There’s a strain of perverse glee that can intoxicate us whenever we see a fringe player reach the creaky end of their career. How depraved can the statistics get, exactly? But when a beloved star is reduced to weakly grunting underneath the weight of Father Time’s boot, well, it’s enough to make a person start contemplating their mortality in this temporal world.
It’s all too obvious that we are watching the denouement of the career of Kevin Garnett, for whom, more than any other player, basketball is a matter of life and death. While Garnett has always theoretically been in a bloodlust pursuit for the NBA Championship, this new tenure with the Brooklyn Nets feels less like honest contention and more like a postponement of that inevitable small death: retirement. Stalling to meet the unfathomably basketball-free life that awaits him.
Nothing good has happened in Garnett’s career that didn’t come straight from his broiling heart, and his trade from the Boston Celtics to the Nets is so totally the work of a hype-drunk marketing team. The results could not have been pretty. And they haven’t been. Garnett’s inclusion on The Point Forward’s All-Atrocious Team from last December was, alas, merited. By the end of 2013, Garnett was shooting an astonishing 36.4% from the field. The $24 million owed Garnett through the end of the 2015 season seemed an entirely sunk cost. The end was nigh.
For Garnett and the rest of the Nets, flipping the calendar to 2014 was more than a superficially esteem-boosting fresh start. He’s shot 57.7% since New Year’s Day, an improvement that can perhaps be attributed to his slowly shrinking usage: after playing more than 25 minutes in three of the season’s first six games, Garnett has eclipsed that mark three times in all of 2014. These bones need their rest.
The improved accuracy still has not rescued Garnett’s season totals. He is still shooting just 44.7% on the season, a mark that will comfortably clear his previous career low. In fact, Garnett is posting a career low in just about every statistical category — as simple as points per game and as advanced as Win Shares per 48 minutes — unable to surpass his production as a wild-eyed 19-year-old in the 1995 Minnesota winter. Per-game averages of 20.7 minutes and 6.7 points make for a limp story when most chapters of Garnett’s career are rife with warrior screams. There is, however, one statistical category where Garnett is not only avoiding his all-time worst: he is actually surpassing his career best.
This season, Kevin Garnett has grabbed 32.3% of all available defensive rebounds. It’s a rate that, had Garnett played enough minutes to qualify for the rebounding leaderboards, would lead the league, well over DeMarcus Cousins’ rate of 30.4%. Reggie Evans, in his career exclusively devoted to gobbling rebounds, has bettered Garnett’s percentage in only two of his twelve seasons. Dennis Rodman, the greatest rebounder of all time, snatched 29.6% of available defensive rebounds over the course of his career. Garnett has reinvented himself, and as a specialist.
As Brooklyn enters the playoffs, summoning all the nobility it can manage, Garnett’s manic rebounding, prodigious as it is, does not weigh enough to swing the scales of a seven-game series. This sounds like a sad and melancholy proposition but in truth it should be wildly uplifting: Garnett, ever the soldier, ever looking to sacrifice of himself, has scoured his internal self once more and found something, anything, that he could use to contribute on the basketball court. This is how Garnett will go out. It will not be pretty, it will not be pleasant, and it will not be “fun” in any conventional sense. But isn’t that the way that Kevin Garnett has always played basketball?