March 18, 2010

The fall of Da Kid

Switch on a Boston Celtic game now, and when you see Kevin Garnett struggling to pace up and down the basketball court, getting lost on the offensive end, and failing to match his outward intensity with efficient play, a new NBA fan may be fooled in believing that the thin 6’11” power forward could have ever been better than the 14 points and seven and a half rebounds per game he has averaged this season.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Slowed by a right knee strain and nearly 34 years of his age, ‘KG’ has unfortunately become a mere shadow of the player that only two years ago was NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, leading the Celtics to an NBA championship in the 2007-08 season. In 15 years in the league, he’s the same player that has averaged 19.9 points and 10.9 rebounds a game. He’s the same player that was the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the 2003-04 season, recording career highs in points (24.2), rebounds (13.9), blocks (2.2), getting 5 assists a game, and leading the league in rebounds. He’s the same player that has been named to every NBA all star game since his second season in the league.

Allow me to re-introduce to you one of the greatest basketball players of the past 15 years, and one of my personal favourites since I first started to watch the NBA: Kevin Garnett, or as he used to be called as a youngster straight out of high school, ‘Da Kid’.

KG is a Celtic now, but he has become to the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise what Michael Jordan is to the Chicago Bulls, what LeBron James is to the Cleveland Cavaliers, what Reggie Miller is to the Indiana Pacers, Gary Payton to the Seattle Supersonics, Dwyane Wade to the Miami Heat, Dominique Wilkins to the Atlanta Hawks, Allen Iverson to the Philadelphia 76ers, and Tim Duncan to the San Antonio Spurs. These players, at least in the contemporary age of basketball, are the faces of the franchise, the first face that pops up in your head when you think of these teams.

Garnett spent 12 long, hard, and exemplarily loyal years with the T-Wolves, taking a below average team to the playoffs for eight straight years from 1997-2004. And below average is right, for except for that successful 2003-04 season, the best players that Garnett played with for the rest of those eight years was Wally Szczerbiak. Wally friggin Szearayaerabziaakkk!!!

The 2003-04 season was wonder for KG, for the T-Wolves got the services of Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, and besides winning the MVP with this great supporting crew, Garnett took the team to the Western Conference finals for the first time, only to lose out to the ‘Fantastic Four’ Lakers team (Payton, Kobe, Malone, Shaq).

Through these years, what Garnett’s incredible stats didn’t say became part of his credibility. He was one of the league’s most dominating defenders, and his presence in the paint was enough to change the entire attacking philosophy of the opposing team. He was also one of the most passionate players to ever hit a basketball court, wearing every single emotion on his sleeve, so much so that it was impossible to not love his style of play.

Garnett’s influence on the NBA has been massive, both on and off the court. Before star players like Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady, Amar’’’e Stoudemire, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard did it, Garnett broke a 20 year mould and skipped college to go straight from High School to the pros. And he was a freak of nature – a player that is nearly the height of the centre but with the on the ball skills of a perimeter slasher. KG played between small forward and power forward for most of his career, completely changing the required skill-set of a big man in the league – thanks to Garnett, you could be big and handle the ball like a guard.

And there’s yet another reason why I have a special affinity towards Da Kid: In July 2006, as part of a now-struggling Timberwolves team and constantly bothered by trade rumours, KG came to India as part of a promotional tour for adidas. The tour stopped in several Indian cities, and you can read about it here on KG’s Asia tour blog.

What made this tour special was that, by sheer providence, I happened to be in New Delhi on the day that Garnett was invited to a high school in New Delhi to hand out trophies for a youth basketball tournament in the city. I didn’t miss the opportunity to sneak in and catch sight of him, as he towered over hundreds of admiring school kids and about two dozen personnel and security men.

As KG was ushered by his security out the school gym after the awards ceremony and towards his bus, I ran up near him to have this now legendary conversation!

Me: KG!! KG!! Hey KG, you should join the Knicks man!
KG: [laughter]

Ya, that’s it. Then I took this photo

Almost exactly a year later, Garnett finally did get traded. Not to my hapless Knicks, but to the hapless Boston Celtics to suddenly reignite the fortunes of the legendary franchise. The Celtics were coming off another awful season, winning just 24 games and ending with the second worst record in the league. Even the Timberwolves won eight more games than them.

But this historic trade changed it all. After acquiring Ray Allen from the Sonics, Celtics then traded SIX players (SIX!) for Garnett. That is HALF THEIR ACTIVE ROSTER: Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, and Sebastian Telfair. Oh, and there was more, Celtics gave up a 2009 first round draft pick (top three protected) and a return of Minnesota's conditional first round draft pick, AND cash.

What happened the following season is stuff of folklore. KG joined Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in the Celtics to form a formidable ‘Big Three’, who went on to have the best record in the NBA with 66 wins, posting the best single-season turnaround in NBA history, improving by 42 wins from the previous season. Imagine that! The second-worst team gives up six players for one player, finds another sharp-shooter in Allen, and becomes the best team. It’s incredible.

Of course, this team went on to win the NBA finals against the Lakers, 4-2. After a 13 year hunt, KG’s dream of lifting the NBA trophy finally came true, and with it came what I believe is the most emotional moment in NBA basketball. Watch this video of Garnett’s post-game interview at the end of Game 6, right after the Celtics had blown out the Lakers to win the championship:

What is most amazing is how Garnett completely changed the basketball culture of Boston, getting the team and its fans used to winning again, becoming a top defensive team, and playing as an amazing well-oiled machine, so much so that the rest of the team played like him even when he wasn’t on the court. Garnett was the defensive player of the year that season. The league awarded the MVP to Kobe which seemed to me to be more like a lifetime achievement award, but it really should’ve gone to Garnett for being the single most valuable player in the whole league.

So it goes: it is now two years since that legendary season, and age seems to have finally caught up with KG (and the rest of the Celtics). Thanks mostly to Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen this season they are still one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, but far from the untouchable world beaters that they looked merely two years ago. As of now, the Cavs seem to be the favourites to win the East, and teams like the Magic are looking formidable too. Out West, the Lakers, Nuggets, Mavericks, Jazz are all gunning for the title, and the Celtics have a lot of hard work to do to win another championship.

Da Kid is now an old man (well, in the pro-basketball sense, at least!) and is no more the game changer that he once used to be. He is still an elite talent, of course, but to lift his team to the top of the NBA summit again, KG has to rise to the occasion and prove that he still has what it takes to be amongst the world’s best. Rondo has been amazing this season, and Allen has found his brilliant shooting touch again. Pierce is great, but inconsistent. In the end, I believe it all rests on the Garnett’s broad shoulders.

But as KG himself proclaimed in that famous interview after winning his first championship: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!!

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