After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.
This is Banana Boat Week. We’ll be looking at how that group of friends has shaped the modern NBA and what we might expect from them in these final seasons before they ride the waves into the sunset. Grab your life preserver. This should be fun.
On the same day that Kevin Garnett announced his retirement, reports came out of Miami that Chris Bosh had failed his physical exam due to complications related to his reoccurring problem with blood clots. Three days later, at Heat media day, team president Pat Riley made it clear that Bosh was no longer in the team’s plans because of the health concerns. We’ve lost Garnett to time, and we might lose one of his most successful apostles to something much crueler. KG’s influence can be seen in all 30 teams today; having players who can approximate Garnett’s style is imperative in the modern NBA. In a sense, this is the end of an era within an era: In losing Garnett, and possibly Bosh, we’re also drawing the curtains on a very generational idea of the “next Kevin Garnett.”
The “next Kevin Garnett” template had two distinct periods. In the first few years of his career, finding the next version of Garnett didn’t mean finding the next positional polyglot. Instead, it had to do with extreme youth as the NBA’s most untapped resource. It was a period when Kobe was considered the next KG, as awkward as that sounds today.
By 1999, the year Garnett made his first All-NBA team, the “next Garnett” concept took on a new meaning. His anomalous skill set had begun to capture the imagination of kids across the country — kids who, had there not been a KG, might have found themselves trapped within basketball’s orthodoxy. Garnett’s estimated 7-foot-5 wingspan was the canopy for a new breed of undefined variables entering the draft — raw, spindly athletes who didn’t allow their physiques to dictate their games. Kevin Garnett was a singular athlete in NBA history; he was also Pandora’s box.
Jonathan Bender might’ve been the first. The 6-foot-11 high school senior from Mississippi scored 31 points at the 1999 McDonald’s All American Game, breaking Michael Jordan’s record of 30, which had stood since 1981. Bender was nominally a center, but drilled two of his three attempts from behind the arc. He was selected fifth overall in the NBA draft that June. Darius Miles arrived a year later. “I love Miles,” Michael Jordan told the Chicago Tribune in 2000. “The kid can play. He’s a tall, skinny kid like Kevin Garnett, with great skills. … I would take him with the no. 1 pick [overall] in a heartbeat.” Upon seeing the quote in the paper, Miles and his mom immediately clipped it for their family scrapbook.
There were others. Many others. From Jerome Moiso to Andray Blatche, the procession of imitations rarely, if ever, come close to recapturing the magic of KG. And in the first decade of trying, Bosh might just be the only undeniable success story.
Bosh took up gymnastics and karate as a kid; he was in the National Honor Society and a member of several student engineering organizations in high school. His versatility on the floor was a reflection of his life off it. He was a 6-foot-4 guard before a growth spurt forced him up the positional ladder. But Bosh had Garnett as a guiding light. “I guess you could say I kind of modeled my game after him,” Bosh said in 2006. “He can handle the ball, shoot the ball, a versatile big man. That’s what I see in him. It made me want to work on my skills, polish everything and not just play on the inside.”
Bosh helped normalize the skills that Garnett popularized among big men. He was never a system unto himself the way Garnett was on both ends of the floor, but whether it was shifting to the center position full time for Miami at the height of the Big Three era, mastering the art of Erik Spoelstra’s blitzing pick-and-roll defense, or becoming a regular shooter from behind the arc, there were few superstars capable of embedding within a system as fluidly. Bosh refracted Garnett’s influence in the same way revolutions mellow into institutions.
Things are different in the second decade since KG’s arrival. The search for the next Garnett has largely morphed into the search for the next Kevin Durant, himself a mutation of the Garnett mold. Centers like Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Kristaps Porzingis are all part of Garnett’s expanded universe, each with the kind of system-defining talent that allowed KG to fundamentally change attitudes in talent development and evaluation all those years ago. Bosh is a throwback to the salad days of Garnett’s influence, when versatility could still be considered a new frontier. Now, our KG comparisons are no longer so explicit. It’s implied; it just is.
Garnett is gone. Kobe’s gone. Duncan’s gone. They are now ghosts on tape, a baffling reality for a generation of basketball fans and players alike. “It feels like our era is next,” LeBron James said during Cavaliers training camp. “Me, [Dwyane] Wade, [Carmelo Anthony], [Chris] Bosh. We’re next. We’re on deck.”
LeBron alluded to a running clock on their careers, but also to a collective moment with his fellow 2003 draft classmates, hanging it up together. These are the kinds of perfect situations that LeBron conjures, like a potential union of Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and himself on the same team some time before their time on the court is over. But there’s a chance that dream is already over. James issued the comment a day after Pat Riley’s statement about Bosh’s future.
Bosh was sitting on a dock looking out on Biscayne Bay with his wife when he heard the news. Chances are Bosh will not play in this season. There’s a chance he won’t play ever again. We’re on deck, LeBron said.