The Brooklyn Nets brought in Kevin Garnett as much for his on-court production as his legendary locker room presence. But with the veteran big man struggling to produce, it's possible that his powerful voice will soon cease to resonate.
And if that happens, a Nets season that is already spiraling downward could quickly spin out of control.
To get an idea of just how dire the circumstances in Brooklyn are, we'll need to take a dive into exactly what Garnett is and isn't doing for his team.
Coming Up Short on Offense
With his career nearing the end of its second full decade, Garnett has managed to maintain strong statistical production. He's done it by staying in remarkable shape, picking his spots and generally playing a smarter, more reserved game.
He no longer resembles the MVP-level force he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but in Garnett's last few seasons with the Boston Celtics, he still moved the ball, still hit jumpers and still defended at a very high level.
He's not doing those things anymore.
On the year, Garnett is shooting just under 33 percent from the field. And when you break down his conversion rate by zones, the numbers don't get any prettier:
Garnett is still getting many of the same opportunities he did with Boston, which makes his shooting woes that much harder to understand. Typically, a solid jumper is the last thing to go for an aging player. Athleticism, lateral quickness and overall physical durability almost always knock out veterans before their jumpers do them in.
But KG's inability to make shots is effectively killing the Nets offense.
Because his track record of high-efficiency offense is so long, it's hard to believe that Garnett won't get his mid-range stroke straightened out. Unfortunately, KG's offensive troubles aren't limited to 17-footers.
Never a guy who willingly operated much out of the low post in the first place, Garnett's declining athleticism is turning him into a woefully poor finisher inside. In recent seasons, he's compensated for his lack of lift by utilizing plenty of pump fakes and by relying on his length.
Now, though, nothing's working.
The inability to finish in the restricted area is a major indicator of overall decline, and if the Nets didn't have so many other worries right now, KG's total failure to convert in the lane would be a major concern.
To be totally fair, we have to pin some of Garnett's offensive struggles on a disjointed Brooklyn offense that isn't really helping anyone on the roster be effective. The Nets don't appear to call many plays, opting instead to depend on a "your turn, my turn" approach that shuffles isolation touches among the handful of stars in the lineup.
At the same time, KG's inability to be a real threat makes it awfully hard for the Nets to generate good looks by moving the ball. If defenders don't feel like they have to honor him (and right now, they're certainly justified in feeling that way), it's tough for the rest of the Nets to succeed offensively.
The Real Problem
The Nets didn't trade for Garnett because they wanted him to lead their offense, though. What Brooklyn really needed was a defensive anchor who could pull double duty as an emotional leader.
It turns out that Garnett's failure in the former role might be compromising his value in the latter.
His defensive splits wouldn't be striking for most guys, but they're eye-opening for someone who'll retire with a reputation as one of the single-greatest team defenders of all time.
On the season, Brooklyn is allowing 105.6 points per 100 possessions when Garnett is on the floor against 104.7 when he sits, per NBA.com. Think about that for a second: The Nets are defending less effectively with Garnett on the court.
That's unheard of.
On the bright side, he's playing a career-low 22.9 minutes per game, which at least minimizes his negative impact. Something tells me that's not much consolation for the Nets, though.
So, the question now is whether Garnett's undeniable on-court decline is going to cost him his most valuable asset: his voice.
He didn't speak to the media at all after Brooklyn's disappointing loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 18, but he at least sounded like a guy still functioning as a mouthpiece when he talked to Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News the next day:
"No one’s happy about how we’re playing. No one likes the current state but everybody’s willing and committed towards changing it.”
It's good that KG is still talking. It's what he does best.
The problem, though, is that Garnett's value as a vocal tone-setter and emotional leader was already going to be diminished on a team full of accomplished and self-assured veterans. His schtick plays well with less experienced players, but it's not like Deron Williams and Joe Johnson were ever going to ask "How high?" when Garnett snarled "jump."
With much of his bite now gone, it's even harder to imagine the rest of the Nets responding to his bark.
Years of elite play should help Garnett retain some of his gravitas as his skills continue to erode. But there's no question that it will be harder for him to function as a leader if he's not able to produce at a respectable level on the floor.
If the Nets were comprised of younger, more easily impressed players, maybe that wouldn't be the case. But with this roster, icy stares and maniacal rhetoric aren't going to have the same impact without some skill backing them up.
In truth, Garnett's decline is really just one of the Nets' problems. They're not playing well collectively, not getting much in the way of innovative coaching and don't have many options to sort this mess out by turning over the roster.
KG was supposed to be the guy who could hold this team together when things got tough. Instead, he's one of the main reasons it's falling apart.
*Stats accurate through games played Nov. 19