Can a championship hide all of a player’s flaws?
Does it make everyone forget a player’s shortcomings?
What if that player was his team’s best player and the biggest reason for the largest single-season turnaround in NBA history?
In 2008, Kevin Garnett finally won his elusive first championship. But does that championship erase all the skeletons in his closet - all his first-round playoff exits, all the rumors of KG lacking clutch play?
Garnett is one of the NBA’s top players, and has been for over a decade. He’s won an MVP and a championship. He’s been named to 12 All-Star teams and nine All-NBA teams. He’s won a Defensive Player of the Year Award, and is widely given credit for restoring glory to the NBA’s most storied franchise. He’s one of the most intense competitors the NBA has ever seen, bringing an unrivaled passion to every game, every play, every second he’s on the court.
But is he clutch?
As far as clutch play goes, there are a few parameters by which to measure clutchness: a player’s performance in the final minutes of close games, a player’s overall playoff performance, and a player’s performance in elimination games. Judging based on those parameters, here’s a study of whether Kevin Garnett is, indeed, clutch…
The Final Minutes of Close Games
If you were to judge Kevin Garnett simply by his aggressiveness during the fourth quarters of close games, you’d instantly say he’s not clutch. Garnett isn’t like a Kobe Bryant, or even a Paul Pierce – he doesn’t demand the ball down the stretch to make sure his team wins games. That just isn’t the type of player he is. Garnett would rather play the same way he plays during the first three quarters of games, with selfless ball movement and the patience to take only good shots.
Because of his reluctance to demand the ball during crunchtime, some people would say he disappears down the stretches of games, that he doesn’t have the killer instinct required to be a fourth-quarter assassin.
And, watching him, they would seem to have a point. When I decided to write this column, I was ready to say that it seemed that Garnett sometimes disappeared down the stretch. Not always, or even often, but sometimes. I was ready to say that Garnett isn’t assertive enough, that he goes away sometimes in the fourth quarter, that he’s sometimes nowhere to be found when the Celtics need a big bucket.
But, according to the statistics, I might be wrong. Here are Garnett’s per-48 min. clutch stats (according to 82games.com) compared to his overall per-48 min. stats (according to whatifsports.com).
(NOTE: I could only find the statistics from 2002-2003 on – please forgive me)
|Year||Clutch Points Per 48||Overall Points Per 48|
Garnett has increased his points per-48 min. in all but two seasons. One of the seasons his points per 48 min. dropped, the 2007-2008 season, can be attributed mostly to Garnett’s willingness to defer to the Celtics other great scorers, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. For the most part, Garnett increased his scoring during the clutch, and often by pretty substantial amounts.
Either way, he likes to approach the final few minutes of a game the same way he approaches the rest of the game. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Often, teams get out of hand in the fourth quarter with isolations and one-on-one play. Garnett will never bog his team down by focusing too much on one-on-one.
So does Garnett disappear at the end of games? The stats say no, the eyes say sometimes.
But that’s only offensively. On the other side of the court, defensively, there is nobody you’d rather have than Kevin Garnett. He’ll get big rebounds, huge blocks, and he’ll be a disruptive force on every possession. When the Celtics won the championship in 2008, a big reason for their success was the ability to get stops at the most important parts of games, and KG was the biggest part of that success.
Overall Playoff Performance
When the 82-game regular season turns into the playoffs, the best players pick their game up one more notch. If Michael Jordan hadn’t won so many championships, would he still be considered the best player ever? No, and it’s because legends are made when the lights are shining brightest, when the pressure is on to either win or spend the rest of the summer fishing.
So how does Garnett do in the playoffs? I’m going to say that his defense is always the same, whether it’s the regular season or postseason. If anything, his top-notch intensity is ratcheted up in the playoffs, making Garnett even more formidable a defender than normal. So that leaves offense and rebounding.
Here’s a chart of Garnett’s production in the regular season versus his production in the playoffs (according to basketball-reference.com)…
|Year||Regular Season Points||Regular Season Rebounds||Postseason Points||Postseason Rebounds|
Kevin Garnett’s teams lost in the first round during each of his first seven trips to the playoffs. But, as I would contend and the stats would agree, those failures to advance had a lot less to do with Garnett than they did with his teammates. Even on Garnett’s BEST TEAM in Minnesota, the team that finally broke through by advancing to the Western Conference Finals, they started either Ervin Johnson, Mark Madsen or Michael Olowokandi at center and Trenton Hassell at small forward.
That team should never have gone that far, but Garnett was the league’s MVP and the best player in the NBA. And, contrary to popular belief, he has a habit of playing better in the playoffs than he does in the regular season. The proof is in the stats, where Garnett raised his point totals in all but three playoffs and his rebounding totals in all but one.
David Berri, author of “Wages of Wins”, had this to say about Garnett in 2006: “And that is the tragedy of Kevin Garnett. Year after year he is the most productive player in the league. And year after year he plays with many players who are not only not average, but quite a bit below average.”
And those players didn’t magically improve in the postseason. Garnett was stuck playing with below-average players and, though he normally has improved his game in the postseason, his teammates kept him from enjoying team success until he was traded to Boston in 2007.
Elimination Game Performances
When your team’s collective back is against the wall and one loss means you’re going home for the season, the most clutch players bring their “A” games. You would never expect Michael Jordan to throw a stinker in a Game 7, and he probably never would.
We all know Kevin Garnett’s teams lost in the first round seven straight years, but how did Kevin Garnett himself do in elimination games? Did he do whatever he could to stave off better teams, or did he passively allow teams to rip victory from his grasp?
Here are stats from every elimination game Garnett has played in (stats from cnnsi.com, basketball-reference.com, and espn.com).
Game 3 vs. Houston Rockets – 17 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists
Game 5 vs. Seattle Supersonics – 7 points, 4 rebounds
Game 4 vs. San Antonio Spurs – 20 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists
Game 3 vs. Portland Trail Blazers – 23 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists
Game 4 vs. Portland Trail Blazers – 17 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists
Game 3 vs. San Antonio Spurs – 22 points, 8 rebounds
Game 4 vs. San Antonio Spurs – 19 points, 15 rebounds
Game 3 vs. Dallas Mavericks – 22 points, 17 rebounds
Game 6 vs. LA Lakers – 18 points, 12 rebounds
Game 6 vs. LA Lakers – 22 points, 17 rebounds
Game 7 vs. Sacramento Kings – 32 points, 21 rebounds
Game 7 vs. Atlanta Hawks – 18 points, 11 rebounds
Game 7 vs. Cleveland Cavaliers – 13 points, 13 rebounds
So is that the sign of somebody who doesn’t show up when the lights are the brightest, or are those stats and consistent play the signs of a guy who is going to bring 100% effort every night? Garnett had one real stinker, back in 1998 (when he could have been a junior in college), but after 1998 has only had one game where he didn’t have at least a double-double. He has been involved in 13 elimination games over his career, and has posted double-doubles in 10 of them. He’s averaged 19.2 points and 12.4 rebounds per game over his career during those elimination games (compared to regular season averages of 20.2 points and 11.1 rebounds).
All of which leads us back to our original question:
Is Kevin Garnett clutch?
Being clutch is the ability to raise your level of play during the pivotal moments of a game, the pivotal moments of a season. It’s the skill to calm your nerves when the game, and sometimes the season, is on the line, to stay cool and composed when 20,000 fans are screaming and the game’s outcome is in your hands. It’s the talent to rise to the occasion – to score a bucket when your team needs one the most, to snatch a rebound when your team desperately needs a possession, to put the clamps on your opponent with your team up one and the game clock winding down.
Clutch is why Robert Horry has been mentioned as a possible Hall-of-Famer and why Reggie Miller and Larry Bird’s heroics will never be forgotten. It’s the reason Michael Jordan’s career and exploits will always be untouchable while Karl Malone, the Jordan era’s second-best player, will always be overlooked. It explains why Jerry West is remembered as the NBA’s logo but Nick Anderson, despite an otherwise solid career, will always be remembered for four missed free throws.
Tim Duncan, long considered the best power forward in the game, isn’t a guy who demands the ball in crunchtime. Most of the time, Gregg Popovich gives the ball to Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili to create offense rather than dumping it in the post to Duncan. Yet, because of his four rings, Duncan is considered clutch.
If he had been stuck with Garnett’s teammates, does Duncan win more than Garnett’s one title? I doubt it, just as I doubt that Garnett would have won any less than four rings if he’d been blessed with Duncan’s teammates.
When it comes to clutch, Kevin Garnett is not Michael Jordan, and he’s not Larry Bird, Jerry West or Reggie Miller, either. But there are very few guys who are.
Just don’t call Kevin Garnett a choker, and don’t say he's not clutch.
It wouldn’t be true.