Why Kevin Garnett Must Be Nets MVP for Brooklyn to Reach Playoff Ceiling
Jason Kidd has a plan for maximizing the effectiveness of 37-year-old forward Kevin Garnett.
The first-year coach has said he plans to sideline the 15-time All-Star selection for the second half of back-to-backs, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.
In an offseason full of twists for the revamped Brooklyn Nets, the fiery Garnett's reaction was entirely predictable. When Kidd approached him with the plan, he said "it didn't go too well," via USA Today's Adi Joseph. "From a chemistry standpoint, I think it's important for me to be out there with everybody.
With Mikhail Prokhorov's nine-figure championship dreams perched squarely on their shoulders, the coach and his veteran leader need to find common ground. Luckily, they have slowly started coming together.
Kidd's plan was put into practice this week. After Garnett logged 15 minutes during Brooklyn's 30-point drubbing of the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday, Kidd held him out of the Nets' two-point win over the Boston Celtics the following night.
What could have been disastrous may have actually been the start of something special. "[Monday] night he said he does trust me and that’s the starting point," Kidd said, via Howie Kussoy of the New York Post. "He's seen the plan."
If Kidd can get Garnett on board, Brooklyn's championship puzzle can start to take shape. No player means more to this team than the former MVP.
On the Court
The one thing that really makes Brooklyn's summer transformation so appealing is the fact that the Nets had a strong team to begin with.
This wasn't a struggling franchise wildly swinging for the fences (cough Detroit Pistons cough). This was a 49-win team last season that simply went out on a bad note (seven-game loss to the Chicago Bulls in the opening round).
With the top-four scorers from that group back (Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Andray Blatche), the Nets aren't in need of a major offensive overhaul. Brooklyn had a top-10 offensive rating in the regular season (105.0, ninth). It bullied its way into the top-five by playoff time (104.9, fourth).
But Garnett will help simplify things for Brooklyn's offense.
A lights-out shooter from mid-range (46.2 percent from beyond 10 feet in 2012-13), he'll be a lethal pick-and-pop partner for Deron Williams.
Not to mention the space he'll clear up for Brook Lopez (19.4 points per game last season) to go to work under the basket.
While this makes life easier for Lopez, it makes it more enjoyable for Garnett. Never one to live on the low block, he's been drifting even further from the basket over the course of his career. In 2006-07, he averaged 6.6 field-goal attempts from inside of 10 feet. By last season, that number had fallen to just 3.9, via HoopData.com.
But Brooklyn didn't add Garnett for his offense. This team's biggest issues came at the opposite end of the floor.
Garnett may not be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate at this stage of his career—although he was an All-Defensive second team selection as recently as 2011-12—but his impact on Brooklyn's defense will be impossible to overstate.
He's mastered the art of defense. His incredible balance and fleet feet help him keep pace in his race with Father Time. His understanding of timing and spacing leaves him as an intimidating rim protector (1.1 blocks per 36 minutes last season), even as his legs lose their explosiveness.
He can lock up defending forwards—both in the post and out on the perimeter—or serve as a weak-side helper.
Lopez has made strides in both of these areas. His 105 defensive rating last season was by far the best of his career. But his work on the glass has suffered in the process. After averaging 8.6 boards as a sophomore in 2009-10, he's tracked down fewer than 7.0 in each of the three seasons since.
Those problems have since spilled over into the preseason:
Brook Lopez didn't grab many rebounds in his 12 minutes of action tonight. None, in fact.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) October 9, 2013
There is no give-and-take with Garnett. He plays elite-level defense and ferociously attacks the glass. Although his 7.8 rebounds per game in 2012-13 were the third fewest of his career, he inhaled a league-leading 13.7 in the postseason.
Surely, he'll be passing on the finer points of rebounding and defending to Lopez, but he'll also be tasked with controlling the boards as Lopez finds his new footing at a premier post player.
But the effect on Garnett's team has always trumped his individual production.
Last season, the Boston Celtics allowed just 99.3 points per 100 possessions when Garnett was on the floor. Once he came off, that number spiked to 108.3. To put those numbers in context, a 99.3 defensive rating would have been third best in the league. Conversely, a 108.3 mark would have been third worst.
For everything that Garnett brings to the floor, it's his voice that often makes the biggest impact. His trash talking might be legendary, but what he says to his teammates is game-changing.
He diagrams plays like an offensive coordinator. Only he's not calling out his own team's plays, he's breaking down the opposition's sets as they develop.
Former Nets coach Avery Johnson couldn't help but marvel at Garnett's crystal ball last season. "The funny thing is, I wish he would be quiet on the floor and not call out your plays," Johnson said, via ESPN New York's Mike Mazzeo. "We'll call a play and he'll say, 'Joe [Johnson] is going over here and Deron [Williams] is going here.'"
That voice will be an invaluable gift on the hardwood. But behind closed doors, it could be the missing piece in Prokhorov's plan.
In the Locker Room
Intensity, by itself, isn't a guaranteed strength. If not properly harnessed, it can send players spiraling out of control.
Garnett is not one of those players, though. His competitive edge is always served in proper doses, always at precisely the right time.
The Nets had plenty of physical gifts last season, but their mental makeup left plenty to be desired.
A midseason coaching change surely didn't help, but the Nets played Charmin-soft no matter who was at the helm. Brooklyn retreated from punches; rarely did it respond with a counterattack.
The Nets had no business dropping that first-round series to the undermanned Chicago Bulls. The talent disparity was glaring, particularly as Chicago's ranks thinned over the course of the series.
Nets general manager Billy King tried to inject the mental toughness into his team this summer that he felt was lacking last season. "At some point, you've got to knock a guy on his ass if they're doing things," King said, via ESPN New York's Ohm Youngmisuk. "You've got to take a hard foul and let them know you just can't do that. And we didn't do it."
Garnett's not the only one responsible for supplying Brooklyn's grit. Paul Pierce has always played with a chip on his shoulder. Andrei Kirilenko brings his own brand of nasty to the hardwood.
But Garnett will be the one leading the rally cry. He doesn't take plays off, be it Game 7 of the NBA Finals or Game 1 of the preseason. If it was up to him, he'd never take time off.
If the Nets are buying what Garnett's selling, this franchise could go somewhere it's never been.
The Championship Podium
The last time Nets fans had a championship to celebrate, Julius Erving was wowing crowds as a member of the ABA New York Nets.
In its NBA history, this organization has made a pair of (unsuccessful) trips to the NBA Finals. Coincidentally, those teams were also led by Kidd, although in a very different way. Kidd's 19-year playing career, which came to a close in June, featured six-plus seasons with the franchise.
The league's championship field is as deep as its been in recent history.
Four teams (Brooklyn, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks) figure to give the two-time defending champion Miami Heat a serious run at their Eastern Conference crown. At least six teams from the West (Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies) enter 2013-14 with (semi-) realistic title hopes.
Who holds the key to Brooklyn's season?
The Nets have a long road ahead of them to play their way into the championship picture. They have so many adjustments to make, and so little time to adapt.
But the potential for a banner-raising season exists in Brooklyn.
Health is key to this veteran-laden team's success. So, too, is Deron Williams playing at an All-NBA level, Brook Lopez continuing his All-Star ascent and (more than) a few trips to the Fountain of Youth.
While his teammates are responsible for fine-tuning their on-court efforts, Garnett's burden goes beyond that.
He's responsible for changing a culture. He's the one that will have to make his teammates believe in their championship ceiling.
But for someone who's been waging NBA wars since 1995 and hasn't stopped swinging yet, this feels like the one he was made to fight.
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