I’m going to note right away that I loved Jonathan Tjarks’ article published two days ago about Kevin Garnett. Once in a while, I tweet that Chris Webber’s best years came in the early-2000s, the most boring era possible for a player like him. It’s a shame, but Garnett is another player who would’ve been even better had his career started 10 years later.
Tjarks’ article (you can follow him on Twitter here) covers Garnett and his versatile skill set, a seven-footer who could guard every position and thanks to his shooting, handles, speed, and passing, he could use up offensive possessions from any position if his team was decimated at one. Unfortunately, the prime of Garnett’s career was often spent playing alongside disappointing centers such as Rasho Nesterovic, Michael Olowokandi, or Mark Blount. This also happened in Boston as he started with a solid, pre-injury Kendrick Perkins but also the final days of Rasheed Wallace and Shaquille O’Neal. The Celtics’ core was strong enough and the NBA was slow enough with their transition to the pace-and-space era that it was fine, damning because Garnett never played with a Lamar Odom-type player like Tjarks noted, but it was fine.
Garnett’s positional versatility after his first stint in Minnesota narrowed. By the time he came back to Minnesota he was (or still is?) a full-time center. In his first 12 seasons, he played small forward through center, though the ranking in memories of each probably goes:
- Power Forward: Where he mostly played from 2004 to 2007 with a space-eating big.
- Small Forward: Paired with Tom Gugliotta and a space-eating big from 1996 to 1998, then with Joe Smith and a space-eating big from 1999 to 2003.
- Point Guard: Because of the 2003-04 playoffs when Minnesota held on for dear life as the backcourt dropped like flies.
- Center: This happened in moments spread out across all 12 seasons, but still happened nonetheless.
In this post, I listed some notable times when Garnett played at center during his youth and prime. It isn’t meant to #WellActually Tjarks. I’m all for any column that goes over how Garnett’s career, while amazing, should’ve been so much more enjoyable for so many reasons. I also appreciate any column that helps remember his peak since it’s been so long since it happened. Garnett’s been in the league since 1995. His prime happened when over 10 years ago. In one game during his rookie season, he played against Magic Johnson.
This post was just out of curiosity, a long time in the making, but Tjarks reminded me to get that done while it’s still the off-season. The moments with Garnett at center were fascinating upon discovering them because it had been so long since they happened. For other fans of Garnett’s career, maybe this will refresh their memories, too.
All lineup statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com. I love you (or them, or it) but this also went against your (or their, or its) positional estimates that don’t make a ton of sense for several players. All I’ve heard is that there’s a preference to height when determining positions. Garnett played 99 percent of his minutes at power forward last season, according to those estimates, but that doesn’t seem true when watching who he’s guarding and his overall skill set.
The 1998 Playoffs (available on YouTube)
I noted earlier that at Garnett’s best, he could play any position if his team was decimated at one. This is remembered best in the 2003-04 postseason, when the Wolves’ point guards turned to dust as they were eliminated in the Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The first-round series of the 1997-98 playoffs against the Seattle SuperSonics was another example, this one being the postseason Garnett played primarily center. The Wolves were without Tom Gugliotta, Dean Garrett, Cherokee Parks, and Stanley Roberts. Tom Hammonds was the only other option left, and during that season Minnesota went as far to keep Garnett from guarding centers as to start Hammonds and Roberts alongside him. Against Seattle, Flip Saunders instead rolled a starting lineup of Garnett-Sam Mitchell-Anthony Peeler-Terry Porter-Stephon Marbury.
The results were unfamiliar with even today’s Wolves. During the 1997-98 season, they took 12.8 percent of their field goal attempts from three-point range, but that jumped to 24.6 percent in the five games against Seattle. The 2015-16 Wolves finished the season with a three-point rate of 20.2. Sam Mitchell, the coach of last season’s squad, recorded 43 three-point attempts in 81 games during the 1997-98 season. In the five playoff games, he attempted 14.
Most shooters for Minnesota saw increases in their shots from beyond the arc.
Possibly because of injuries, possibly because the SuperSonics were one of the stretchiest teams in the regular season with shooting bigs like Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins, the Wolves rolled with only a seven-player rotation. They also routinely doubled off the strong side shooter and gave up open threes, though that may have been from the illegal defense rules. Double-teaming was pretty straight-forward. Going to double-team, then stopping halfway to run back to a defender might result in an illegal defense technical. Also, Stephon Marbury looked out of control 99 percent of the time. It was maddening to watch him.
Minnesota held a 2-1 lead over Seattle at one point, but lost narrowly in Game 4 at home and lost by 13 at Seattle. 1997 probably would’ve been a similar result with small ball lineups , but it would’ve at least been interesting to watch similar small ball lineups against Houston a year earlier, a roster of players in their mid-30s.
Unfortunately, lineups that small rarely appeared again.
1999 and 2000: The occasional frontline with just Kevin Garnett and Joe Smith
With the acquisition of Joe Smith, Minnesota routinely started both he and Garnett, but also Garrett or Rasho Nesterovic. There are no lineup stats going this far back in time, but there are the occasional starts with Garnett but without Nesterovic or Garrett. About a handful of games from each season.
Doing some quick math of available minutes at the center position in each season, most of 1999’s went to Garrett, Tom Hammonds, Bill Curley, and a few bigs with tiny minute totals, leaving little room for Garnett to be placed there unless the Wolves somehow rolled with a Garrett/Hammonds combo or whatever.
2000 was a little different. With 3,936 available minutes at center over 82 games, Rasho Nesterovic, Dean Garrett, and Tom Hammonds took up only 2,699, leaving plenty of room for Garnett and Smith, the latter who came off the bench, to take up minutes there.
Basically, this comes down to when it’s just Smith and Garnett on the floor as the bigs, who would you peg as the center?
2001 (0/45/55 SF/PF/C position percentages, via Basketball-Reference’s estimates)
Not a fun year for Minnesota for multiple reasons, but in this post we’ll note that they lost Joe Smith and three first-round picks thanks to the procedure of Smith’s free agent deal. At this point, Nesterovic, Garrett, and Reggie Slater were the Wolves’ centers alongside Garnett with Wally Szczerbiak playing small forward.
Depending on where you position LaPhonso Ellis, the second-most common lineup from the Wolves in 2001 featured Ellis and Garnett together and the fourth-most common lineup had them with both Chauncey Billups and Terrell Brandon, and Szczerbiak. Unfortunately, that lineup had a net rating of -11.8 points per 100 possessions, but the Garnett-Ellis combo played 1284 minutes with a net rating of +2.6.
Looking back, a Brandon/Billups/Szczerbiak/Garnett combo could’ve done some damage, but Brandon’s injuries ended his career during the 2001-02 season.
Definitely not 2002 to 2004 (2/84/14, 6/81/13, 0/95/5)
With Joe Smith back, the 2002 Wolves played the three-man combo of Garnett/Smith/Nesterovic a little over 1,000 minutes, but with great success at +12.6 points per 100 possessions. A lineup with Billups and Szczerbiak at the backcourt gave them good size at each position, and Minnesota placed second in defensive rebounding percentage and sixth in offensive rebounding percentage. Gary Trent also played a few minutes alongside Smith and Garnett, but with break-even success.
In 2003, the Garnett/Smith/Nesterovic trio logged only 446 minutes, but Smith had missed a lot of action this season. A lineup replacing Smith with Trent logged 480 minutes. Both were small net positives. There were actually 11 games where Garnett started with Nesterovic and Loren Woods.
Despite those awkward lineups and a horrific three-point rate, Minnesota was in the top five in offensive efficiency both seasons. They even had the Lakers on the ropes in 2003, but ultimately fell in the first round in both playoff appearances.
2004 was Minnesota’s breakout season and they had plenty of bigs in case they went up against Shaquille O’Neal again. Mark Madsen, Gary Trent, Ervin Johnson, Michael Olowokandi, and Oliver Miller combined for over 4,600 minutes. It is almost sad that the Wolves didn’t find a single big who traded considerable beef for floor spacing or something anything more than what that depth offered. A team like the Dallas Mavericks, who were terrible defensively but gave Dirk Nowitzki minutes at center, would’ve been a fascinating matchup for Los Angeles with their shooting. They torched the Timberwolves with it a couple seasons earlier.
Despite frontcourt combos like Madsen/Trent, which was -10 points per 100 possessions over 218 minutes, the Wolves crushed a lot of teams. Five of their seven most frequent lineups, all with a stiff at center to go with Garnett, Sam Cassell, and Latrell Sprewell had a net rating of +10 to +20 points per 100 possessions.
The small ball lineups from the 1998 playoffs could’ve came back, though. A healthy 2004 Wolves squad had enough depth to deploy a Garnett/Szczerbiak/Sprewell/Cassell combo with a choice of Trenton Hassell for defense or Fred Hoiberg for shooting.
The main thing to note was Garnett with Eddie Griffin. Only 22 when he arrived in Minnesota, a healthy Griffin might’ve been a great fit long-term with Garnett. Griffin shot the three with break-even success, 4.9 attempts per 36 minutes on 33 percent, and averaged 2.8 blocks and just 1.3 turnovers per 36. The duo was +8.8 points per 100 possessions while the best lineups over 50 minutes featured it and at least one of Sprewell/Szczerbiak. The Garnett-Griffin-Spree-Wally-Cassell lineup was +27 points per 100 possessions, but only over 123 minutes.
There were also a few lineups with Garnett as the lone big and either Hassell or Szczerbiak playing as the power forward that yielded success over small samples. The small ball lineups finally came back.
2006 and 2007, if only (0/83/17, 0/71/29)
The dark ages, but the best lineups of 2006 featured Garnett as the center and Hassell or Justin Reed at power forward. However, the minute totals for each are between 30 and 60. In 2007, Garnett played most, if not all of his minutes with Mark Blount, Craig Smith, or Madsen. Sigh.
Though entering the slight downtick of his career at this point, Garnett at center during 2006 and 2007 could’ve been the best choice of attack. The Wolves were never going to be completely terrible with Garnett on the floor, but there was finally risk to pair him with a flawed center. The draft picks that were lost from the Joe Smith deal and the blown draft picks they were able to use caught up to them. They also lost the offense they typically got at point guard. There was no more Stephon Marbury, Terrell Brandon, Chauncey Billups, or Sam Cassell. There was only Marko Jaric, Marcus Banks, and Mike James. Minnesota struggled on the boards despite their size, and going smaller may have forced a few more turnovers and led to jacking a couple more threes on offense.
Still, Garnett carried these teams to near-.500 records going into February of each season. Eventually, they would fade and sometimes they obviously tanked. With Garnett at center, maybe it would’ve only worsened their lottery odds, but it would’ve been more enjoyable.
In his second time around with Minnesota, Garnett played center with the starting lineup and would likely to do the same if he came back for the 2016-17 season. Garnett playing with Tyus Jones with a bench-heavy unit would be mindblowing, though.
Other Wolvesy notes from Garnett’s peak
- The Gary Payton for Terrell Brandon, Wally Szczerbiak, and Rasho Nesterovic trade rumor in 2001. Minnesota’s depth, factoring in the effects of the Joe Smith deal, would’ve been cooked with that trade, but the defensive potential of Garnett and Payton before the latter aged would’ve been something. Especially if Garnett played center.
- Speaking of defensive potential, switch Garnett and Tim Duncan with their teams and you get Garnett with an aging David Robinson, but the All-Defensive seasons from Bruce Bowen.
Other PFs playing SF or C during Garnett’s peak
- It wasn’t just Garnett who started his career at small forward. During his rookie season, Duncan routinely started alongside both David Robinson and Will Perdue. Meanwhile with the Washington Bullets, one of Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, and, in 1996, Rasheed Wallace started at small forward alongside bigs like Gheorge Muresan, Terry Davis, and a young Ben Wallace.
- Webber did not like playing center at Golden State, which might’ve been a lesson for teams with other franchise-changing bigs. It’s also worth noting that while Webber had some amazing years in Sacramento, he couldn’t stay healthy. Rick Adelman routinely played a young, frosted-tips Hedo Turkoglu in his place.
- One example of power forwards playing one position up was in 1998 when Antonio McDyess played center for his one season in Phoenix. The Suns won 56 games that season but the statistics do not exactly match what you’d expect with McDyess at center with Jason Kidd, Kevin Johnson, Rex Chapman, and a stretchy power forward in Clifford Robinson. They were 10th in pace, 12th in offensive efficiency, and sixth in defensive efficiency.
- As for McDyess, he averaged 6.7 attempts around the rim per 36 minutes, the highest of his career according to available data going back to 1998 on NBA.com. He made 69% of his attempts, one of his highest, nicest marks.
- In 2004, Dirk Nowitzki logged time at center for the Dallas Mavericks. Dallas ended up having the most efficient offense ever, relative to league averages, but their defense fell off a cliff, from ninth in 2003 to 26th. It wasn’t just Nowitzki’s fault. Most of the roster was heavy on scoring and light on perimeter defense or rim protection. The following off-season was an overhaul, most notably losing Steve Nash, but the Mavericks bounced back to ninth in defensive efficiency and went from 52 wins to 58.
- There are plenty of more examples scattered across the last 20 seasons, but the amount of space-eating centers who made a great deal of money to guard players like Shaquille O’Neal was too much to ignore. It wasn’t just Garnett who was held back by bad centers. Because of O’Neal, Greg Ostertag and Jim McIlvaine will live forever. So, too, will draft prospects compared to O’Neal like DeSagana Diop and Eddy Curry.