Is This How It's Going to End for Kevin Garnett?

KG_nothing_going_my_way - Elsa

On Wednesday night, for that one quarter, Kevin Garnett looked like his old self again, a difference-maker, the pro's pro. Was it a sign of things to come or just a blip? Romy Nehme takes a look at where KG is on his NBA journey.

The seasons are a changin’, but it’s only this season that KG’s shot chart has begun to hemorrhage from EVERYWHERE.

From the outside, everything still looks the same: KG’s majestic frame, the way the air feels different when he walks into a room, the effect he has on teammates and how that percolates throughout every rank of every organization he touches [1]. He still handles post game conferences with that same half serene, half agitated quality -- firing playful bites and snipes in friendly retaliation to questions from the media. His on and off the court maniacal habits remain, right down to his signature pre-game pressure cooker routine and the way he plays himself into a furiously premature sweat. But underneath that beautiful brass exterior lies a muted cymbal with a muffled timbre.

*****

This season has been an endless slog for Kevin Garnett, who has seemingly been doing his best impression of a 40 something, knee-pad-wearing Kevin Willis. He came to Brooklyn expecting to be the fourth or fifth option on a loaded team, but these days, his box score has the look of an empty restaurant on a Saturday night. While most players whose jerseys are destined for the rafters fight the role player label with every ounce of waning superstar ability left in their bodies, KG snuggles up to it a little bit too comfortably. He takes his role as a facilitator to the "no, you first" edge of the spectrum, and often to the detriment of the team.

He’s so unselfish, I think he would have scored another 10,000 points if he wanted", said Doc Rivers in December when the Clips were in town. "He’s the only player I’ve ever yelled at for not shooting. He always felt like if he took three or four shots in a row, that was too many. He needed to share the ball.

Do you remember the metaphorical foot Doc had up KG’s ass (per KG)? Part of Doc Rivers’ magic was his ability to coat a stern sermon in sweet, fluffy marshmallows and curb KG’s natural inclination to defer to teammates. That doesn’t seem to be the case here in Brooklyn. That much was confirmed after another sound trouncing when KG had this to say: "I’m not a primary here. Coming here, I didn’t assess myself as that. I don’t get plays called from me." So far Jason Kidd seems unable of putting his foot up anyone’s derriere, just gentle stabs in their backs. [2]

*****

Earlier this week, David Berri wrote a piece in The Atlantic claiming that expectations that KG would be productive in black and white were naive; that "Jason Kidd may look overmatched on the sideline, but there was never much he or any other coach could do"; that "aging ultimately reduces the productivity of all athletes", and "just as he (Kidd) could not stop the effects of aging in his own life, he does not have the power to return Garnett, Pierce, or any of the other aging stars this team employs to what we saw in the past." (For context, David Berri also predicted that the Nets would win 32 games last year, good for 11th in the East.) Yet we have seen an amazing surge in longevity permeate the NBA over the five years; are we all of a sudden expected to acquiesce to the abrupt short-circuiting of one of our generation’s most game-changing stars because of the blanket notion that age alone implies the curdling of one’s ability?

Players now laugh in the face of Father Time’s prescriptions of temperance. In some extreme cases, they’re not just slowing down the effects of the inverted U curve of NBA productivity, but flat out reversing them.

I wrote that last year in the context of players managing to stave off the effects of age and wear and tear well into their 30s with an assist from medical and technological advancements [3]. Those of us who watched the presumed three-year plan in Boston stretch into six, marveling at KG’s ability to up his output in times of need, to dig deeper and deeper still when everyone had pronounced his career dead, know that "well, what did you expect?" is just lazy historical revisionism. You don’t have to go far back to find a time when KG was playing solid basketball, either. Log into TimeHop and you’ll find a spry KG finishing off the 2012-2013 season by going 37 of 62 from the field (60% FG) through the last six games of the regular season.

Yet the perception of his game has torpedoed so precipitously that a YES commentator uttered the following during a broadcast in what was intended as praise: "whether he’s scoring 3 or 10 points," followed by your favorite cliche about intangibles and KG making his presence felt regardless of point production. Let that sink in. KG’s new performance floor is 3 points. Per game. His ceiling on any given night? Hold on to your berets: 10 points (a mark he has hit only five times this season).

*****

It’s strange for firsts of any kind to arise 19 years into any career, but such has been the case with KG this season. He’s currently shooting sub 40% in 22 minutes of spotty playing time, lost at the Target Center for the first time, and if SportVU had a "hot potato" stat (touch-per-shots), KG would be right up there when adjusted for shooting ability. He’s currently averaging 25.3 touches in the frontcourt per game, and shoots it roughly once every 3.4 times he touches the ball (saboteur of NY basketball extraordinaire, Bargs, averages 29 touches and launches 13 times a game, good for a shot every 2.3 touches; that number is 2.2 for Ibaka and 2.8 for Gortat). When KG isn’t instinctively swinging the ball to the next teammate without so much as bothering to register the distance between himself and the closest defender, he’s contriving a shot almost in an attempt at obeying an internal prescription.

KG is also letting more 15-19ft errant jump shots fly than ever before. But it's not a matter of touch and range as it is of general rhythm and flow. What used to be tempo-steadying dribbles leading into his shot now resemble a stutter. Especially earlier in the season, KG could be seen drifting behind the three point line in halfcourt sets or after setting a pick instead of staking a claim in the post or at least assuming his post within reasonable firing range. And those costly precious inches have the effect of either alienating KG from a play altogether or forcing an awkward lunge back into two point territory to get his shot off.

Instead of coolly stepping into it (2012-2013)

This play encapsulates both KG's tendency to err to the 3 point line, followed by what happens when he ventures into the paint after a pick (mind you, both Pistons defenders pay no mind to KG, instead choosing to blitz Joe Johnson instead.)

Straying to the periphery has also negated his back to the basket game -- both his prescient awareness as a passer and that effective turnaround, which has been MIA since last season [4]. In other cases, it's head-scratching decisions like passing up a shot in favor of flinging the ball to the corner to an unsuspecting Livingston, who would sooner leap into courtside seats before loading one up from there.

What happens when a persona so reliant on exuberance-bordering-on-battiness falls out of step with a player's feel, which unwittingly deserts him? When rhythm, as innate as a pulse and so fundamental to everything KG once did on a basketball court, simply abandons him? Without the production to match the prickliness, KG's antics start to appear hollow. It renders a heavyweight a caricature of his former self and it's become increasingly disheartening to watch (see: emboldened Primo pasta sauce hawkers who now come at KG without a newfound disrespect.)

*****

Doc Rivers claims his coaching staff had talked about moving KG over to Center before it happened, but the truth is that it concretized only in the winter of 2012 once brittle boned Jermaine O’Neal suffered a season-ending wrist injury that left the Celtics with no other options but to reconfigure their frontcourt.

Despite KG’s protestations, the move paid huge dividends.


*Net48 = offensive rating - defensive rating. Basically, PF = bad, and C = good. I omitted this year's numbers; they're both in the red. Caveat: small sample size for KG at C from 2008-2011.

While an injury to Lopez has forced the Nets’ hand in ways they never wished they would have to contemplate, many thought that playing KG where he has thrived the last few seasons would lift his game from the doldrums. It hasn’t happened yet. But he has a lot more to offer offensively as a stretch 5 -- where he’s the one goading squeamish centers to check him outside of their cushy zone -- instead of as an outmatched 4, where’s he’s merely a solid mid-range shooter with less room to get his shot off. On the other side of the ball, it helps hide KG’s decreasing lateral mobility and avoid one-on-one perimeter situations that expose his increasingly obvious shortcomings, especially since he’s sometimes prone to overplaying guys. More importantly, the paint is the purview where KG roams with the stealthy vigilance of a feline with one eye shut and the other tracking its target.

++++++++++

KG’s commercial life has also been mired in tragic faux-pas, as though matching his step-by-uncertain-step on the court:

A Chinese variant on KG’s boisterous trademark "Get that shit outta here!"?


That's embarrassing.

++++++++++

There is a type of celebrity whose public opinion ratings see-saw in a counterintuitive manner. We gawk and coo about our celebrities but jump at the chance to rip them apart when they fail us. In the case of these irk-inviting celebs, it’s the inverse. People love to shower Hilary with pity and warmth when she’s sputtering, but love to hate on her when she is making waves and threatening levels of real potency. You can measure KG’s relevance by the same metric; if blog-dwellers everywhere are stridently complaining of yet another transgression, whether it be barking down at smaller opponents, or accusations of blithe defamation of character, you know he is still meaningfully irritating.

Precious little has been said about KG this year, just shrugs, sad faces and I told you so’s -- the most damning indictment of all.

On his end, KG has admitted to a shaky faith. He addressed his lack of KG-ness earlier this season, saying: "I can be better in every part of my game. It’s not just one decisive thing. Obviously, my timing is off a little bit. I’ll get that. I’m super anxious around the basket. I’m hurrying shots." He followed that up with a candid: "Sometimes, I play against myself a little bit."

*****

There is also a chance that KG’s body is breaking down, that there is no stopping that downward sloping doomsday productivity curve. Have you ever imagined if Stan Lee decided to age Spiderman? Used to hanging off buildings, and swinging his way across the city and into acts of civic heroism, would his web-spinning yarn lose its sticky quality? Would his faltering sixth sense leave him perilously hanging and, ironically, pondering rescue options? The least Lee could do in that bleak scenario is have the decency to make sure the city would not suffer the same fate as Spiderman did. Alas, reality is not always so merciful. KG, one of the most private, prideful and dedicated NBA players of his generation, now toils on a risible spectacle of garish spending and 2014 notwithstanding, underperforming [5].

Long gone are the days of KG scoffing at the media’s claims of agism, waving a hand in disdain at its "pathetic articles and lousy analysis". In its stead, a kind of quiet tenacity or tacit going along with the circumstances has set in.

Which one it is, and what will transpire in the face of discomfiting factors that have bore their weight on KG’s game and psyche, only time will tell.

=====

[1] He’s still the one leading by example, whether it’s being the most vocal guy during a drill or stepping in as maestro to a birthday singing quartet (who’s performance he admonishes with his bulging eyes). But being the resident cheerleader is demeaning to someone of KG’s caliber; "It’s not about just being a voice, but putting a physical presence to the game and coming in and doing it", he says. Something that’s become increasingly rare these days despite KG sticking to the same dogged principles that have gotten him this far.

[2] If we are to believe scathing reports floating on the interwebs, Kidd’s regime is akin to an authoritarian reign of terror with no order.

[3] Just look at what happened to Jason Kidd’s PER well after his dreaded microfracture surgery, Kevin Garnett’s even after the Celtics’ championship, Tim Duncan’s late career resurgence or Kobe Bryant’s quasi-bionic return to form last season. It might have been the case that you could once model a player’s career, close your eyes and time a flick of the wand to coincide with the moment a hero would begin his fall, never again changing trajectories until his eventual demise, but this thing called science has really thrown a wrench in those models.

[4] % of shots that were turnarounds in 2012-2013: 18%. 2013-2014: 11%. KG’s been rolling and diving a bit more aggressively of late; it remains to see if that trend sticks.

[5] Trust me, I too was a believer.


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