April 19, 2010
It's a question that I get asked incessantly, and I can't possibly tell you why I'm still surprised by it. I mean, if you write about cars for a living, you better be ready to say "Audi R8" when a stranger inevitably asks you what your favorite car is.
And because Kobe Bryant(notes) is too polarizing, fair-weather fans really haven't forgotton Colorado and Steve Nash(notes) a little too ... typical, for years, my consistent answer to "who's your favorite player" has been "Kevin Garnett."
Say that to a basketball nut, though, and you're bound to take a little heat. Because for the duration of his three-season stay in Boston, Kevin Garnett(notes) has been rightfully regarded as, well, a bit of an ass.
And this isn't solely due to mainstreaming of his play dates. This isn't because he's on national TV more often, because of the Celtics' status as an elite team. He pulled some of this crap in Minnesota, but not nearly to this extent.
No, this is all on K.G., acting more and more the ass, and forcing people (we only have so much room up there, y'know) to forget what made him so special in the first place.
At his best, only Dennis Rodman was a more versatile defender than K.G. I ranked him as the second-best player of the last decade, and that wasn't an attention-grab or further proof about how much I must hate Kobe Bryant, as was often suggested. It's because he was a better player. And because defense is half the game, Garnett was closer to Tim Duncan's(notes) top spot on that list than Kobe was to K.G.'s secondary status.
Defense is merely half of Garnett's game, though. As all-world as Kevin was on that end, his offense was no slouch. Consistent 20-point, 10-rebound, five-assist nights, usually with a bit more than 20 and a lot more than 10, if you dig. He was a monster. And after wasting away with 13 different 6-2 shooting guards as teammates during his last years in Minnesota, K.G. got to be the best player on a championship team in 2008.
And now, two years later, people don't really care for him. And for good reason.
Garnett threw an elbow at Quentin Richardson(notes) on Saturday night, and though you can kind of see how Garnett was just flailing his arms and trying to swim his way out of a scrum ... nah. He tossed an elbow at Q-Rich's head, and he was rightfully suspended for Game 2 because of it.
And even though we've been assured of a suspension since Saturday night, this incident just hit home to me. K.G. just took himself out of Game 2. He might not be Boston's best player anymore (at this point, who is? who's stepped forward in any meaningful way recently?), but he's certainly the team's most important player, and he just took himself out of Game 2 and might have handed the Heat the home-court advantage along the way. Five-and-a-half months of regular season work, gone with one elbow.
Thanks a lot, K.G.
Of course, the list of misdeeds doesn't end there. There was the woofing from the Boston bench during the playoffs last season, an embarrassing display. There's the incessant trash talking and harrassment sent the way of — yeah, I'll say it — European players almost as a rule. There was the time he made Glen Davis(notes) cry on national TV because he wasn't happy with Davis' defensive rotations in a game the C's were up 20.
There's just the perpetual displays of emotion and rage and over-wrought warrior-isms, and it's tiring. That's always been part of the K.G. package, he was always the last to leave the shower, always the first to step into in-game mode before the game actually started, but never to this degree. This isn't just the difference between Minnesota and Boston, and it's certainly not just because of the difference in how many games K.G.'s teams are winning these days. Boston was .500 over the last three-and-a-half months of the season, and those Timberwolves teams piled up their fair share of wins a few times.
So why now? Why this sudden regression into, dare I say, childish petulance? Well, you've seen it before.
He's a lion in winter.
He's older, the legs aren't there, the hops have hopped out of him and he's scared. He's insecure, he's never had to play basketball like this, he doesn't like it and he's lashing out. He's the basketball version of a distinguished gentleman suddenly turning into a right old coot in a senior citizen's home, treating the help like dirt for reasons that don't go beyond the fact that the distinguished gentleman needs help, now.
K.G. needs help, now. He's still a borderline All-Star, per-minute. He's still the biggest reason why Boston was ranked in the top three in defensive efficiency for most of the season. He can still hit the jumper, he can still crash the boards and he can still cover big stretches of the court in a way that would make a 23-year-old colt shake his head in wonder.
But he's nowhere near the K.G. we saw dominate this league in 2003-04 or dominate defensively in 2007-08. And he's the first person to see this because he's got a first-hand glance at just how far away that rim is compared to where it used to be when he tried to jump real high. Whether he wants to talk about it or not, yeah, K.G. knows.
Cornered by his own increasing frailties, Garnett lashes out. He didn't need to throw that elbow. He didn't need to have Paul Pierce's(notes) back. He doesn't need any of this, but he presses on. And he loses more and more fans — hell, more and more admirers in the process.
He wasn't caught somewhere with a gun. He didn't fool around with too many women. He didn't cheat, he didn't drug himself up and didn't embarrass himself off the court.
And though Garnett's dive into infamy won't be familiar to the readers of grocery store checkout magazines, we are seeing the vissitudes of on-court stardom as opposed to off-court stardom.
That's what made K.G. so special. He was, for us, the on-court star, the guy only the true hoop heads knew about. Famous for game only, nothing else.
And that fame, such a drug for the others that dot those magazines — whether they moonlight in the sports world or not — is just as addicting. Why wouldn't it be? When you can stop a five-man team from running a play by your lonesome on three consecutive possessions, dotting the turn with a few jumpers and a nifty extra pass, why wouldn't you get addicted to being that good? It's as addictive, I'm sure, as playing your biggest hit in front of 20,000 screaming fans or walking into a movie theater to watch your own movie while being mobbed by hundreds of well-wishers and dozens of cameramen.
Garnett's excellence, though, has gone away. He's not just another guy, but that rush is getting harder and harder to acquire these days. So he has to bring that excitement back, chasing that high, by making the game nastier and more intense. It helps remind him of what he once was.
The sad thing is, he's losing the sort of fans that used to gush endlessly about what he once was.