Hall-of-Fame big man Kevin Garnett’s legacy is undeniably great.
He’s got a ring to his name. He made 15 All-Star appearances. He was an All-NBA player nine times. He could do a bit of everything on offense. He was a monster on the glass. And he’s one of the most intense defenders the sport has ever seen.
And yet it seems like The Big Ticket is already being underrated in discussions about all-time greats even though he only retired after the 2015-16 season.
Below, we break down why we think Garnett is underrated.
He was one of the league's first positionless stars...
Before it became as popular as it is in the modern NBA, it was rare to see playmaking, ball-handling big men who could bring the ball down the floor and initiate offense on their own.
But Garnett throughout the late ’90s and early ’00s did just that – and did it at an elite level. It’s scary to think about what the dynamic power forward could have done in today’s NBA with how the rules are set up and offenses are built.
Garnett made his mark statistically as a playmaker during his Timberwolves days; he averaged 4.5 assists nightly over his first 12 years in the league – a nearly unheard of number for big men of that era – and for his career, his 5,445 career dimes rank second to just Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most ever by a traditional power forward/center.
Plop 2003-04 Garnett – the year he won MVP and posted an unreal 24.2/13.9/5.0/1.5/2.2 stat line – into today’s NBA and there’s no doubt his already insane statistics would have been even more ridiculous.
Garnett truly laid the groundwork for a lot of the multi-talented, bucket-creating big men that we see today, like Nikola Jokic and Bam Adebayo, and did what those guys are doing today at an even higher level, and at a time when other bigs were almost all paint-bound.
Garnett was an innovator.
He excelled on both ends of the floor...
In his prime, not only was Garnett thriving offensively with his elite face-up game and playmaking chops, but he was also an absolute beast on the less glamorous end of the floor defensively.
Garnett was not just ferocious personality-wise on the court, but he had fantastic shot-blocking and lane-jumping instincts, an unreal motor, quick feet and long arms, all of which helped him pick up tons of steals and blocks and gave his teams huge boosts on the defensive end.
In 2007-08, Garnett’s first season with the Celtics, he took home Defensive Player of the Year after leading Boston’s backline defense to allow just 98.1 points per 100 possessions on the campaign, the No. 1 mark in the league that year by a solid margin.
During Garnett’s six years in Boston, the Celtics were Top 3 in Defensive Efficiency four times, Top 5 five times and never fell below seventh.
Garnett was a true leader on the defensive end of the floor and used his athleticism and size fantastically on that end.
Most importantly, he cared about defense at a level that not many other superstars do, and that was clearly reflected every time you saw him play. He wasn’t one to save his energy for the offensive end, which helped his teams but hurt his stats; had he channeled his energy only on the point-scoring side of the floor, his statistics would have been even crazier.
But Garnett rightly realized that defense is a crucial aspect of basketball and played that way.
His collection of accolades is very unique...
Throughout his illustrious 21-season career, Garnett amassed a ridiculous amount of hardware.
Below, some of the most unique benchmarks the big man set during his playing days:
- At nine, he’s tied for the most 1st Team All-Defense selections, along with Michael Jordan, Gary Payton and Kobe Bryant.
- Amongst just bigs, he’s No. 1 all-time in 1st Team All-Defense selections.
- He’s one of just three players with at least 12 All-Defense selections, along with Bryant (12) and Tim Duncan (15).
- He’s one of just seven players with at least 15 All-Star selections.
- Only he and Bryant have at least nine 1st Team All-Defenses and 15 All-Star selections.
- He’s one of just five players with an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year award.
- He’s fourth in most minutes played in a career.
- And since 1973-74, he’s No. 1 in defensive rebounds accumulated.
And there’s no doubt, had Garnett not been as loyal to Minnesota early on in his career, he’d have even more accolades to his name.
Garnett finished his career with just one league MVP trophy (he likely deserved more, based on the numbers) and zero Finals MVPs; had Garnett played with more star power in his prime and gotten the chance to play for more championships, there’s a good chance he could have taken home at least one Finals MVP award.
But his loyalty ultimately negatively affected the accolades he received.
He would have been an analytics darling in this era...
Although Garnett was impressive enough in his prime just looking at the raw statistics, the analytics rated the South Carolina native even more highly.
For his career, Garnett ranks ninth overall in Win Shares, 17th in Box Plus/Minus and fifth in Value Over Replacement Player, metrics that point to Garnett as one of the greatest players of all time, even if he hasn’t always discussed as one.
He also led the NBA in both Win Shares and Player Efficiency Rating back-to-back years, something that not many other players can claim to have done. (The exact number is difficult to pinpoint since those statistics require play-by-play data that wasn’t readily available before 1996-97.)
Nevertheless, the analytics Garnett put up speak for themselves, and if he had played in today’s NBA, they would have been even better considering Garnett likely would have extended his range to beyond the arc.
His longevity was insane...
Garnett’s first All-Star season came when he was 20 in the 1996-97 campaign while his final All-Star season came when he was 36 in the 2012-13 campaign, 16 years later.
Only once did he fail to reach All-Star status in that 16-year stretch.
What’s more, his 15 All-Star appearances are tied for the fourth-most of all time, trailing just Abdul-Jabbar, Bryant and LeBron James.
In 2007-08, when Garnett joined the Celtics in his 13th season, he helped take Boston from a league-worst 24-58 record to a 66-16 campaign and an NBA championship as a 31-year-old.
And although he didn’t win MVP or Finals MVP that season (he did finish third in the voting for the former), he was still without a doubt the Celtics’ best player, dominating both ends of the floor and finishing first on the team in Box Plus/Minus, Value Over Replacement Player and Win Shares – all by a fairly sizeable margin.
Keep in mind that he did that with already 12 seasons’ worth of mileage on his body by that point.
We should also note that Garnett’s 20 Player of the Week awards is the seventh-most ever, and he won them in a stretch of 13 years between 1999 and 2012. That’s the eighth-longest span between a player’s first and final Player of the Week award in league history.
In all, not only was Garnett’s peak as a player up there with the best we’ve ever seen, but he was also consistently dominant for almost two decades.
And had Garnett not spent the first 12 years of his career when he was at his absolute freakish physical peak in Minnesota, there’s little doubt he’d be remembered more fondly for what he was: One of the best players in NBA history.