Manu Ginobili -- Duncan's teams have always been better equipped to defend hard. This isn't a knock on Timmy, as the results matter. But it's plausible Garnett would have kept San Antonio atop the defensive rankings in Duncan's stead. Last season's magical Boston defense is Exhibits A through E.
And then there's offense. Duncan has been responsible for a greater share, the pair have been equally as efficient. But that's measured over the course of their careers. At their peaks, there's no question Garnett was the better weapon. Garnett's four-year run between 2002-03 and 2005-06 is unmatched this decade in terms of complete output. During that stretch, Garnett averaged 23/13/5. Simply outrageous, outrageous production.
2006-07 was a down year for Garnett, and was either translated as the first step in Ticket's decline or KG's cryptic plea to get out of town. The team was awful under Randy Wittman, who took over for a coach (Dwane Casey) who shouldn't have been fired. The roster around Garnett had become toxic it was so bad. Come Boston in 2007-08, the box score statistics again trickled down ... but not due to some crushing decline in Garnett's skills. Everything he had done for years, he did. Well, except lose ...
So we're still left with the question of whether Garnett's on his way out, or whether there's life left in him ... the same question we faced with Duncan. My prognosis for Boston is aimed higher than that of San Antonio: the Celtics, with Rondo and Leon Powe and the ever-buoyant Paul Pierce, actually might have an improving roster, which can only mean good things for the star. (See: Bryant, Kobe.) The Spurs are on their way out, which won't help Duncan make his case. And while Duncan probably holds the career lead on Garnett, the case should get a bit closer this season.