Sunday, February 3, 2013

Kevin Garnett vs. Tim Duncan: Comparing Hall of Fame power forwards



Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan are two of the best power forwards in the game. Perhaps more remarkably, even now—into their late 30s—they are still essential pieces on their respective teams. Garnett’s stifling defensive presence and Duncan’s well-rounded game have provided the foundation for two teams that are slowly heading into the twilight of success (the Celtics doing so more quickly than the Spurs, of course).

One main question that comes to mind: why isn’t this comparison made more frequently? A two-pronged explanation helps de-mystify the reason that two future Hall of Famers are not considered rivals or rarely even compared. For one, Duncan has had a remarkably more successful career in terms of championships. As you will see in my awards comparison below, Duncan owns Garnett in all of the main award categories (MVPs, Finals MVPs, and championship titles). So a comparison of legacies is not very fruitful. Second, this comparison is often not made because of the fact that scorers are the primary attraction in the NBA. Think of the main comparisons everybody from analysts to you, as an NBA fan, discuss. Kobe, LeBron, Jordan, Durant…generally people want to hear about those guys. Duncan and Garnett have a severe disadvantage here: they rely on guards to get them the ball.

Think of this comparison like a chance to give some attention to the guys who do the less glamorous work. In terms of individual performance, this complete comparison will acknowledge all facets of each players’ game but will try to put performances in context. Clearly Duncan has the greater legacy, but who was truly the better player?

Regular season statistics provide a solid foundation for the discussion and a glimpse into the fact that these two stars really are close in terms of career productivity.

Regular season
Kevin Garnett
Tim Duncan
Points
19.2
20.2
Rebounds
10.5
11.2
Assists
4.0
3.1
Steals
1.3
0.7
Blocks
1.5
2.2
FG percentage
.499
.507
FT percentage
.790
.691
Games played
1300
1153

Although they are very close in age (Duncan is a less than a month older than KG), Garnett has played in two more seasons, having been drafted as a teenager. Regardless, it’s incredible to see the equality in career output. In the above chart, Duncan and Garnett each own exactly half of the eight categories. Delving into the advanced metrics, Duncan creates a marginal separation with an edge in win shares, PER, and eFG%. So yes, even though Duncan had the reputation of a quiet guy, he put up big numbers.

The peaks of their careers are also quite similar. Garnett averaged 24/14/5 in 2003-04 on the Timberwolves, and Duncan averaged 26/13/4 in 2001-02. But unlike in career per game averages, in a comparison of these two seasons, Garnett has the slight edge in advanced metrics like PER and win shares.

As if these numbers aren’t close enough, the 02 Spurs and 04 Timberwolves had the exact same regular season record, at 58-24. Moreover, both teams had top-10 offenses and defenses although the Bruce Bowen led the Spurs to one of the (top-five) best defenses in the NBA. Ironically, both lost in the playoffs to the Los Angeles Lakers but KG’s T’wolves actually made it one round further overall. Even in terms of player personnel, both were similar although the Timberwolves were anchored by an aging Sam Cassell at point and the Spurs had a promising rookie point guard, Tony Parker. Both even took home MVP honors during these peak statistical seasons. Regular season performances of these all-time greats were nearly identical.

Playoffs
Kevin Garnett
Tim Duncan
Points
19.5
22.3
Rebounds
11.0
12.1
Assists
3.5
3.4
Steals
1.3
0.7
Blocks
1.4
2.5
FG percentage
.476
.501
FT percentage
.787
.679
Games played
125
190

For completeness, a look at the playoffs is necessary. Here, as common knowledge would indicate, Tim Duncan owns Garnett. In 65 more games played, Duncan’s body of playoff work is complete and he has proven that he can provide the foundation for players to succeed when it matters most. As Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “Tim is the common denominator…He's [had] a different cast around him [in] '99, '03 and '05. He's welcomed them all. He's found a way to help them all fit, feel comfortable in their roles, and not many players can do that.” The same cannot be said for Garnett, whose lone championship run was anchored by Paul Pierce for the most part.

And as mentioned earlier, the award comparison strongly favors Duncan. (But nobody is debating that Duncan has a greater legacy.)

Awards
Kevin Garnett
Tim Duncan
Championships
1
4
Finals MVPs
0
3
Regular season MVPs
1
2
Defensive Player of the Year
1
0
Rebounding titles
4
0
All Star appearances
15
14

The point is that Duncan has played on better teams. While Garnett has made helped some Timberwolves teams succeed, Duncan has had the luxury of playing with complementary players like David Robinson, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. In 2002-03, for example, the next highest Timberwolves scorers were the potent Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson, and Rasho Nesterovic. Not only that but from 1996-2007, the Timberwolves had five 50-win seasons. In Duncan’s 15 full seasons as a Spur, San Antonio has won less than 50 games only once.



















Granted, Kevin Garnett’s move to join forces with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen for the original “Big Three” ended successfully in Year 1. But after those first two years, the Celtics had problems getting back to the Finals…and then LeBron to South Beach happened.

Undoubtedly both are great players, but the question I like to ask is this: what would happen if both players switched teams? Duncan on the Timberwolves and Garnett on the Spurs is only a hypothetical question that we can all dream up. But look at it this way: would Duncan have four championship titles under his belt if he was in Garnett’s situation? And would Garnett have brought home only one title if he was on one of the most dominant teams of the 00s? You would be hard-pressed to say ‘yes’ to either situation. Want another scary hypothetical? What if Garnett was drafted two slots higher and was the third overall pick instead of Jerry Stackhouse? Imagine a Garnett-Iverson duo wreaking havoc on the Eastern conference…

However, as many of you have probably already been thinking, these are hypothetical scenarios that we can only hazard guesses with. In reality, Duncan is in the conversation for greatest NBA players of all time and Garnett is not even in the discussion.

But the “what if?” questions definitely make you think.


Be sure to check out our other NBA player comparisons: Kobe vs. LeBron, Kobe vs. Jordan, LeBron vs. Jordan, LeBron vs. Durant, and Kobe vs. Duncan.

3 comments:

  1. Good article as usual, Kevin Garnet is probably the better player in terms of skill by SLIGHT notch, but as your article insisted Tim Duncan will always be compared to the great players of all time because of his legacy.

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  2. "What if?" is definitely a good question to ask in regards to KG's career. Sadly, until he got to Boston, he rarely had much talent around him. In his best season, he had a volatile Latrell Sprewell and an aging-but-still effective Sam Cassell. They lost 4-2 in the 3rd round of the playoffs, with Sam Cassell AND their backup PG Troy Hudson out with injuries, to the Lakers who were starting 4 future Hall of Famers. In seasons prior to that one, KG led the wolves to 50-win seasons as literally the only feared scoring option. You have said at times that championships are the "legacy of a team", so in that case, you could argue that KG is extremely close with Duncan. However, KG also didn't perform transcendentally well when he did have a chance in the postseason, either. Personally, I also think KG's attitude and occasional hard fouls and derogatory language on the court turns some voters off in regards to his legacy. Either way, I would still agree with your conclusion of Duncan having a greater legacy, but man, if KG was playing in San Antonio's system... that makes me wonder.

    However, I would also take KG over Dirk Nowitzki, even in terms of legacy. This is another comparison that isn't made often, but I would, unquestionably. Dirk is a far better scorer, and had one playoff year when he did play superb, but that's it. Nowhere CLOSE to KG's all around impact as a player.

    Interestingly enough, KG just hit 25,000 career points. He is now the ONLY player in NBA history with at least 25,000 points, 10,000 boards, 5,000 assists, 1,500 steals, and 1,500 blocks (courtesy of ESPN). KG had a monstrous all-around game, and even those stats don't begin to state his impact and intimidation on the defensive end of the floor.

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  3. This argument ended a decade ago. KG can't win a title as the team's alpha dog. Period. His stats compare favorably against TD but basketball isn't just about stats. Just think about it, KG likes to swat shots to the stands when he goes for the block. TD tries to control blocked shots and throw an outlet to a teammate on the break. Who made the right play? Timmy. But does the stats reflect that? No.



    Did thew 2003 Spurs team have better players than KG's Wolves teams? I disagree. David Robinson was way past his prime then. Tony and Manu were good players, but they were not playing at an All-Star level yet. You should watch the 2003 Finals to understand what I'm saying. KG had a better team in 2004 with Cassell and Spre.

    Here's what I think is a better argument to make: http://cesc-pistol.blogspot.com/2012/11/why-tim-duncan-is-better-than-kobe.html

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