NBA’s Unicorns Might Not Exist Without Kevin Garnett
Long before Kevin Durant dubbed Kristaps Porzingis a unicorn, a 6’11" point forward named Kevin Garnett ran breaks like a gazelle, dominated the boards like an old-school 4 and ran a defense like an all-pro linebacker.
You’ll have to forgive the mixed metaphors. Garnett, then and now, defied traditional descriptions because he literally did everything on a basketball court.
During his 10-year statistical peak (1998-99 to 2007-08), Garnett averaged 22 points, 12.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.4 steals.
During that stretch, he averaged more points than Tim Duncan and Chris Webber, more rebounds than Ben Wallace and Shaquille O’Neal, more blocks than Tyson Chandler and more steals than Andrei Kirilenko.
Among players Garnett’s height or taller over those 10 years, no one was within an assist of his average there.
KG even had a couple seasons early in which he averaged half a three per game, long before he and Dirk Nowitzki helped make it the norm for seemingly every big man.
Among players with at least 5,000 career minutes, no one in the history of the league matches or exceeds Garnett’s assist percentage (19.3), rebounding percentage (17), block percentage (3.0) and steal percentage (1.9), per Basketball Reference.
If you lower the parameters of the search a bit, you add the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Jokic, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, all of whom might not have been free to pilot an offense from the 4 or 5 without Garnett paving the way.
And honestly, all of the above just scratches the surface of what made Garnett one of the most statistically unique players in NBA history. This could go on for several more paragraphs.
A big part of being a true basketball unicorn is the eye test.
Porzingis is 7’3" but moves like a shooting guard on offense. Giannis Antetokounmpo is listed at 6’11", but he attacks downhill out of the pick-and-roll like a point guard. Seven-foot Nowitzki, even in his 20th season, is in the same neighborhood as Bradley Beal in points per spot-up possession, per NBA.com/stats.
Like today’s unicorns, Garnett’s size and abilities also defied convention too. And it was clear before he was even drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Following a workout in an empty high school gym in front of 15-20 NBA coaches and executives, Wolves vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale was convinced.
"We had no idea we were going to take him in the first round," McHale said, per Sports Illustrated‘s Leigh Montville. "I didn’t even want to go see him. I thought it was a waste of time. Then we went, and Flip Saunders and I were in the car afterward, and we just looked at each other. I said, ‘Wow, we’re going to pick a high school kid in the first round.’ It was that obvious.
"This was our first draft. Flip and I were both new. Our owner was also new. How do you tell him that the first thing he’s going to do is sign this high school kid? I think we figured if it went bad, we’d just say, ‘Hey, it was our first draft. We didn’t know what we were doing.’"
Turns out, they knew.
Garnett’s first NBA season was Minnesota’s seventh. And prior to KG’s debut, the Wolves had a franchise record of 126-366 (.256). During the 12 years he was there, the team went 501-451 (.526). Seven seasons featured a .500 record or better. Four were 50-plus-win campaigns.
By the time he was traded to the Boston Celtics, Garnett had a seemingly insurmountable franchise lead for Wins Over Replacement Player. To this day, he owns the record in a landslide, per Basketball Reference. His total more than quadruples second-place Kevin Love’s.
"There’s not much to be proud of if you’re a Wolves fan for the last 20 years," Minnesota beat writer Jerry Zgoda said, per Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck. "But he’s the guy that defines all that is."
The Wolves haven’t been to the postseason a single time since Garnett was dealt to the Celtics, who won a title in his first season there. That season, KG gave everyone a clearer picture of another trait that set him apart: leadership.
He anchored a league-leading defense that surrendered just 96.2 points per 100 possessions in 2007-08. For context, Boston’s No. 1 defense this season allows 99.7 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
And it was pretty easy to see why the Celtics were so dominant defensively that season.
"He’s changed our culture defensively," Boston coach Doc Rivers said, per ESPN. "That’s the most important thing, just the team part of it. Individually, he’s been fantastic, but I think his presence for the team is what stood out."
"I talk. I understand how defense works," Garnett said after winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, per ESPN. "Communication’s probably the biggest thing when it comes to defense."
Garnett will go down as one of the most notorious talkers in league history, and yet, his game always spoke even louder than his mouth.
That year, KG led Boston to its first NBA title since 1986. And in just six seasons, he climbed all the way to ninth in the Celtics’ storied history in Wins Over Replacement Player, per Basketball Reference.
All told, Garnett played 21 seasons of NBA basketball and left an indelible impression that would pave the way for a new generation of playmaking bigs.
His skills were probably 10 or 15 years ahead of his time, but he was so good that he dominated the 2000s anyway," Andrew Sharp wrote for Sports Illustrated. "Imagine Draymond Green, but five inches taller, and better at every phase of the game. That was KG."
The next time you see Jokic running a fast break, Giannis running an offense or Draymond jawing after an and-one, remember who came first.
Garnett entered the league at a time when big men ruled the game but were mostly confined to the paint. He not only helped the bigs maintain their rule, he expanded the kingdom to include the whole floor.
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February 15, 2018 at 07:33AM