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Assessing KG: The low-impact defender
by Dennis Hans / February 7, 2005

Kevin Garnett reminds me of my Aunt Mildred’s aerobics class: low impact.

“Low impact” is a good thing for little old ladies looking to minimize the risk of injury when working out. It’s not such a good thing if you’re supposed to be an NBA superstar.

KG is a great player, but he’s not special. Perhaps coach Flip Saunders doesn’t demand enough of him, or perhaps he’s evolved into a too-cautious player to ensure that he never gets in foul trouble and thus is there for his teammates 40 minutes every game, including every second of crunch time. Maybe he lacks the killer instinct of a Bird, Magic, Jordan, Isiah, Iverson, Kobe or Shaq.

It’s also possible that he’s playing up to his potential and simply doesn’t have the raw talent to be a high-impact stud. Maybe the reason he doesn’t play like Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan and David Robinson (at both ends of the court) or Bill Russell, Ben Wallace or Dikembe Mutombo (at the defensive end) is that he can’t.

Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, KG rarely dominates. Consistency is his hallmark; most every night, he merits a grade of “very good.” He puts up numbers and plays a well-rounded game. But it seems to me that he’s not being all that he can be.

What makes the six centers or center/forwards listed above special is that all five on-court members of the opposing team are (or were) aware of the stopper’s presence. Russell revolutionized the NBA game with his defensive prowess. He would shut down his own man (unless that man was named Wilt Chamberlain) while serving as a constant nuisance to the other four foes. Russell was forever in the head of every opposing player.

That’s not the case with KG. Generally, the four guys on the other team who aren’t being guarded by KG aren’t hearing – or imagining – his footsteps. If one of those guys takes it to the hoop or shoots a runner in the lane, KG is more likely to be carving out rebounding position in the event of a miss than taking action to make the guy miss.

For his career, KG averages an anemic 1.8 blocks per game in 38 minutes. This season, in his physical prime at age 28, he’s averaging a truly pathetic 1.38 blocks in 39 minutes. Through games of Feb. 6, he’s the 30th best shot blocker in the league right behind a converted small forward (Shawn Marion), two guys who play about half as many minutes as KG (Dan Gadzuric and Chris Andersen) and one guy who puts in one-third the minutes (Steven Hunter). Tim Duncan is blocking twice as many shots as KG despite playing just 35 minutes per game. Andrei Kirilenko blocks a shot every 8 minutes; KG blocks one every 28 minutes. Even Yao Ming swats more shots than KG.

David Robinson in his 30-and-younger seasons averaged anywhere between a low of 3.2 blocks and a high of 4.5. Hakeem Olajuwon’s prime seasons featured 3 or 4 blocks per night. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar blocked 4 a game in the season that he turned 32. Russell, with the same frame as KG but listed an inch shorter, played before blocks became an official NBA stat. Given the fear he instilled, he likely averaged at least 4 blocks for his career.

Ben Wallace, who might not even be the 6-9 he’s officially listed as, blocked 3.5 and 3.2 shots per night in his two Defensive Player of the Year seasons. Also, Ben usually accumulates at least as many steals as KG. Hakeem averaged many more steals in his prime seasons than either Ben or KG.

There’s a reason why smart people rarely think of KG as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year: They sense the absence of his defensive “presence.”

Now here’s what I’m not sure about: Is KG physically incapable of being a defensive monster, a guy who causes nightmares for players because he’s seemingly everywhere, so that even if he doesn’t get your shot you nevertheless think he will and so you shoot too soon or overdo the arc?

Considering that KG is 6-11 with very long arms, great coordination and excellent timing, and considering that he’s a good jumper who is quick off his feet and has long, effortless strides that allow him to cover ground in a hurry, he would seem to have the ingredients to be a standout swatter. He should be able to average 3 blocks a game and still be a good man-on-man defender and passing-lane hawk, a la Russell, Big Ben and Hakeem.

Two related attributes of great shot blockers are (1) they don’t have to gather before jumping, and (2) they get off the floor incredibly quickly. KG’s teammate Eddie Griffin barely gets off the ground, but the combination of his length, timing and lightning-quick but low-altitude jumps make him a terrific swatter (1.7 in only 22 minutes a night, which would be 3.0 a night if he played KG’s minutes and maintained his pace). Although KG appears to me to get off the floor in non-gathering situations pretty quickly, it’s possible he lacks the blinding reflex-jumping quickness of a Kirilenko, Russell or young Mutombo.

Thus, it’s possible KG’s swat potential is, say, 2.4 per game rather than 4.2, and if he tried to lead the league he’d hurt his team by continually taking himself out of rebounding position while blocking or changing relatively few shots. But it’s hard for me to believe that he’s helping the Wolves as much as he can at 1.4 per game.

There’s only one way to find out if KG’s anemic swatting numbers are primarily the product of physical limitations or KG’s lack of a swatter’s mentality and the failure of Flip Saunders to help him develop one: Saunders must challenge KG to be a defender in the style of Russell, Big Ben, Mutombo and Hakeem.

In this two-month-long experiment, KG will assume the identity of “The Wolfman” and go after enough shots that opposing players become keenly aware of his presence. After two months, KG and the Wolves braintrust can assess the results and adjust his swatting mindset to whatever is best for the Wolves. If he’s a dismal failure as Wolfman, he’ll have to dial back his approach, though maybe not all the way back to what we’ve seen so far this season. If Wolfman is a howling success, then there’s nothing to change.

More than likely, he’ll probably have to tone things down at least a tad, reserving 100-percent Wolfman for full moons. But the experiment is an absolute necessity to establish how much of a defensive force KG is capable of being. Because right now, the answer is a disappointing “Not much.”

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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