In this series, I’m taking a look at modern superstars and examining how their clubs’ wins and losses rose and fell over time with the presence and absence of their aces. As much as I love comparing and discussing players’ individual statistics and their advanced impact stats, the only reason I do so is to try to figure out which players affect their teams’ fortunes in the most significant and positive ways.
What I’ve decided to do with It’s All About The W’s is stop looking too closely at superstars’ stats and start looking closely at their teams’ records with and without them in the lineups. Michael Jordan won 6 titles in the 90’s, but in the middle two seasons during his first retirement the Bulls never reached 57 wins (their least amount during his 6 title runs) or even the third round of the playoffs; that’s significant. Bill Russell won 11 titles in 13 seasons, yet the Celtics couldn’t make the playoffs the year before or after his career, plus he was injured during one of those two non-title playoffs; that’s significant.
I’ll be using that same logic to examine today’s stars and how their clubs improved (or didn’t) with their presence. The stats are great, but if they don’t correspond with more wins, then what’s their value? Obviously I’ll have to consider the sample size of games missed, injuries to fellow teammates, and the context of the games, so those facts will be noted and considered.
Without further ado, here’s It’s All About The W’s: Kevin Garnett.
First 2 years (’95-96 to ’96-97)
Garnett joined a real dud of a club in 1995 (Glen Taylor alert). The T-Wolves had won 21, 20, 19, and 15 games over the previous four seasons for a 75-253 (.229) record. The team’s best players before KG’s arrival and at the beginning of his rookie season were Isaiah Rider, Tom Gugliotta, and Christian Laettner, so…yeah. Garnett was taken with the #5 pick in the draft, the first high schooler to be drafted in 20 years, and he played in 80 games during his initial season.
He started the last 42 contests of the year, averaging 37 mpg in his starts (which included a 43rd earlier in the season), and most of his stats improved significantly in the drastically expanded role that Flip Saunders gave him (Saunders replaced Bill Blair as the head coach 20 games into the season, although Minny’s record from that point forward did not improve). During KG’s string of 42 starts to end the season, which began right around the trade of Laettner to Atlanta in February, the team went 15-27 (.357). The club was a slightly worse 11-29 (.275) before then. KG was the most promising player on the squad, but certainly wasn’t considered their best or most influential player that season, although the fact the team improved even a little bit with 19-year-old KG getting the starts and the minutes without established PF Laettner around shows us some of the value he was already bringing to the club.
KG’s second season is the last time there was a debate about who the team’s best player was, with Garnett and Gugliotta more or less sharing top billing for a drastically improving club that had gotten rid of Rider and drafted rookie PG Stephon Marbury. Garnett started all 77 games he appeared in, during which the club went 40-37 (.519) and a terrible 0-5 (.000) during the 5 games he missed in December, although it should be noted that those contests were against the 57-25 Sonics, 64-18 Jazz, 56-26 Lakers, 57-25 Rockets, and the 69-13 Bulls. Considering the biggest positive change to the Timberwolves from Garnett’s first to second seasons was his massively increased role and blossoming abilities (especially passing and defensive leadership), a lot of the team’s improvement can be connected to him.
Garnett’s impact on W-L’s: Garnett joined a terrible club that hadn’t topped 21 wins in five years, and had them in the playoffs at the end of his second season. Not only that, they were ranked 26th (out of 27 teams) in Defensive Rating before he arrived, and had jumped all the way to 15th (out of 29) in two years. The numbers show us that Garnett’s impact was already very significant during his first two seasons.
The next 10 years in Minnesota (’97-98 to ’06-07)
Garnett’s influence on the T-Wolves during his prime years is actually a lot harder to determine than you may think simply because a) he rarely missed more than one game a season, and b) although the team significantly improved during the regular season, Minnesota famously got bounced out of the first round of the playoffs 7 straight years with Garnett, even as they won over 60% of their games from ’99-00 to ’02-03.
The team made it to the Western Conference Finals in 2004, the franchise’s only trip ever past the first round. KG had arguably the best post-season performance of his career, leading a decent but hardly great supporting cast (Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell, Szczerbiak, Trenton Hassell) in virtually everything during the playoffs. With no one else averaging 5.0 rpg or 0.7 bpg, Garnett had to be the sole interior power (15 rpg, 2.3 bpg) on a team that went six games in the Western Finals with the Lakers and their Shaq/Malone frontline.
Since he missed 0 or 1 games in 7 of these seasons (for the record, they were 344-227 [.602] in those seasons with him, and 1-2 [.333] without), I’ll focus on the three seasons in which he not only missed multiple games, but consecutive games. The consecutive games are key because this is where we’re more likely to see how the team would actually perform without him.
In ’98-99, KG missed 3 games in April, although Terrell Brandon, the team’s PG (All Star in ’96 and ’97), was also missing, so their 1-2 (.333) record during those contests and 24-23 (.511) record with KG tells us almost nothing.
In ’05-06, KG missed the final 6 games of the season, and the team went 2-4 (.333), but a fairly similar 31-45 (.408) with him. The team’s roster was trash by this point (Wally Szczerbiak and Ricky Davis were the next two best players) and it was clear Garnett wanted out, so it’s not surprising they weren’t accomplishing much in his 11th season.
In ’06-07, KG missed 6 games, including the last 5, and the Wolves went 0-6 (.000) without him and 32-44 (.421) with. Not only was Minnesota swept in those contests to end the season, they lost the final game of the year 116-94, to the 22-60 Grizzlies, at home - that's how lackluster this sinking club was without Garnett.
Garnett’s impact on W-L’s: Although we have little to go on in terms of W-L records to judge KG’s impact during his prime (3-12 without him), we see that Minnesota became a consistent contender with him as their clear leader. Not only that, he had a litany of subpar-in-retrospect sidekicks rotating through the roster during their 8 consecutive seasons in the playoffs. It’s troubling that the team didn’t do better in the playoffs, and we know that KG often had underwhelming post-seasons, but he was essentially the sole reason Minny made it to the Western Finals in ’04—let alone out of Round One—so there’s that. Overall, his impact looks to be very significant in terms of making the team good, but I don’t want to get carried away because of those numerous post-season meltdowns the team experienced. Don’t forget that the team has gotten significantly worse since he’s left, as well (they won 32 his last year, since then they’ve won 22, 24, 15, and 17, even with two other All-Star-quality PF’s in his place).
Boston Celtics (’07-08 to ’10-11)
Garnett joined a Celtics’ squad in 2007 that already included Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo (although he was just a rookie before KG’s arrival), Kendrick Perkins, and Tony Allen, plus coach Doc Rivers had been on the sidelines for three years. With all of these pieces that received a lot of credit during the recent Celtics’ runs, Boston was only 24-58 (.293) in ’06-07. Garnett and Ray Allen showed up and everything changed.
The team’s Defensive Rating went from 16th to 1st, and the Celtics won the title. Garnett was 31 when he joined Boston, but they quickly became a team-first organization that followed his playing style and emotional lead. His play improved during their 2007 post-season run and was clearly the story of the playoffs.
The Celtics started out ’08-09 just how they had finished the year before—on fire—and were 39-9 (.813) by the end of January. From this point forward, the flu and a nasty knee injury kept KG on the sidelines or playing in a weakened state, and the team finished 23-11 (.676). He missed the playoffs, and the Celtics got bounced in Round Two (and had to go the full seven in Round One against the 41-41 Bulls) after everyone assumed during the first half of the season that they were bound to win a second consecutive title; Garnett's absence crushed the C's, who bowed out to a Magic squad playing without their All-Star PG.
Over the past two years as Garnett has entered his mid-30’s, his playing time and role on an increasingly team-oriented club that doesn’t look to one player for wins (e.g. Big Four) has diminished. Not only that, it’s now a given that he’s missing at least 10 games a year due to one injury or another, but what he’s done for the intensity and swagger of Boston is obvious. All that being said, the Celtics have been 194-74 (.724) with Garnett these past four seasons and 40-20 (.667) without. There have been plenty of other injuries to key Celtics in this time (Rondo in ’10-11, Pierce in ’09-10, Allen in ’07-08, Perkins/other centers in ’10-11), but the fact that KG was the only significant and sustained one in ’08-09 and that’s when they underperformed the most based on expectations tells us a lot.
Garnett’s impact on W-L’s: Looking at the overall W-L numbers, his impact on Boston hasn’t been an extreme one, although that ’08-09 season and post-season shows us how far they can fall when everyone else is healthy and supposedly ready to win a title together. Not only that, there's little question that Garnett was the chief reason the Celtics so rapidly went from nobodies to champs to sustained contenders. This really is a tough time period to gauge overall, but you have to say his impact was certainly significant to the Celtics.
Garnett is the only player in the last 20-plus years whose participation in practice and presence on the sidelines alone would significantly affect how a team plays in a positive way. His intensity and selfless play, especially on defense, is well-known to be the most infectious in the league (and to exist full bore during practice), which is likely why we see a much bigger jump between his teams’ records before/during his time in each city than with and without him in the lineup.
Overall, he brought two franchises out of the doldrums in a big time way, and then showed while with them that his play on the court pushes them even higher. Although his W-L numbers aren’t overwhelmingly impressive, there are enough seasons where it’s statistically clear he was hugely responsible for improving their ability to win games, giving him strong consideration as a top-2 to 3 PF of all-time, right in the cream of the Duncan-Petit-Malone-Barkley-McHale-Rodman-Nowitzki-Hayes conversation.