Editor’s note: This article appears in the Dec. 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Kevin Garnett should have flipped out by now. And I’m not talking about a simple tantrum. Why isn’t he acting more disruptively than the schoolkids in “The Wire?” He should arrive for home games wearing a sweatshirt that reads I HATE IT HERE. He should give Dwane Casey the nickname Expletive Deleted. He should call Marko Jaric, Ricky Davis and Mark Blount Loser No. 1, Loser No. 2 and Loser No. 3 and refer to Kevin McHale only as the Guy Who Ruined My Life. He should be looking to get whistled for a “flagrant nine” foul and lying on scorers’ tables on the road praying for a drunken spectator to lob a beer at him so he can break out his best Artest moves. He should hire Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell impersonators to go with him everywhere, just so he can tell anyone who asks that he wants a reminder of the one season when he didn’t want to kill somebody.
All right, that last idea is a little ridiculous — no one on the planet could begin to resemble either Cassell or Spree — but you get the picture. KG’s basketball career has become a borderline American tragedy. Here’s one of the greatest big men ever, one of the fiercest competitors in any sport, someone who could finish his career with historic scoring and rebounding numbers … and yet we have absolutely no clue how good he really is. He’s played with, by my count, only six quality players in his 12 seasons: Joe Smith, Stephon Marbury, Terrell Brandon, Cassell, Sprewell and Wally Szczerbiak. His only “decent” coach was Flip Saunders, who is currently running the Pistons into the ground. The guy making the player moves has always been the memorably incompetent McHale, and KG’s only owner, Glen Taylor, famously squandered four first-rounders by illegally negotiating Smith’s ill-conceived, cap-violating contract.
The Sports Guy’s Picks:
(HOME TEAMS IN CAPS)
LIONS (+2.5) over Dolphins
Last week: 8-7-1
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Miami -2.5; TB +11; Denver -1; NYJ -6; Buff +3; Balt -3; Cincy +3; SF +6; Zona +6.5; NO +3; Carolina -4.5; Oak +13; Pats -3; NYG -2; Philly +9; Seattle -9
Last week: 8-7-1
How badly has this team been mismanaged? It hasn’t drafted a quality starter in seven seasons. It essentially traded Cassell for Jaric and threw in a first-round pick. It has surrounded KG with career losers and bad-attitude guys like Davis, Blount, Troy Hudson and Eddie Griffin. If there’s a master plan, it seems to be: “Let’s kill our cap space, squander as many picks as possible and see if KG snaps.” If you remove Mark Madsen from the current roster, KG has more career playoff minutes than everyone else combined.
He isn’t a young dude anymore, either. Do you realize he’s 30? That this is his 12th season? That he has played more than 900 NBA games (including playoffs)? KG might be 30, but if NBA years were like dog years, he’d be, well, pretty damn old.
It’s impossible not to feel sorry for him. Always one of the most intense players in the league, Garnett’s emotion has morphed into something much more grim, as if he’s fighting the urge to pull a Kermit Washington on someone, anyone. Seeing him in person, you can practically hear the clock ticking, like he’s an aging single woman with rumbling ovaries. You can see the desperation on his face, the frustration, and almost hear the anguished inner monologue: “My career is wasting away.” He’s the most tragic figure in the league, a superstar buried on a perpetually impotent team, a loyal player who can’t stand losing but is stuck with selfish guys and keeps finding himself walking off in defeat. His saga is the saddest subplot of the 2006-07 season.
And few fans seem to give a crap.
Well, I give a crap. To be fair, though, I don’t care as much about KG as I do about his place in history. I want to know how good he is. Don’t we need an answer? After old friend Paul Shirley was released by the Timberwolves before the start of the season, he sent me a gushing e-mail about KG’s everyday brilliance that said if KG had played on a contender his entire career, “people would speak of him as a candidate for best player ever.” Will that end up being KG’s legacy: the coulda-shoulda-woulda star who ended up the Ernie Banks or Barry Sanders of basketball?
I can’t help thinking that in one sense he deserves some of the blame. Yes, he’s one of the best power forwards ever. I rank him fourth, behind Tim Duncan, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, and just ahead of McHale and D.C. from Fast Break. And we know he can produce in the clutch from that monster 2004 MVP season that culminated in a sublime 32-point, 21-rebound Game 7 against the Kings. We can also agree, his career would have been different if he had somehow switched places with Duncan.
But maybe KG is too passionate for his own good. By all accounts, he’s so wound up before games, it affects everyone around him; he wouldn’t even allow anyone to listen to music in the locker room before Cassell arrived. He’s not above punching teammates in practices. And he’s famous for yelping ferociously after big plays, clenching his fists and screaming toward the ceiling like a WWE wrestler. He’s never learned to adapt his game to the situation; he plays the same in a mid-November blowout and a deciding playoff game, which explains why he seemed spent during the 2004 conference finals against the Lakers. That was his longest season by far — seven months and exactly 100 games — and in classic KG fashion, he averaged 24-14-5 in the regular season and an almost identical 24-15-5 in the playoffs. Superstars like Duncan know when to dominate and when to keep something in reserve for big moments. KG plays only in fifth gear.
Of course, that nonstop fervor has always been his most admirable quality, right up there with his insistence on passing out of double- and triple-teams (even if he’s finding crummy outside shooters and inadvertently hurting his chances). Along with Steve Nash, he’s the ultimate team player. Which makes this whole thing such a shame. I watched the Timberwolves lose on consecutive nights recently and realized two things. First, they don’t have an above-average player other than KG. And second, KG’s body language, especially after Peja Stojakovic’s game-winning three, makes him seem almost resigned to his fate, like an unhappy husband who can’t stomach the thought of a divorce because he doesn’t want to hurt his children. It’s depressing to watch.
In his shoes, maybe you or I would have sabotaged our situation already, but that’s what is great about KG: Instead of quitting on a lost cause to force Minnesota’s hand, he just keeps busting his butt and waiting to be saved.
And that’s why someone needs to save him. For the good of the league, David Stern needs to “nudge” McHale and Taylor to make a move. Trade the man to the Bulls or the Clippers or the Lakers, all of whom have the right combination of young players and picks to make a palatable exchange. Stick Garnett in a big market with quality teammates and see what happens. We need to see what he can really do, and so does he.
Whether he wants to admit it or not.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.