KG = MVP
If a travesty occurs and Kevin Garnett is not named the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season, it will be because he plays in a media Siberia for a chronically mediocre team. Barring injury or a total collapse in his capabilities over the final 16 games, lack of exposure and relatively lousy teammates are the only things standing in the way of him putting the trophy on his mantel.
Of those considered to be KG's primary rivals for the MVP award, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady are dazzling scorers who also boast gaudy numbers in some other categories, while Tim Duncan--the league's second-best player this year--is a remarkably steady and accomplished performer who has led his club to the NBA's third-best record. But by any objective measure, none of them has been superior to Garnett.
There is a relatively new statistical category, known as "efficiency," that represents the league's best attempt yet to calibrate a player's comprehensive value. Essentially, it adds up all the measurably good things a player can do (points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocked shots), subtracts all the bad things (missed field goals, missed free throws, and turnovers), and then divides the remainder by the number of games he plays. As of last Sunday, KG's efficiency rating of 31.23 led the NBA. Duncan was second at 29.22, with Kobe fourth at 28.62 and McGrady right behind him at 28.58.
Go inside the numbers that represent a player's efficiency and it's easy to see why Garnett is on top. Yes, he scores eight to 10 points per game less than Kobe and T-Mac and doesn't ring up the 40-point games that get casual or lazy fans so excited--because he doesn't shoot as often. But his field-goal percentage of 49.7 is higher than that of all three of his competitors. Despite spending much of his time away from the basket, he also has more rebounds than Duncan, a classic low post player. Garnett's assist total of 5.8 per game is second among the quartet to Kobe's 6.2, but Bryant has the enormous advantage of passing the ball to the league's most accurate shooter and unstoppable offensive force, Shaquille O'Neal. Do you think KG could pick up an extra assist every two games if Shaq was his teammate instead of Kobe's? (By the way, Shaq's efficiency rating is 28.98, third-best in the NBA, and ahead of Bryant's. Kobe's record without Shaq is 6-10 this year. And it is fairly well-known around the league that Kobe's ball-hogging tendencies are not popular with his teammates. For all these reasons, naming Kobe MVP would be ridiculous.)
If you're judging Garnett solely on the basis of his NBA-best efficiency rating, you're actually selling him short. What efficiency doesn't fully measure is defense and intangibles such as grit, attitude, and leadership. One would certainly suspect that KG is at or near the top of the league in defensive versatility (who else can effectively guard Stephon Marbury or Amare Stoudemire, Steve Francis or Yao Ming? who else combines front-line height with back court quickness?), but proving it statistically is another matter.
The Timberwolves' stat guru, Paul Swanson, has come up with the best way I've seen thus far to measure a player's defensive value. Swanson adds up a team's plus-minus point totals when a player is on the floor and off the floor and divides each set of numbers by 48 minutes for a per-game comparison of that player's impact both offensively and defensively. For example, when Tracy McGrady is in the game, Orlando scores at a rate that is 17.8 points per game better than when he is on the bench (through games of February 28). But because of T-Mac's shoddy defense, Orlando actually limits their opponents to 7.4 fewer points per game when he's riding the pine. The plus-minus stats also indicate that Kobe Bryant's sterling reputation as a defender is overblown. Although the Lakers' offense is nearly 13 points per game better when Kobe is on the floor, their defense is about two points worse.
As you might expect, San Antonio is much improved on defense (roughly four points per game) when Tim Duncan is playing than when he is sitting. But compare that to KG's defensive impact on the Wolves. When Garnett is playing, Minnesota gives up 11.1 ppg fewer than when he is on the bench. Factor in the 13.4 ppg bump generated by the Wolves' offense with KG on the floor, and his net impact of 24.5 ppg is more than double that of any of his three competitors.
San Antonio fans might reasonably argue that Duncan's defensive impact is less than KG's in part because the Spurs have more talent at that end of the court--like Bruce Bowen, Malik Rose, even an aging David Robinson--to maintain quality control. By contrast, who is the Wolves' second-best defender: Rasho Nesterovic? Kendall Gill? Anthony Peeler? But that disparity in complementary defensive players also explains why San Antonio is four games ahead of the Wolves in the standings. It strengthens the argument that Minnesota's lack of post-season success is the fault of a second-rate supporting cast surrounding KG.
If Garnett doesn't win the MVP award, the Wolves' history of post-season failures will be the culprit. Never mind that the award is supposed to reflect what a player does in only that year's 82-game regular season; the media who vote are influenced by prior playoff accomplishments. Too bad. The numbers--and the experience of anyone lucky enough to witness KG play dozens of games this season--suggest that Garnett is having not only an MVP season, but a campaign for the ages. He is having a regular season on a par with a vintage year by Magic, Bird, or Jordan. And someday, maybe his team will win a first-round playoff series.
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