NBA AM: Looking at Kevin Garnett’s Legacy

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Word leaked out this week that Kevin Garnett was discussing a buyout with the Minnesota Timberwolves, presumably to retire after tying the record for most seasons played in NBA history.

If true, Garnett officially will end his career as one of the best power forwards of all-time. Known first and foremost for a competitive drive that borders on insanity, Garnett has always deeply, truly cared about the game of basketball. And when a person like that possesses talent like Garnett’s, the results are almost sure to be as impressive as they’ve been for KG.

Had Garnett played this year, he would have been the only active player left from the 1995 NBA Draft. To put that in perspective, there are currently no active players from the 1996 or 1997 NBA Drafts. He’s lasted forever in a way that’s always resonated with his fans, and his career is one of the more fascinating and memorable of anybody in his generation.

The High School Renaissance

Drafted fifth overall out of Farragut Academy in Chicago, Garnett was the first player to skip college for the NBA since Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby did it 20 years prior. He played only a single season at Farragut, but averaged 25.2 points, 17.9 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 6.5 blocks while he was there. This was more than enough to earn him a McDonald’s All-American nod (where he’d win the game’s MVP award) and plenty of attention from NBA scouts who wondered if he would forego an opportunity to play at the University of Michigan or University of Maryland to turn pro.

He was unable to qualify academically for college, but that didn’t matter. He was so good in high school that he easily went top five to a Wolves team that still hadn’t found its way out of its expansion team doldrums. In high school, Garnett already had his patented turnaround jumpshot and his ability to slam home a missed shot off an offensive rebound, but he was also a gifted passer and an otherworldly defender. In the mid 1990s, Garnett was built like Thon Maker, but his passion was clear even then and he displayed it immediately in Minneapolis.

The fact that Garnett was able to make the leap from high school as successfully as he did (averaging 10.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in his rookie season) paved the way for Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal to do the same a year later, then Tracy McGrady the year the after that. Those guys got the gumption to skip college because Garnett did it. And without KG proving that 18-year-old kids could make that transition so seamlessly, NBA drafts and NCAA tournaments between 1995 and 2005 could have had very different results.

The Rise to Relevance

kg1Garnett started his NBA career with a team that had never in its entire five-year existence won 30 games in a season, so expectations were obviously tempered. Nobody expected Garnett to turn things around immediately, especially given his age. However, as soon as the Wolves replaced head coach Bill Blair with Flip Saunders that year, Garnett was injected into the starting lineup and played well enough over the course of the season to be named to the All-Rookie Second Team. He wouldn’t make the playoffs in 1995-96, but that would be the last time he’d fail to make the postseason for the next eight consecutive years.

In his second season, Minnesota pulled off a draft-day trade to pair Garnett with Stephon Marbury, and that was the exact moment that things turned around for the franchise. During that sophomore campaign, Garnett would average 17 points, eight rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.7 steals, which earned him a spot on his first All-Star team. Minnesota would finish two games under .500, but they finally, mercifully, made the playoffs in 1997. They didn’t win, but the fact that Garnett could will them there at such a young age spoke volumes to what the future held for him.

Of coures, it only got better from there. In 1997, Garnett agreed to what at the time was an unheard-of $126 million contract extension to be paid over the course of six years. But despite some controversy about what was then considered an exorbitant amount of cash, he earned every dime of that money. Over the course of that six-year deal, he averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds every season while leading the Wolves to the playoffs each year. The only All-Star Game he missed during that span was in lockout-shortened 1999 when there was no All-Star Game, and he made an All-NBA Team (including three First Team selections) in each of those six seasons as well.

By 2004, the Wolves were a Western Conference powerhouse and Garnett was considered one of the league’s most dominant players. It only took him about two seasons in the NBA to transform from a teenager to a superstar. Then, within a half decade, he was one of the best professional basketball players alive.

The MVP and Western Conference Finals

kg4That all came to a head in the 2003-04 campaign, when the Wolves won a franchise-record 58 games and found their way to the Western Conference Finals. Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell came aboard that year to help push the Wolves over the postseason hump, but Garnett posted a career-year in which he averaged 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, five assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals for the season. Those are Most Valuable Player numbers, and the league rewarded him with the trophy.

Best of all, though, after seven years of getting ousted in the first round, the Wolves finally won their first-ever playoff series with a 4-1 thrashing of the Denver Nuggets in the spring of 2004. They won another, tougher series in the second round when they toppled the Sacramento Kings, 4-3. Then, they found themselves up against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

Unfortunately for the Wolves, Cassell got hurt in that series and backup Troy Hudson was already injured, so despite the fact that Garnett was averaging career-best playoff numbers – 24.3 points, 14.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.2 steals in 43.5 minutes per game – it wasn’t enough to beat a loaded Lakers team. At the time, that L.A. squad was viewed the same way that the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors are now (with not only Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant on the roster, but also Karl Malone and Gary Payton).

With Cassell out and the competition so stiff, Garnett and Co. would lose that series 4-2. That would be as close as Garnett would ever get to winning a championship in Minnesota.

Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Champion

In fact, the Wolves would miss the playoffs for the next three seasons in what has to be considered one of the nastiest basketball hangovers in league history. Sprewell turned down a $21 million contract in the summer of 2004 because he had “a family to feed,” and the Minnesota front office traded away Cassell to avoid getting hampered with the contract of an older, oft-injured player.

These weren’t happy times for Garnett. After a nine-year career building himself into a superstar and helping his team make baby steps toward contending for a championship, everything fell apart and it clearly wasn’t going to turn back around any time soon. That’s when Wolves owner Glen Taylor finally agreed to listen to trade offers for his franchise cornerstone, and he found a very willing trade partner in the Boston Celtics.

kg3Danny Ainge shipped five players and two draft picks to Minnesota for Garnett, which still constitutes the most players ever swapped for a single player in league history. Garnett immediately signed a three-year extension with the Celtics after the trade, and with the addition of Ray Allen to a roster that already included Paul Pierce, there absolutely was a sense that Garnett might finally be in position to win his first ring. At the time, there were even whispers that the Celtics may be the NBA’s next modern dynasty.

That first season in Boston, Garnett averaged 18.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks. His numbers were down, but he was only playing 32.8 minutes per game and the focus was clearly on hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. Even with those stats, his smothering team defense and leadership on that end of the floor earned him the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008. Interestingly, it was the only major NBA award that a Boston Celtics player had never won.

It was only a preview of good things to come. Boston would rip through the 2008 NBA Playoffs and topple the Lakers in six games, giving Garnett his first (and ultimately only) championship.

Garnett’s post-game speech remains one of the most emotional celebratory interviews NBA fans have ever seen.

Coming Home

After six seasons in Boston, the core of the group started to show its age a little as the team became less competitive with every passing year. After making the Finals twice in Garnett’s first three years there, the Celtics only even got to the Conference Finals once in the next three seasons (and even that particular run was pretty improbable). In 2013, the last time that particular “Big Three” played together, Boston was bounced in the first round.

That summer, Ainge traded Garnett, Pierce and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for a king’s ransom, but Garnett wouldn’t even last two years there.

kg2After a season-and-a-half in New York, Minnesota made a move to bring Garnett back in February of 2015, mostly to mentor some of the team’s younger players. Younger Wolves players talked about how much more intense practice got after the trade.

It might not be any coincidence that Minnesota has had the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in each of the last two seasons, with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns taking home that hardware under Garnett’s tutelage.

His numbers in Minnesota have been awful. Garnett averaged only 3.2 points and 3.9 rebounds in what may be his final season in the league, but he wasn’t brought back to help the team win a championship. Not right now, anyway. They brought him in to show kids like Towns, Wiggins and Zach LaVine how to be a pro, maximize potential and build a winning culture so that they can eventually compete for titles. You can bet that if this Wolves core ever wins a title, at least one of them is going to thank Garnett for being such an important influence in their formative years.

As a sure-thing Hall-of-Famer, Garnett walks away from the game as an all-time great. He helped make Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady and even LeBron James happen, but his impact goes beyond his prep-to-pro barrier breaking. His ultra-competitive nature turned him into one of the great rebounders and defenders of his generation. While he didn’t get to bring a title to the team he helped legitimize, he does walk away with the one thing he always wanted: an NBA championship ring.