Long before the Greek Freak, the NBA was home to the Big Ticket, a trash-talking, ball-dunking, break-running, board-crashing, rim-protecting, mid-range-shooting forward named Kevin Garnett. And like the Milwaukee Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Minnesota Timberwolves went out on a limb to draft KG.
Kevin McHale, who was in Minnesota's front office at the time, explained to Sports Illustrated's Leigh Montville:
"We had no idea we were going to take him in the first round. I didn't even want to go see him. I thought it was a waste of time. Then we went, and Flip Saunders and I were in the car afterward, and we just looked at each other. I said, 'Wow, we're going to pick a high school kid in the first round.' It was that obvious.'
"This was our first draft. Flip and I were both new. Our owner was also new. How do you tell him that the first thing he's going to do is sign this high school kid? I think we figured if it went bad, we'd just say, 'Hey, it was our first draft. We didn't know what we were doing.'"
Milwaukee's general manager in 2013, John Hammond, told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper in April 2017 he was similarly impressed with a predraft version of Giannis:
"Loved his length and also loved his skill set. And we also felt that he had the gift of knowing how to play the game. You could see he was very comfortable in the game. He had a good ability to ball. He was basically playing the point-guard position a lot of times for his team. He was getting the rebound and taking it himself on the break. Or sometimes other players would get the rebound, sometimes the smaller players would throw it to him to handle the ball. He was like the point guard for his team. Someone at that size was handling the basketball and along with that had just a really good feel for the game. We always say that feel for the game is one of those things that is almost impossible to teach. It's just a gift that the player had, and I think that Giannis had that gift."
Both Giannis and KG possess physical gifts in abundance. But neither rested on those tools alone. A hunger to be the best drove each to an MVP level—and for Garnett, to an eventual championship.
Since Giannis has only played six seasons, it's not fair to approach this comparison in quite the same way we did "Stephen Curry vs. Magic Johnson," "James Harden vs. Kobe Bryant" or "Kevin Durant vs. Larry Bird." Each of the active players in those exercises has enough experience to warrant debate on all-time placement.
It's too early to go there with Giannis. But his 2018-19 MVP gives him enough cachet to compare his first six seasons with Garnett's first six:
Despite their identical box plus/minuses, Giannis' edge in points, assists and relative true shooting percentage gave him the blind-poll victory in a landslide.
The gap closes a bit if you just compare his 2018-19 season with Garnett's 2003-04 run to the MVP:
But the voters still overwhelmingly went with Giannis.
Is that enough to declare the modern version superior to the historical one? Of course not. By this point, you know the drill. Instead of relying solely on the blind comparisons, we'll break down this head-to-head battle with the following categories: defense, scoring, shooting and playmaking.
And in the interest of fairness, we'll mostly home in on Years 4-6 (the middle ground between the two polls). That sample doesn't account for much of Garnett's legacy, but it feels like a fair representation of where Giannis is as a player right now. So ultimately, the comparison is Giannis vs. KG at the same point in his career.
As Garnett once said, let's get "ready for war."
The instinct here was to lead off with a win for Garnett. After all, he was known largely for his defense throughout much of his career.
"KG's defense has changed a lot through the years, as his roles have changed," Hoops Lab's Andre Snellings wrote. "At every iteration he was a hugely impactful defender, and at his best he was the most impactful defender of the post rule-changes era in the NBA."
But as Snellings points out elsewhere in his piece, Garnett's defensive peak actually came later in his career.
His defensive box plus/minus was 2.9 in Years 4-6, compared to 3.8 over the next 10 seasons. His individual defensive rating (explained by Basketball Reference here) dropped (which is good) from 99 to 98 over the same stretches.
He posted a league-leading defensive rating of 94 in both 2007-08 and 2011-12, and he won Defensive Player of the Year, helped the Boston Celtics go 66-16, led the league in team defensive rating (surrendering just 98.9 points per 100 possessions) and won a title during the former. That season, Boston's defensive rating was a mammoth 8.6 points per 100 possessions better than the league average.
In terms of entire careers, Garnett would likely win here in a landslide. However, this isn't exactly a career comparison. And KG hadn't quite reached the peak of his defensive powers by 2001, which is when our sample ends.
If we focus just on that limited timeframe, Giannis actually has the edge in a number of stats:
|Giannis vs. KG|
But, as you can see, those statistical advantages are razor-thin. And defensive numbers pulled from box scores have severe limitations.
"Blocks, steals, and rebounds, along with minutes and what little information offensive numbers yield about defensive performance are all that is available," Basketball Reference's Daniel Myers wrote. "Such critical components of defense as positioning, communication, and the other factors that make Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan elite on defense can't be captured, unfortunately."
In the end, Myers concluded reputation can trump a number like defensive box plus/minus. Klay Thompson is a prime example. His minus-1.6 defensive box plus/minus ranks 295th among the 345 players with at least 5,000 minutes over the course of his career, but no serious observer of the game would classify him as a bottom-tier defender due to his lack of defensive rebounds, steals and blocks.
And so, despite Giannis' slight advantages in a number of box-score stats, Garnett's reputation—it wasn't fully formed by 2001, but he did have two first-team All-Defensive selections by then—pulls him even in the opening category.
Garnett 1, Antetokounmpo 1
Here, we'll have quite a bit more separation.
Though Garnett was a great scorer from 1999 to 2001 (22.1 points per game), he wasn't quite to his peak. But even if we use the best three-season scoring stretch of his career, it doesn't measure up to what Giannis has done over the last three years.
So, we'll break our own rules.
Garnett's peak scoring run was 2002-03 to 2004-05 (a stretch that included his 2004 MVP). Over those three seasons, he averaged 23.1 points, which ranked ninth in the NBA. His relative scoring average (his scoring average minus the league average for individual scoring) was plus-12.8.
Over the last three seasons, Giannis has averaged 25.7 points, which ranks eighth. His relative scoring average is plus-14.6.
During his MVP season, Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points. Garnett's career high was 24.2. And the difference in playing time between those two campaigns is vast. Giannis played 32.8 minutes per game, compared to 39.4 for Garnett.
And we haven't even touched on the difference in efficiency yet.
Let's go back to that three-year scoring peak from Garnett. During that stretch, his true shooting percentage was 55.5. The league average was 52.2, giving him a plus-3.3 relative true shooting percentage.
Antetokounmpo's relative true shooting percentage since the start of the 2016-17 season? Plus-5.7. This past season alone, his relative true shooting percentage was plus-8.4.
Giannis doesn't just score more than Garnett did. He does so more efficiently, largely because he's a physical force few, if any, have figured out how to stop. The Ringer's Tyler Parker explained:
"People watch him and use words like devastating, calamitous, forceful. It's artful destruction, really, his dismantling of a defense. Antetokounmpo, at the top of the key, surrounded by shooters of all shapes and sizes, attacking some poor guy off the bounce and either blowing right by him or backing him down until he puts him in the rim. He's a minimalist and an entertainer. Some games he looks so much bigger than everyone else it's like a grown man playing 21 on a 7-foot goal against a bunch of second-graders."
Willpower and a perhaps unprecedented mix of size and athleticism is a dangerous combination. When Giannis wants to get within dunking range of the hoop, which is a much bigger zone for him than others, it often feels like there's nothing a defense can do to prevent it.
Would it be nice if he had a more reliable outside shot? Sure. But Giannis can get the game's most lucrative attempts at a rate of which others can't even dream.
Garnett may have had a bigger arsenal of post moves and a better jumper, but those advantages aren't enough to overcome Antetokounmpo's utilitarian dominance.
Garnett 1, Antetokounmpo 2
He may not have shot a ton of threes at any point in his career, but Garnett was still able to space the floor from the power forward and center positions.
Most of KG's minutes were played prior to the three-point revolution that has unleashed the spacing prowess of bigs such as Brook Lopez, but he may have helped push the game out there. Though he's no Dirk Nowitzki as a shooter, NBA fans who watched the game back in the early 2000s surely remember Garnett's mid-to-long-range two-point game.
He could hit turnarounds out of the post, fadeaways, catch-and-shoot jumpers and even the occasional dribble pull-up.
"...Garnett's face-up game and mid-range shooting skills helped spread opposing defenses, giving his teammates more room to operate (not that they always used it well)," FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine wrote. "[Adjusted plus/minus creator Dan] Rosenbaum found that players who stretch the floor tend to have better APMs, even after controlling for their scoring volume and efficiency."
And while neither of these players is known for his three-point marksmanship, KG did get a little adventurous out there during Years 4-6. In that span, he went 53-of-161 (32.9 percent) from deep.
Giannis, meanwhile, is 144-of-523 (27.5 percent) over his last three seasons. On two-pointers from beyond 10 feet, he's at 35.2 percent on 790 attempts.
Of the Garnett seasons on which we've focused, we only have similar data for 2000-01. That season, he shot 42.5 percent on 680 attempts from that range.
Through their sixth seasons in the NBA, KG was undoubtedly a better shooter.
Garnett 2, Antetokounmpo 2
Among 6'11"-plus players with at least 5,000 career minutes, Garnett is fourth in assist percentage. And if you cut that sample off in 2016 (Garnett's last season), he's second to only Tom Boerwinkle.
Garnett was a pioneer for passing bigs. When he came into the league, centers and power forwards dished out assists mostly from the post. Even that was done sparingly. Suddenly, there was this 6'11" mold-breaker who'd come straight out of high school, grabbing defensive rebounds and leading the break himself.
By his sixth season, KG had already topped four assists per game four times. At one point in his career, he had a six-season stretch in which he averaged 5.3 dimes.
Garnett's playmaking opened doors for passing bigs such as Nikola Jokic, Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins and, of course, Giannis. Jokic (first) and Giannis (second) are the two players who've leapfrogged him in career assist percentage since 2016.
In terms of passing, running individual possessions and often functioning as a de facto point guard, Giannis is sort of the evolutionary Garnett.
Last season alone, he finished 137 possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (7.6 percent of his total possessions). Among the 141 players who used at least 100 such possessions, his 1.12 points per possession ranked first.
According to Synergy, Milwaukee scored 1.09 points per possession on the 116 pick-and-rolls out of which Giannis passed, which ranked in the 60th percentile. And when you combine what he did as a scorer and passer out of such plays, he finished in the 94th percentile.
That's pretty remarkable for a 6'11" player.
KG may have laid some of the foundation for playmaking bigs, but Giannis is aggressively expanding it.
Garnett 2, Antetokounmpo 3
Who Ya Got?
This is a close one. The numbers in a straight-up comparison are strikingly similar. And again, if this were KG's entire career compared to Giannis', the latter wouldn't be higher on the all-time power forward ladder.
But through just six seasons, Antetokounmpo is the better player, which is something that should excite NBA fans.
Garnett wasn't just an all-time great. He was a revolutionary. And just a few short years after his retirement, it looks like we have an heir apparent. Or, perhaps more accurately stated, we have the evolutionary form.
What does this mean for the rest of Giannis' career? KG went on to win a title and Defensive Player of the Year. Basketball Reference puts his chances at the Hall of Fame at 100 percent. He's 16th in league history for career box plus/minus.
And the NBA's reigning MVP has a chance to be even better.