The seed that we plant in this man’s mind will grow into an idea. This idea will define him; it may come to change everything about him. -- Inception
Before LeBron James, there was Kevin Garnett. Garnett was a once in a generation talent in his own right, basketball royalty who came of age in a poorly run small-market franchise. However, while a 27-year old LeBron sits atop the NBA, Garnett missed the playoffs from the ages of 28-30. Now, at the age of 36, Garnett is reminded of what could have been whenever he takes the floor against the Heat.
In his prime, there was nothing on a basketball court Garnett couldn’t do. With incredible quickness and length at "6’11" 240, he defended all five positions at an extremely high level. He was just as versatile offensively, with the ability to distribute the ball, stretch the floor and play with his back to the basket. Garnett was an elite player in all five phases of the game -- as a scorer, shooter, passer, defender and rebounder.
Garnett's statistics speak for themselves. In his MVP season, he averaged 24 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals on 50% shooting. He’s played in the NBA for 17 seasons and had a PER over 20 in 14 of them. He’s made 14 All-Star teams, nine All-NBA teams and 12 All-Defensive teams.
Unfortunately, he spent most of his career playing for a Timberwolves' franchise not ready for prime time. Drafting Garnett was one of the only good things Kevin McHale ever did with Minnesota: he was unable to hang on to Stephon Marbury and never found another All-Star caliber player in the draft. Worst of all, he agreed to an under-the-table extension with Joe Smith that cost them five future first round picks, the life-blood of a small-market franchise.
As a result, the first part of Garnett’s career was unfairly defined by playoff failure. When he finally got the chance to play with elite talent with Boston, it swung the balance of power in the NBA. The Celtics went 66-16 in 2008 and won the title; when he tore his knee in 2009, they had a 44-12 record and were the favorites to repeat. When he returned in 2010, they lost one of the closest NBA Finals in league history, a seven-game nail-biter that may have been swung by a Kendrick Perkins knee injury in Game 6.
In those playoffs, Garnett led a balanced Boston team past one-man squads in Cleveland (LeBron) and Miami (Dwyane Wade). After spending his entire career compared to Tim Duncan, despite the tremendous talent disparity between their teams, the shoe was finally on the other foot. With one title and two narrow misses under their belt, Boston looked like the class of the Eastern Conference.
Then, in an over-the-top national TV spectacle, the game changed. Instead of waiting their turn, LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh took the “easy way out”. Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce didn’t team up until they were in their 30’s; how many titles could they have won in their 20’s? Perhaps most frustrating of all, without the path Garnett blazed, “The Decision” would never have been possible.
Garnett was the first modern player to go directly from high school to the NBA, defying the numerous critics who assumed he would fail. By entering the league at such a young age, he accelerated his free agency timetable and was eligible for a big-money extension at the age of 21. The one he got in 1997 -- six-years for $126 million -- was widely credited with helping to usher in the 1999 lockout, where panicked owners instituted a max salary.
Without a max salary, Miami would never have been able to afford three All-NBA players in free agency. LeBron, Wade and Bosh make around $17 million a season. For some perspective, that’s about what Torii Hunter of the Detroit Tigers makes. In the type of open market that baseball free agents have, many believe LeBron would be making more than $50 million annually.
If Garnett hadn’t started racking up playoff wins on a super-team in Boston, LeBron wouldn’t have needed to create one of his own with Miami. If he hadn’t forced the owners to drastically alter the NBA’s salary structure, a super-team with stars in their 20’s wouldn’t have been possible. Most of all, all those years Garnett wasted with Minnesota were a vivid example of the price of loyalty for any future superstar contemplating free agency.
What Garnett didn’t understand, until it was too late, is that loyalty is a two-way street. NBA franchises have to earn the loyalty of their star players; merely getting lucky with lottery balls isn’t enough. These aren’t college teams; they’re nine-figure businesses being operated to pad the bankrolls and inflate the egos of their owners, rent-seekers who’ve conned society into letting them operate public trusts for private gain. LeBron didn’t owe a thing to Dan Gilbert and Garnett never owed a thing to Glen Taylor, the Minnesota owner who didn’t hold McHale accountable for his miserable job performance as general manager when it could have made a difference.
Jordan represented the triumph of the guard over the big man, while Duncan and Shaq brought the game back to the paint. Garnett and LeBron were the next step in the evolution of the game: big men with the skill-sets of a guard as well as the athleticism to dominate around the rim. The difference was that while Garnett always played the role of a good soldier, LeBron became a general and took control of his career.
Despite their early season struggles, the Celtics could still end up being the biggest threat to the Heat in the East. However, that says as much about the rest of the conference as it does about Boston’s chances of getting another ring. And if Garnett isn’t careful, he may end up going down in history like Isiah Thomas, another all-time great whose poor sportsmanship has colored his legacy.
Two years ago, at the crossroads of his career, LeBron listened to a man possessed of some radical notions and took a leap of faith. Now, as Garnett watches a younger player take the crown he could have worn, “The Kid” has become an old man, filled with regret, ready to die alone.