Kevin Garnett: Dominant no longer

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

There's nothing like finishing up college finals. You spend the week cramming for tests, trying (unsuccessfully) to catch up on work you should have been doing the entire semester, and drinking cup after cup of coffee even if you think it tastes so bad you have to drown it with sugar packets. You exert so much energy that by the time you finish dotting your test's final 'i', you can barely think straight. At the end of the week, you're worn out and just ready to go home for winter beak, crash on your comfortable bed, and catch up on all the sleep you missed while damn near pulling all-nighters every night.

So why am I telling you this? (Other than the fact that if I weren't writing this article I, too, would be passed out on a bed for oh, about 20 straight hours?) Because Kevin Garnett has been cramming for finals for each of the past 14 years, and now going on 15. While most players bring their 'A' game on certain nights and are sure to bring a full effort for big games, Garnett has been bringing maniacal effort every game, every practice for 15 years. Some players treat the playoffs like college finals, but Garnett acts like he's got a final every time he laces up his shoes. He's like that one overachieving girl (I don't know why, but it's always a girl) who is really smart, but still gets straight A's mostly because of her work ethic. She puts more work in during her homework than a normal person ever would even for a test, writes pages and pages of notes during lectures, and pisses everyone off because she's so over-the-top about her desire to be the best student.

Sound familiar? Maybe like a 6'11" power forward who headbutts the basket support before every single game, even exhibition games? Who, at one of his very first practices with the Celtics, screamed at captain and long-time Celtics leader Paul Pierce for dogging it during suicides? Garnett is so intense that he swears he gets so caught up into games (even meaningless regular-season games) that he doesn't remember his in-game behavior. He becomes so wrapped up in the moment, so engaged in battle, that he can crawl on all fours, bark in an opponent's face and not even realize what he's doing. He'll pound his chest, spew four-letter words so incessantly it would make Mike Tyson blush, and block every shot an opponent launches after the whistle.

Just like the overachieving girl everyone loves to hate, though, Kevin Garnett wasn't simply outworking people; he was smart, too. (Or, in Garnett's case, 6'11" with smooth ball-handling skills, unbelievable footwork, a deadly midrange jumper, boundless selflessness and athleticism unfit for a man that tall.) For a few years in Minnesota, Garnett was absolutely dominant, all but unstoppable. My favorite Garnett move is one he used to do all the time: He would go to the post and catch the ball with both feet planted, keeping the option open to move either way. After a head fake one way and a shoulder fake the other, Garnett would finally pivot away from his defender for an unblockable turnaround jumper that seemed to go in far more often than not. In his prime, Garnett was a go-to-guy who was the unquestioned center of his teams' offenses. Even when Garnett wasn't the one taking the shots, the ball ran through him. Dump it into the post to the Big Fella, and good things were bound to happen.

Notice how I said "in his prime." Garnett has been able to fool people into thinking he might still be in his prime; I guess that's what happens when you start shooting 70% from the field every night, seemingly draining every single shot you take. But, as efficient as he has been, Garnett is not the same player as he once was. He just isn't. Just take a look at the stats: Garnett is averaging less rebounds per game than any season but his rookie year. Less assists per game than any season but his rookie year. He's averaging the least amount of steals he ever has, and the least amount of blocks. He's shooting what would be a career-high field goal percentage, but everything about Kevin Garnett's stats, everything about watching him play, screams, "Role player."

It's weird to say, but the Big Ticket really has become a glorified role player. Most of his shots are kick-outs for open jumpers, most of his rebounds boards that happen to bounce somewhere very near to him. Even his defense has suffered; has Garnett ever been beaten off the dribble more times than he has this season?

Whereas Garnett used to be the focal point of an offense, used to carry Minnesota to victories with his talent as much as his sheer will, he simply can't do that anymore. He's still a great player to have on a team, still capable of putting up very good numbers and changing games, still a great leader who can rally the troops and inspire his teammates to play better, but KG is on the decline and I'm sad to say he's reached the end of his time of dominance.

You can fool yourself and think that he's "back" just because he's shooting so well, or he's finished a lot of alley-oops lately, or you think he's just sacrificing his game since he's finally surrounded by All-Stars. Yeah, his stellar supporting cast is part of the reason his stats are down, but there's another reason, a sadder reason, for his decline in production....

One can only take so many finals before he'll inevitably crash.


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