Garnett entered league as a kid, now leaves as a generational figure
What mattered most in 21 seasons to future Hall of Famer was winning games, loyalty to teammates and coaches
He came into the NBA at 19 and stayed 21 years, the rare player who spent more time in the game than out of it. His nickname initially was Da Kid and then Big Ticket or sometimes KG and lastly Mr. Garnett to the pups he tutored in his second tour with the Timberwolves. He was easy with a smile as a rookie, before a snarl became his expression of choice as a hardened veteran who thrived on intimidation. Back when a $100 million contract was a lot of money, he bagged not one, but two of them.
Not only did Kevin Garnett play and win and woof his way to a career that will dead-end soon in Springfield, Mass., he evolved. He went from teenager to young man to the rocking chair on the highest level of basketball, and it all played out before our eyes, and sometimes our ears whenever he wanted to verbally punctuate a blocked shot or facial dunk.
A special nod must go in the direction of Sam Mitchell, the former Wolves player and coach, who offered an early prediction about Garnett soon after KG’s first training camp ended. Mitchell was blunt, like a mic drop.
“Kevin is going to stay in this game a long time and make a lot of money,” Mitchell said then.
At the time, this seemed a tad bit ambitious. Garnett never played college basketball and was an impressive though not transcendent high school player. He was 6-11 and wiry but his offensive skills were mechanical, not instinctive. He averaged just over 10 points and six rebounds and that was only good for second-team All-Rookie, behind Joe Smith and Antonio McDyess.
Plus, the Wolves were lousy, continuing a trend that stagnated the franchise during its formative years.
But over the next 15 years Garnett emerged as a top-5 player, and in 2004 was the game’s best player as evident by the MVP award. He didn’t invent the power forward position or redefine it, but he sharpened it. A position that required toughness at both ends was satisfied by Garnett and then some. He protected the paint like a coat of acrylic, showing a tenacity for blocking shots and shagging rebounds. And he developed a trusty mid-range jumper that allowed him to routinely average 20 or more points a game.
Garnett was a 15-time All-Star and nine-time All-Defensive first team member. He was consistently great, showed up to play, led by example (and by voice) and never took games off. His aggressive style often infuriated opposing players but Garnett cared little about that. He never prioritized winning friends, only winning games. Innocence left him rather quickly. As he grew older and ornerier, he refused to cater to the media or reinvent himself to become more endorsement-friendly. Garnett cared what his teammates and coaches thought. He ignored the rest, or mocked them.
At the height of his career, in the mid-2000s, Garnett carried a franchise, became iconic to a city and along with Tim Duncan was largely recognized as the best power forward in basketball. But Duncan was blessed with a Spurs’ organization that was the envy of pro sports. Therein lie the big difference between the two.
Garnett was frozen in Minnesota and on a team that never surrounded him with a Tony Parker or Sean Elliott or Manu Ginobili. Garnett’s best teammates during the meat of his time in Minny were an old Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. Stephon Marbury was supposed to give the Wolves a little man-big man combo for the future but greed caused a breakup before it barely got started; Marbury wanted money and spotlight to himself and left town.
And so KG and the Wolves managed to win but never went too far; their lone Western Conference final appearance was buried under the trophy-filled runs by Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal. When KG became disillusioned, along came another $100 million deal to cushion his frustration; with his buyout for next season finalized, KG has bankrolled a record $335 million, more than Kobe ($320M), Shaq ($292M), Duncan ($239M) and Jordan ($90M).
But money doesn’t make a respectable legacy. What would’ve become of Garnett had GM Kevin McHale not phone his pal Danny Ainge in Boston? It was the moment that not only fueled Garnett but helped make him whole. The 2007 trade from Minnesota to Boston was a basketball life preserver that favored KG in every way. He went from a tumultuous franchise to a stable one, a sputtering team to one featuring Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and he also inherited coach Doc Rivers, who knew how to push all the right buttons. The result was seismic. KG played Bill Russell-inspired defense, showed that he was indeed a great teammate who was more lasered on a title than stats. The 2008 championship was his destiny and maybe his reward for enduring the letdowns and limitations in 12 Minnesota seasons.
Of course, this is also where KG’s career took a cruel turn. If the basketball Gods were in a better mood, KG would have taken at least two championships to the Hall of Fame, maybe three. A knee sprain cut short his playoffs in 2009, when the Celtics had the best team on paper in the East. The following year KG and the Celtics lost Kendrick Perkins to a knee injury and eventually the seventh game to the Lakers in the Finals.
The last four years of his career are best ignored or downplayed; KG spent that time fighting the enemy — Father Time — and dishing guidance to such players as Karl-Anthony Towns, perhaps the next great big man. The real essence of Garnett was how he successfully made the leap from high school, and dragged the Timberwolves to the playoffs, and served as the soul of the Celtics during their Eastern Conference dominance and their first NBA title in 22 years.
“Kevin has done everything in this league,” Mitchell said last season, “and he’s done it his way.”
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.
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