We will remember Kevin Garnett, the character. We will remember Kevin Garnett, the defensive stalwart. We will remember Kevin Garnett, the champion Boston Celtic. But I’m afraid we’re forgetting Kevin Garnett, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offensive machine who changed the NBA.
Coming out of high school way back in 1995, the 6-foot-11 string was said to have rare offensive talents. He was the first player drafted out of high school in 20 years. And from Day One (video of his NBA debut is priceless), he was somehow able to tower over opponents with his freakish wingspan and length. Initially billed as a small forward, he quickly became an elite stretch big – years before the term became vogue.
As a rookie, he struggled out of the gate, averaging only 6.3 points on 40.7% shooting in 19.5 minutes in his first 38 games. He became a full-time starter in late January 1. Down the stretch that year, he showed off the first signs of his Hall of Fame career – in his final 42 games, he averaged 14.1 points on 53.3% shooting in 36.9 minutes. Again, he started that season as the youngest player in NBA history.
Austin Clemens’ shot charts aren’t available for Garnett’s rookie season, but they are for his sophomore campaign of 1996-97. That season, he upped his scoring to 17.0 points per game and never looked back.
Flash forward to 2003-04, when Garnett averaged a career-high 24.2 points per game with a 29.6% Usage Rate. He won his lone MVP and led the league with a 29.4 PER, also a career high. It was his ninth NBA season and the last time he led the Timberwolves to the playoffs. It was also the only year he won a playoff series with Minnesota – he turned 28 on the day the team advanced to the Western Conference Finals2.
Garnett’s shot chart that season was pure magic, near Dirk Nowitzki-esque. He was must-watch TV every game with his plethora of mid-range moves and skills. He shot 48.4% from the non-restricted area paint and 44.3% from mid-range. The league averages were 38.6% and 38.2%, respectively. He was a machine.
That year, he was nearly unstoppable from the left baseline. If you look at the shot charts of high-usage big men 10 years later, you’ll notice a similar trend of left-side dominance. Almost every big is more efficient and/or more active on the left. This is how the pick-and-roll is usually set up, so the trend is perhaps easily understood. Such set-ups also enable a big man to be more creative with his right hand, as The Big Ticket so often demonstrated.
That’s not to say that Garnett always had a left-side imbalance, however. In 1996-97 and 1998-99, he was more efficient on the right baseline. In 2007-08, his first season with Boston, he had a top-of-the-key streak. In 2010-11, he was fire from the right elbow. He was an all-time mid-range shooter, providing all sorts of dizzying matchup problems and showing the sexy side of a now-critiqued style of play. But all of this talk of elite shooting might even smear how valuable Garnett was in all aspects of offense.
The Timberwolves were mostly garbage without him offensively during his final five seasons in town, as you can see in the table to the right. His 11 qualified seasons with an 18% Assist Rate are tied with Larry Bird for the most ever for a 6-foot-9 player or taller, per Basketball-Reference. Before last year, he had a 14-season line of 55.5% True Shooting, 17.9% Rebound Rate, 20.7% Assist Rate and 26.0% Usage Rate. Even before looking at his hard-to-quantify defensive value, he’s already one of the most dominant all-around players in NBA history. Let’s not forget it.
- Christian Laettner, who was averaging 18/7, was traded to Atlanta three weeks later. ↩
- Recall: This was a Minnesota team with likely only two other above-average players: 33-year-old Latrell Sprewell and 34-year-old Sam Cassell. A fellow by the name of Trenton Hassell (!) had the fourth-most regular season and playoff minutes. The infamous Mark Madsen and 36-year-old Ervin Johnson also were rotation players. ↩