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The Confounding Futurism of Kevin Garnett

The Big Ticket’s impact on the league has never been clearer

AP Images
AP Images

The great big men of the NBA’s last era are slipping away. Tim Duncan and Amar’e Stoudemire have retired this summer and Kevin Garnett could be next. The Timberwolves are patiently waiting on Garnett, who has spent the past few weeks mulling over a possible return for one final season. It would be his 22nd in the league, giving him more active seasons than Robert Parish or Kevin Willis — he would effectively be the longest-tenured player in NBA history. Like Duncan, Garnett is a bridge between generations, a walking link connecting the past and the future. He played with Terry Porter and Spud Webb in his rookie season, and Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in what might be his last. Porter and Webb are 53. Towns and Wiggins will both be 21 at the All-Star break of the upcoming season.

Garnett was one of a kind: a modern pivot sent back in time to the mid-’90s. When he entered the league, most 7-footers were stuck under the basket after a long stint in college learning to play in the post. Garnett didn’t have time for any of that, becoming the first player to declare for the draft out of high school in 20 years. Few had seen a big man who could slide his feet like Garnett 25-plus feet from the basket, and he’s one of the only players in league history who could guard all five positions. If there’s anything to regret with how Garnett’s career has played out, it’s that he was so far ahead of his time the league didn’t know how to fully utilize him.

That puzzle was most clearly seen in his frontcourt partners over the years. Garnett nominally played the small forward position in his first two seasons next to Tom Gugliotta, and the litany of centers he played with in Minnesota largely fall under two categories: the former lottery disappointment (Christian Laettner, Cherokee Parks, Joe Smith, Eddie Griffin) and the generic, space-eating behemoth (Stojko Vrankovic, Stanley Roberts, Ervin “Tragic” Johnson, Mark Blount, Rasho Nesterovic) — or both (Michael Olowokandi).

Garnett and Duncan were the pillars of the new-age power forward prototype, a paradigm shift that was also spurred on by players like Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, Dirk Nowitzki, and Jermaine O’Neal. They came into the league at the tail end of the NBA’s golden age of centers, when mastodons like Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal ruled the lane. The idea was to pair these more versatile, inside-out athletes with a burlier, post-oriented center who would save them from having to bang in the paint, and allow them to spread their wings and roam the perimeter. In that era, the main worry for players of Garnett’s ilk was how they’d be able to guard someone like Shaq, when the question could have been inverted: How is Shaq supposed to guard someone so far away from the basket? Instead of finding Garnett a frontcourt mate who fit the standard mold of a center, his teams might have been better off asking whether they even needed a traditional center in the first place.

By the time Garnett reached his peak in the 2003–04 season, the NBA was changing underneath his feet. The Suns were a year away from sliding Amar’e from power forward to center and running the rest of the league off the floor with the first incarnation of the spread pick-and-roll. In that environment, what were Olowokandi and Johnson, the starting centers in Garnett’s MVP campaign, really adding?

Even when Garnett got to Boston in 2007 and was finally on a team with other future first-ballot Hall of Famers, he still didn’t have the benefit of playing in a progressive system. He shared a starting frontcourt with Kendrick Perkins, an archetypal offensively-limited interior banger. Perkins and Garnett were great together, but they couldn’t make magic in the same way Garnett could have with a guy like Lamar Odom, who played alongside Pau Gasol during the Spaniard’s peak. The closest Garnett came in Boston was playing with Sheed in 2010, when Wallace was near the end of his rope and spent most of the season playing his way into shape.

It wasn’t until his final days in Brooklyn that we got a glimpse of Garnett in a modern system, and even that was by accident. The original plan was to play Garnett as a supersize 4 next to Brook Lopez, giving the Nets one of the biggest (and slowest) frontcourts in the NBA. It was only when Lopez went down that Jason Kidd was given the freedom to experiment with Garnett as a small-ball center alongside upshifted wings like Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko, and Joe Johnson. Those hybrid lineups saved the Nets’ season and got them to the second round of the playoffs, but there was nothing a 37-year-old Garnett could do against LeBron James and the Heat at the peak of their powers.

We’ll never know how good prime Garnett could have been in that type of system. An offense with Garnett at center is essentially unguardable, as he could stretch a defense out past 20 feet and attack either off the bounce, rolling to the rim, or as a facilitator. They would be just as tough on defense, since Garnett could switch any screen and converge at the point of attack, while still providing all the length a team could need to anchor the defense at the rim. If you look at the evolution of championship teams over the past generation, one of the most important weapons a contender could possess is a multidimensional 7-footer in the middle of a spread pick-and-roll offense. Imagine Garnett in Chris Bosh’s role in Miami, or Draymond Green’s in Golden State.

Garnett may have come 20 years too early, but his protégé in Minnesota might have come at just the right time. Garnett hung around just long enough to pass the torch to Towns, the most versatile 7-footer of his generation. The Wolves need to figure out a long-term answer next to Towns, something they weren’t able to do with Garnett two decades ago. Can Tom Thibodeau find the type of frontcourt partner Towns needs to unlock his full potential? Or will the Wolves forget a big man pairing entirely, playing Wiggins as a 4 in a next-generation twist on the Warriors’ Lineup of Death? It’s time to find out what a fully weaponized version of Kevin Garnett could have done.