Now more than ever, the Timberwolves are KG's team
David Kern

Lord knows there are plenty of reasons to be disenchanted with the Timberwolves this season. The team's most capable backcourt tandem thus far, Kendall Gill and Rod Strickland, is a combined 70 years old. The Wolves' second-best player, Terrell Brandon, will probably never recover from last year's leg injury, while their third-best, Wally Szczerbiak, has been shelved by a mysteriously chronic toe injury for nearly the entire season. Rasho Nesterovic, next on the team's talent list, will almost certainly command more than the Wolves are willing to pay on the free agent market and likely won't be back next year. Injuries and a lack of familiarity have prevented the players from establishing a consistent rhythm or identity on either offense or defense. And there is still no room under the salary cap to acquire quality free agents.

Despite this litany of woe, however, the Wolves are once again in the playoff hunt, with what is, under the circumstances, a remarkable record of 17-14 through last Friday. Even the most casual fan rightly suspects that nearly all of the credit for the team's heroic chin-up (even if only to mediocrity) belongs to Kevin Garnett. But for those of you with a deeper appreciation for the artistry of the game, I suggest that you not let apathetic shorthand--"KG's marvelous and the team has no shot of winning a playoff series. So what else is new?"--prevent you from checking out what #21 is doing. Because the most versatile player in NBA history is putting together a season of comprehensive excellence not seen since the heyday of Oscar Robertson.

Garnett's typically fabulous statistics have improved only slightly from a year ago, to 21.6 points, 13.1 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game. But given the decline in the caliber of his teammates, which robs him of synergy and makes him even more of a priority for opposing defenses, it's impressive that the numbers have gone up at all. For example, KG, who creates openings for his teammates by drawing double and triple coverage, loses an assist or two every game passing to shooting guards Gill and Anthony Peeler (currently converting well under 40 percent of their field goal attempts) instead of Szczerbiak, a career 51 percent shooter.

More important, Garnett has dramatically shored up the two glaring weaknesses in his play from previous seasons: low-post scoring and fourth-quarter leadership. Gone are the nights when he relied almost exclusively on mid-range, fadeaway jump shots to get his points in the half-court offense. This year, he is far more apt to fight for position near the basket or dribble and spin aggressively toward the hoop. This change in style has drawn more fouls from opponents. KG currently ranks 14th in the NBA in free throw attempts, something that was impossible to imagine even a year ago.

KG's other bugaboo had been his tendency to disappear during crunch time in close games. The debate on this issue was ramped up when Garnett was criticized by former NBA stars Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley for shirking his responsibility as the "go-to guy" during the fourth quarter of last year's playoff games. It was an unfair rap, given that KG was mostly staying in character, unselfishly responding to increased pressure from opposing defenses by passing to open teammates for what were ostensibly higher percentage shots. Wolves coach Flip Saunders also legitimately claimed that Garnett was prone to wearing out late in games because of the inordinate effort he exerted at both ends of the court. Nevertheless, KG's excitable, self-demanding mentality did seem to detract from his poise in high-stakes situations.

Stung by the criticism and his team's continued playoff defeats, Garnett hired a personal trainer and went to work early in the off-season to build up his endurance. This year he has willed himself to try to score more often in the fourth quarter, even when faced with swarming defenses. At first he struggled, eschewing smart passes for bad shots, but of late his perseverance has paid off, to the tune of a 54 percent fourth-quarter field goal accuracy over his past 12 games, a big reason why KG has scored more than 20 points in 10 straight contests.

Statistics alone will never adequately convey Garnett's real worth, however, because there is no way to accurately measure two of his strongest and most valuable virtues: defense and attitude. Even more than in the other major professional team sports, a player's defensive acumen is given short shrift in the NBA. That's why a lazy defender like Vince Carter can still garner the most votes from fans in balloting for the all-star game, or why a player years past his prime, like Dikembe Mutumbo, can coast on his reputation. To state the obvious, defense is roughly as important as offense (sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less) in determining the outcome of a game. And with the possible exception of Detroit's Ben Wallace, KG is the best--and hands down the most versatile--defensive player in the NBA. Better than Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and everyone else (although Ron Artest and Richard Jefferson are legitimate contenders). If you're skeptical, just watch him.

It's maddening to hear supposed NBA experts rate Orlando's Tracy McGrady over KG, even after Garnett totally throttled T-Mac in a November matchup at Target Center. McGrady, who committed six turnovers and was held to 15 points (a dozen below his season average), said after the game that it was the best he'd ever been defended. He's not alone. A few weeks ago KG limited Atlanta's Shareef Abdur Raheim (a top 20 scorer) to one shot in the third quarter and two more in the fourth. On December 18, New Jersey's Keith Van Horn scored exactly four points; two days later, Boston's Antoine Walker got just 13 points, both totals well below their season averages.

As for attitude, fans love KG because he plays hard every minute of every game and, almost midway into his eighth season, hasn't forgotten how to have fun. Coaches love him because he sets an industrious and amiable example on the practice court and in the locker room, and knows the offensive plays and defensive rotations better than anyone on the team. The media love him because, especially by superstar standards, he is thoughtful, polite, and playful.

Before we fit him for a halo, though, let's acknowledge that KG owns some responsibility for the uneasy relationship between him and Szczerbiak. And his in-your-face intensity may not be the best approach for quiet types like Nesterovic. But he's trying to improve there as well. Noting that Gill took him aside earlier this year and told him he'd prefer a more hands-off approach, KG said, "I've still got to get to know these new guys. As the leader of the team, it is up to me to adjust to them."

Yeah, the chest thumping and wolfing on the court can occasionally get tedious, and there are moments when Garnett behaves with an annoying sense of entitlement with coaches and the media. But the guy has weathered more than his share of strife. Close friends on the team have died (Malik Sealy), left under less than amiable circumstances (Chauncey Billups), or underachieved (Joe Smith). Meanwhile, the pressure to excel, every night without fail, is enormous. At least as much as any player's in the league, Garnett's performance determines whether his team wins or loses.

Consider that the Wolves' record this year is 11-3 when KG makes at least half of his field goal attempts, 6-5 when his percentage is in the 40s, and 1-6 when he converts less than 40 percent. The team is 11-3 when he dishes out six or more assists and 5-11 when it is five or fewer. They are 12-7 when he grabs 12 or more rebounds and 5-7 when the number is less than 12. In a nutshell, if KG doesn't produce a great all-around performance, it is pretty likely the Wolves will lose. That's why the 26-year-old leader of a relatively obscure team fighting just to make the playoffs is the most valuable player in basketball.

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