The NBA Dribbled Out

The Debate

The debate about the best power forwards over the course of the current millennium isn’t new. In fact, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan are almost identical statistically, both for their careers and head-to-head. Over the course of their careers, Duncan has averaged more rebounds and blocks, but Garnett more assists and steals; they’re almost identical putting the ball in the hoop (with Duncan slightly ahead at 20.1 p.p.g vs. Garnett’s 19.1), but Garnett shoots better from the outside and the free throw line while Duncan shoots a bit more efficiently from the field as a whole, but only by a paper-thin margin.

Not only that, if you look at their average field goal attempts per game and their average field goals made per game, they’re identical! Do you have any idea how rare it is that two hall-of-fame players in the league at the same time, playing the same position, and having both played over 1000 games would end up with the exact same fg/fga percentages on a per game basis? It’s like [insert some simile about something that’s really rare—like being struck by lightening—but which is impossible for anyone to calculate whether it’s an accurate comparison). 

They’re 2 & 3 for Hall of Fame probability among active players and 16 & 22 among players all-time with Duncan ahead, again—very slightly, using basketball-reference’s metrics. Duncan has also won more MVPs (2 to 1), more titles (4-1) more Finals MVP awards (3-0), and a ROY award; Garnett has a DPOY award and more all-star game appearances (13-12), but that last one is due primarily to the fact he came into the league two years before Duncan left Wake Forest.

Duncan is probably the greatest power forward of all time (sorry Mailman fans), and that’s primarily a result of his four titles (‘99, ‘03, ‘05, ‘07). But his coach was Gregg Popovich, a future hall-of-famer in his own right, and Duncan was able to team with David Robinson (HOF), Avery Johnson, Sean Elliot, Mario Elie, Manu Ginobili (possible future HOF) and Tony Parker (possible future HOF) during his career. Garnett floundered with a bevy of crappy teams in Minnesota before getting dealt to Boston in the summer of 2007 and promptly winning his first—and only—ring the next summer. But looking at both player’s prime years (in this case between the ages of 24 and 30, since they’re were born only 24 days apart in 1976), tells a different case.

The only year Garnett really had some talent around him in Minnesota, during the 2003-04 season when 33 year-old Sam Cassell and 34 year-old Latrell Sprewell joined the squad and played OK, he won his only MVP, and finally led his team out of the first round of the playoffs. During the Western Conference Semifinals that year, he even put up a 32 point, 21 rebound, 5 block, 4 steal game 7 in a close and low-scoring (83-80) win against a still-frisky Adelman-led Sacramento team. Sure, Garnett’s adequately talented squad that year (Wally Szczerbiak was their fourth-leading scorer that year) would lose to the Lakers’ inaugural super team of the millennium in the Western Conference Finals (the failed Mailman and Glove experiment that showed everyone just how complicated the triangle offense was and how strained Kobe and Shaq had become), but Garnett was still an awesome sight to behold that year. He had a pretty turn-around in the lane, which he could hit over anyone he wanted, plus the length and strength of youth, which bordered on LeBron-esque proportions in its you had to see it to believe it aura. Garnett could do whatever he wanted on the court and was unquestionably the best player in the league posting a league-leading PER of 29.3. Duncan was second at 27.1.

Garnett’s best season in a Timberwolves uniform reawakened a Duncan-Garnett debate that had gone hugely in Duncan’s favor after his two titles teamed with Robinson (‘99 and ‘03) and his back-to-back MVP awards in 2002 and 2003; especially when you combine Duncan’s successes with a string of first round playoff exits for Garnett. But Garnett proved in that ‘03-‘04 season he was a force to be reckoned with as the leader of a real title-threat of a team when he had teammates that could help him. 

Unfortunately, over the next three seasons, when Garnett and Duncan were both still in their primes, the Timberwolves were awful, finishing just one season over .500 and never again making the playoffs. Meanwhile, in the same span, Duncan went ahead and won 2 more titles, and the debate was—seemingly—over; except, Garnett was pretty good in his prime, too; he just had a crappy supporting cast.

In Garnett’s last three seasons in Minnesota, when they failed to make the playoffs and Duncan was winning the last two of his titles, Garnett averaged more points, more rebounds, more assists, more steals, and a higher PER than Duncan. It’s true! (here’s the yearly comparison: 2005, 2006, 2007). Not counting Garnett’s final season in Minnesota, when his team was one of the worst in the league and KG was frustrated enough to actually relent when they asked if he wanted to be dealt to Boston that summer (he’d steadfastly and honorably refused to ask for a trade during the years of losing, something rare these days), he was actually better than Duncan on Win Shares and field goal percentage, too. By all qualitative measurements, Garnett was the statistically superior player than Duncan for the four years preceding his trade to Boston.

But what about, you’re probably thinking, Duncan’s MVP campaigns in 2002 and 2003, when it was apparent to most people he was the most dominant player in the league (back-to-back MVP’s have a tendency to do that, with the possible exception of Stevie Nash)? In 2003, they were about even, statistically speaking. In 2002, Duncan was better, but not by much. In 2001, same thing: Duncan was a little better, but Garnett was right there. All told, between 2001 and 2007 when both players were in their primes (24-30 years-old), Garnett had a superior statistical season than Duncan in 4 or 5 years of those 7 seasons.

If we’re talking overall resume, it’s Duncan, but it’s only the rings that push him past KG. Statistically, it’s basically even over the long haul, but Garnett gets a slight edge over Duncan since he was statistically superior during their primes. Since their stats are so close over their careers—even though Garnett was superior in their primes—Duncan barely rings wins out. You just can’t overlook the hardware; Bill Russell taught me that. 

What adds a little fuel to the debate is their acrimonious relationship, which is a nice reminder that not everyone is going out to dinner the night before they play.

Instead of talking about their accolades, stats and titles, to differentiate them, lets do something different. Keep this in mind before freaking out, I already wrote that Duncan wins a straight-up basketball comparison based on his titles, but since they’re so close otherwise, lets do a little game of “Who you got?”, but with the added wrinkle that they’re completed fabricated scenarios. If you’ve made it 1200 words so far, why not read the (attempted) funny stuff?

The Silly Debate

Trying to get to the bar through a packed concert crowd: Duncan.

Garnett is too restless to just stand by while things are happening on the way to the bar. There’s a solid chance he’ll start a fight with someone if they step on his kicks, and you can be sure he’ll be pissed if he can’t hear the music. Duncan is mellow, and he’ll want to get to the bar, get his drink, then get the fuck back to whatever chill corner he’s picked out to get his drink on and listen to the band. This is probably null and void since Duncan only goes to Nascar events.

Instigating a fight: Garnett

See the above reasons, but Garnett’s always getting into stuff on the court. People outside Boston loathe him these days after a series of ridiculous scenarios with opponents, and his DMX Rough Riders routine is tiresome even for his fans. He’s probably chill off the court, but if you really want to get into some shit, Garnett would be a good choice. I’m almost 100% positive Duncan has never been in a fight in his entire life, and if he was faced with the prospect of a possible physical altercation, he’d probably just laugh. 

Barbecuing: Duncan

See above chill factor, but can’t you just see him in some ridiculous hat sitting by the tiki torch (he’s sensitive to mosquitos, or “skeeters” as Stephen Jackson calls them) sipping a Corona and having a blast? I envision Garnett as a pretty intense BBQ presence: constantly second guessing how long you’ve kept the steak on the grill, militant about proper bun to ketchup ratio, refilling people’s cups before they’re done, and furiously OCD about keeping things clean (actually, that’s Ray Allen).

Rap Video cameo: Garnett

Kevin Garnett wildly gesticulates in games, and you can be sure he’d be an NBA hype man on par with Flava. Plus, KG’s countenance during games reminds me of a young Ghostface Killah stink-eyeing an out-a-towner and robbing him with a ball-point pen disguised as a shiv. Duncan’s face usually resembles Johnny Chan after he nutted the straight on the river in the final table at the World Series of Poker; which is a long-winded way of saying, unruffled, uninterested and downright bored. Not what you want in your music video on 106th and Park (Do they still have that show? I haven’t had cable in a long time).

Inspirational speech before OT or during a 4th quarter timeout in a close game: Garnett

Garnett’s the emotional equivalent of every climactic sports scene in film history when it’s do or die. He’s so amped up during regular season games, when it’s time to decide the winner of a closely fought game, he’s the guy that will do anything, say anything, to get you ready to go out and kick butt just a little while longer. Even though Duncan has won a lot more, he’s never been a fiery speaker, and while he might have some great, yet subtle, advice about the best way to position yourself when the ball goes down low, he’s not gonna make you feel like you will do anything to win; at least, not with his words on the sidelines.

Swimming and Scuba-diving in the tropics: Duncan

Duncan is from St. Croix, and when Popovich drafted Duncan with the number 1 pick in the summer of 1997, he went down to Timmy’s Island and chilled by the sea for a week. Cantankerous Popovich called it one of the best weeks of his life. If you can get Popovich to sing your praises like that, then you can do anything. Plus, I’m SCUBA certified, so I’d love to go diving with Timmy; he’d be the only person longer than the Nerf Sharks down there. Garnett does own a home in Malibu, so he’s cool with the beach, but Duncan’s home-court advantage is too much to overcome.

Picking up women: Duncan

Duncan just seems smarter about it, and he’d probably abstain from edging in on a pariticularly attractive lady that shows some interest. He also probably has all these hilarious things he says to women that ask him what he does for a living, since most of them wouldn’t recognize him except by his size (“I’m a professional roller bladder”). I picture Garnett hogging the female attention and barking a lot.  

Post-game quote after a loss brought about by a referee’s mistake: Garnett

Duncan was once tossed from a game for laughing (thanks Danny Crawford!), but Garnett is surprisingly adroit with his post-game analysis and he’s made so much money over his career, both on and off the court, he won’t be afraid to get fined for criticizing a ref. He’ll also provide more penetrating analysis. But you have to be careful because Garnett will absolutely blame a loss on refs even if it’s not their fault and he has a tendency to understate opponents’ performances. Duncan is only edged out because he’s so bland an interviewee. 

Game-winning shot: Garnett

Garnett has better range, and he could get off a jumper against anyone when he was in his prime. Duncan has hit a bunch of game-winners over this career, but he’s not as accurate from 17+ feet  as Garnett and he’s not as comfortable outside the paint. If it’s a game-winner, the defense will double Duncan on the block, and he won’t get a look without some sneaky Popovich screen, so Garnett’s dexterity with the ball at the top of the key and shooting ability is his primary advantage.

Game-winning defensive stand: Duncan

Duncan has always been the defensive back-bone of the Spurs. Before the Spurs’ 2012 run and gun team that led the league in scoring, they’d been one of the top defensive teams in the league for the better part of a decade. Sure, KG has that DPOY award, but that was primarily the way he played defense: all-out, constantly talking to his teammates, calling out screens and defending the rim as much as his svelte body could handle (he was never one to pound with the big boys down low—although he certainly acted like he did). I’d prefer my defenders talented, smart and tough, and Duncan’s career and thinking man’s psychology back him up in that regard.

That’s 5 to 5, so even when I’m making up the comparison, they still tie. 

What do you think readers?

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    A very good read. 5 out of 5 stars.
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