Kevin Garnett leaves a much different NBA than the one he entered 21 years ago. In the words of Cutty from ‘The Wire’, “The game done changed”, and Garnett, more than anyone in his storied generation, is a major reason why.
Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan were more than formidable foils, but before their ascension, it was a lanky, spring-loaded Garnett who caught everyone’s attention.
Though he wasn’t the first player to make the jump straight from high school to the pros, Garnett reopened that barrier 20 years after it had last been breached.
His decision to forego college paved the way for countless others to follow, including Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal the following year, along with Tracy McGrady in 1997, Kwame Brown (the first high-schooler selected No1 overall) in 2001, Amar’e Stoudemire in 2002, LeBron James in 2003 and Dwight Howard in 2004.
Though the NBA now has an age limit of 19 which was put in place in 2006, the league still contains high school draft picks and has seen others circumvent college for various pro avenues.
But who knows how many of those players would have followed Garnett’s path if he hadn’t been an instant success.
What made Garnett so special at such a young age his combination of guard-like skills with 7-foot height and other-worldly athleticism. It was an unconventional, futuristic mix that made him one of the most fun players to watch in the league, even as a rookie, and changed our thinking of what a big man could be.
We’re now in a modern NBA in which frontcourt players like Garnett are no longer unicorns, but the prototype. He was never a 3-point shooter – it’s not inconceivable he could have succeeded as one, especially if his career aligned with the game’s transformation in style – but he could do everything else on the court and do it at an eye-popping level.
Those abilities led to early All-Star production, which then resulted in a rich six year, $126 million contract from Minnesota in 1998 – the largest in NBA history at the time – that caused tension among owners and factored into the 1998-99 lockout.
When basketball resumed, a new cap on individual player salaries was in place to protect against another situation like Garnett’s.
And of course, Garnett’s willingness to form a Big Three in Boston has had massive ripple effects, from LeBron James’ decision to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, to Kevin Durant’s choice to form a super team on the West Coast. The situations are far from consistent, but more than anything it’s the unselfishness and success Garnett exuded and enjoyed that has made teaming-up more fashionable.
Ironically, however, it’s the qualities Garnett is most known for – his fire, intensity and competitiveness – that ensure we’ll never see someone like him again.
Garnett changed the landscape wherever he went, but he was the same chest-pounding, trash-talking madman until the end.
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