It’s difficult to put into context the legendary career of Kevin Garnett because there isn’t one piece of evidence you can point to as the definitive testimony to his superlative career. Not his 15 All-Star appearances. Not his regular-season MVP as a member of the Timberwolves. Not his Celtics Finals MVP that saw Boston win their first title in 22 years. Not his 9 Player of the Month Awards. Not the number of games he played, 7th all time. Not the number of minutes he played, 4th all time. Not his 2-point field goals, 14th all time. Not his defensive rebounds, 2nd all time.
As spectacular as all of those achievements are, they miss the bigger point of Kevin Garnett. He was the most influential NBA player since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird took the league to a new stratosphere. He may not have been the greatest player of all time, but he had the largest impact on the league itself. Kevin Garnett, the skinny one, the no college one, the intense one, the passionate one, the often angry one, changed the NBA into what we know it as today, a collection of athletic, skilled and explosive above the rim talent. Everyone calls Kevin Garnett great. But no one calls him what he truly is: a pioneer.
Before Kevin Garnett dared to tip his toes in the turbulent NBA waters, the league was one of skill and pace. Athleticism and potential didn’t rule the day. Can you play? Can you rebound? Can you box out? Can you make shots? Can you move the ball?
With the exception of the genius talent of Michael Jordan, the NBA didn’t showcase individuals but teams. Great players would have games in which they scored less than 20 points but they had incredible impact. And then came Garnett with his athleticism, his seven foot height, his explosiveness, his competitive fire, his will. He was drafted 5th as a high school player, the first high school player to think about not going to college since Moses Malone.
Drafted ahead of Garnett, the number one pick in 1995 was Joe Smith who played at Maryland. He had a 16 year NBA career playing for 13 NBA teams with no titles. Drafted second was Alabama forward Antonio McDyess. McDyess had a 16 year NBA career playing for 5 NBA teams with no titles and one All-Star appearance. Next up was North Carolina stars Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace. Stack had a 18 year career playing for 8 NBA teams with no titles and 2 All-Star appearances. Rasheed had a 18 year career playing for 6 NBA teams and one title. He appeared in the All-Star game 4 times.
So if you do the math, the four players selected before KG made 7 All-Star appearances, 8 less than Garnett’s 15. Furthermore, those teams that passed on him, took years to recover. The Warriors had the number one pick and selected Joe Smith. They had a 20 year drought before they made it to the Western Conference Finals. The Clippers picked second. They have never been to the Western Conference Finals. The 76ers passed on KG in favor of Stackhouse, but the next year they were still a miserable team and drafted Allen Iverson, so they don’t have much regret. The Washington Bullets (Wizards) took big man Rasheed Wallace and have never been able to salvage much of anything in the postseason.
Garnett just didn’t ruin the franchises that passed him by. He anointed others. Watching him drafted 5th was a kid in Philadelphia who had his own dreams. The following year, incidental to Garnett’s breaking the no college barrier, Kobe Bryant decided to take it one step further and be the first guard to skip college. The next year, it was Tracy McGrady. A lot of high schoolers followed and in 2003 LeBron James, the cream of the crop, was considered to be the greatest of all high school players entering the NBA. The NBA owners finally put an end to the high school to the NBA pipeline that Garnett started in 1995. There were a lot of misses. But the great ones, KG, Kobe, McGrady, LeBron were extraordinary. And you can’t diminish this fact. The NBA Finals of 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 had at least one high school player participate.
Garnett played with a level of intensity and ferocity and anger that hadn’t been seen before. The game was war to him and he said some things on the court to opponents that crossed the line, but all in the name of winning. Many thought some of his actions were dirty but when he was ramped up, he could almost fight through a wall of steel. When he finally won his title in 2008, after a 13 year marathon run, after a hard-fought competitive up and down struggle to become a champion, illuminated by both darkness and light, Garnett was finally the hero. His motto of nothing is impossible was finally true.
This was true too. Garnett introduced explosiveness to the game. He introduced athleticism to the game. He introduced rage to the game. He introduced potential to the game. He introduced not going to college to the game. He introduced 9 straight 20-10 seasons for the Timberwolves to the game. He introduced loyalty to the game. He introduced passion. Big men were judged on an entirely different standard. They weren’t stiffs that just stood there under the net. They ran the floor, covered multiple offensive players, blocked shots, scored, dunked, had a nice mid-range. They were leaders.
Garnett was the most important member of the first Big Three. Despite a legion of doubters, Garnett, along with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, carried the NBA with them on a wild ride and they did it on purpose and won the inaugural war of three Hall of Fame stars on the same team at the same time. To give less to get more was the moral of that season which ended with Garnett emasculating Pau Gasol in the NBA Finals of 2008.
But because this game is never, ever perfect, and often it is not fair, Garnett had his heart broken in the NBA Finals of 2010, a tough Game 7 loss. And so it was a full circle for Kevin Garnett because he never would be truly healthy or impactful again.
Kevin Garnett once said, “I don’t think in the past. I don’t think in the future. You grasp the moment”
The current moment in the NBA feels KG’s absence. He has no current peer, no one to remind you of KG. Anthony Davis? Doesn’t have KG’s motor. Karl Anthony-Towns? Too soft, doesn’t have his defense. Giannis? Isn’t feared like KG was feared.
He was an outlier who is missed dearly. KG’s ferocity is missed. And his passion. Every time you watch LeBron James remember Kevin Garnett. He was the one who opened the door and ran through headfirst. He looked behind him with a grin saying, “follow me. There’s room.”