How Far Can Brooklyn Nets Go with a Compromised Kevin Garnett?

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How Far Can Brooklyn Nets Go with a Compromised Kevin Garnett?
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Kevin Garnett was at the heart—or, more specifically, the backbone—of the Brooklyn Nets' rapid rebuilding plan.

Yet, a nagging pain in his own back is limiting the effects, tangible or otherwise, he can have on his new franchise.

The 37-year-old hasn't played in the month of March, a prolonged absence somewhat hidden by the team's strong play without him (8-2 in their last 10 games). Still, as the organization's source of fire and intensity, he's left a sizable void on and off the floor:

It's not just the time he's already missed that's concerning, either. It's also the fact that no one seems to know when he'll be ready to return:

This wasn't supposed to be a lengthy issue.

"No concerns. … It’s March," Nets coach Jason Kidd after Garnett sat out the first three games of the month, via Brian Lewis of the New York Post. "He has to play all 82?”

No, of course he doesn't. But at this rate, he'll be lucky to play in 60.

Even when Garnett is playing, this hasn't been the real Garnett playing. Not as hoop heads remember him, at least.

The 15-time All-Star is en route to setting career lows nearly across the stat sheet: points (6.7), field-goal percentage (43.9), assists (1.5), steals (0.8), blocks (0.7) and minutes (21). While some of these slides are the result of lost floor time—he's only played more than 28 minutes once this season—that can't account for his shooting woes or dramatic decline in efficiency (13.3 player efficiency rating, down from 19.2 in 2012-13).

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

"Garnett has long been one of the most valuable assets in the NBA, but his on-court performance is deteriorating," Sports Illustrated's Gabriel Baumgaertner wrote in December.

To be clear, Garnett is not the walking negative he was at the beginning of the season.

His offensive rating never climbed above 89 in November and December, while his defensive rating checked in at 102 or higher over the same stretch. Since the calendar change, the former has held at 102 or above and the latter hasn't crept above 98.

Still, his good times aren't nearly what they used to be. His best statistical month of the season came in January when he posted 7.4 points and 6.6 rebounds in 22.4 minutes. He averaged 14.8 and 6.8, respectively, in 29.7 minutes during the 2012-13 campaign.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

So, why should the Nets fret about someone trapped in such a deep statistical regression? Because for the first time in his career, Garnett is not someone whose impact can be captured in the box score.

"He's our anchor defensively. He's the loudest, he's the most vocal defensively," Deron Williams said, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. "We definitely miss that. We definitely miss his leadership and just his presence out there on the floor."

The same presence that's been ravaged by the raw numbers is, in fact, bolstered by advanced statistics.

Brooklyn's defensive rating climbs from 105.0 to 111.4 when Garnett leaves the floor, via 82games.com. The Nets' effective field-goal percentage allowed sees a similar jump without KG (51.7, up from 48.7). They collect 73 percent of available defensive rebounds with him and only 67.8 percent without him.

For everything he's lost, Garnett still has the league's best defensive efficiency against pick-and-roll screeners (0.54 points per possession on 35 plays), via Synergy Sports (subscription required). Against isolations, he owns the NBA's No. 7 mark (0.51 on 37 plays).

His bag of physical tools is as thin as ever, but he's proven instincts and intensity have no expiration date.

"Garnett’s production has declined, but he remains as active and aggressive as ever on the defensive end of the floor," Brett Pollakoff of NBC Sports noted. "That’s where his skill set will be missed the most if his back issues end up continuing to cause him to miss time into the postseason."

The Nets, apparently, would like us to believe that's not a possibility. That Garnett's repeated absences are all part of a maintenance plan, like the ones keeping the San Antonio Spurs veterans fresh or preserving Dwyane Wade's knees.

Yet, nothing about this feels controllable. Garnett has been day-to-day for almost a month. Brooklyn seems to have no greater grasp of the situation than an outside observer.

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The Nets have been surviving—thriving, even—without him. But with Brook Lopez (foot) already out for the season, losing Garnett has left a fragile frontcourt even more vulnerable.

Brooklyn doesn't overwhelm with offense. It has the 15th-highest offensive efficiency (103.4 points per 100 possessions) and only one healthy scorer topping 15 points a night (Joe Johnson, 15.1).

This team wins games at the defensive end, a markedly more difficult task without its anchor in the middle.

With two beasts from the East (the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers) on an apparent crash course to the Eastern Conference Finals, a healthy Garnett might not raise Brooklyn's ceiling above the second round.

Simply getting that far seems like a stretch, though, until the Nets can get their backbone's backbone right.

 

Unless otherwise specified, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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