Think about Kevin Garnett, and what do you envision?
Probably a scowl, certainly some profanity, a proclivity for midrange jumpers and, less so now than in his prime, a low-post game that more often than not consisted of A) a rip-through move and subsequent drive to the hoop, or B) Garnett’s patented “plant two feet, catch the ball, pivot either way, fade away from the hoop, and shoot over a defender who can’t possibly defend Garnett’s length or high release point.” There’s also Garnett’s willingness to defend, his length that allows him to cover big men, his quickness that allows (or maybe allowed is a more appropriate term now) him to switch onto guards in pick-and-roll situations, his court awareness that turned him into one of the greatest help defenders of all time. And if you think long enough, you’ll inevitably come to Garnett’s unselfishness, his ability to facilitate offense without always calling his own number, his willingness to hit an open teammate combined with the vision to find one.
Think about Blake Griffin, and your mind’s picture is probably less developed. You’ll see a man, or is he a machine, rising from the hardwood, climbing high into the night sky, scaling buildings and Mozgovs and Kia cars to ultimately slam home dunks, 214 of them during his rookie year, more than any human not named Dwight Howard. You’ll see a playful smile and muscles that ripple. You’ll see the potential to conquer the world and the youthfulness to believe anything is possible. If you observe Griffin closely, if you can remember to get past the initial shock factor, if you can for a few seconds stop thinking about Griffin’s dunks, you’ll also see an advanced basketball acumen which sets Griffin apart from all other young pogo sticks in the league.
It’s this intellect, the aspect of Griffin’s game most overshadowed by his “when do you think he’ll come down from there?” athleticism, that leads ESPN Insider’s Tom Haberstroh to compare Griffin and Garnett.
Your collective thoughts: wait, what?
The comparison is difficult to swallow. Garnett is marked by finesse; Griffin is just as likely to run through a defender as he is to soar over one. Garnett relies mostly on his midrange jumper and has been deadly from that range for decades; Griffin is very willing to shoot midrange jumpers but not nearly as capable of making them as Garnett. Garnett is and always has been a reluctant scorer; Griffin already exhibits more of a willingness to dominate the scoring column. But mostly, the comparison fails in one area:
Garnett is one of the greatest defenders ever. Griffin’s team was three points worse defensively whenever he stepped on the court.
Haberstroh does admit his comparison only works to a certain extent:
But to appreciate Griffin’s candidacy as Garnett’s successor, you have to look past the dunks. Ignore the Timofey Mozgov posterization. Put aside the fact that he leaped over an automobile and put a ball through a basket that stood 10 feet off the ground, if you can.
Because to fully appreciate why Griffin ranks as the most qualified contemporary to perform an uncanny Garnett impression, you have to consider Griffin’s softer side: his passing. The list of active players who can drop a nightly 20 points and 10 boards is longer than Joakim Noah’s gnarly mane. But dig deeper and you’ll discover that Griffin resembles Garnett because they mirror each other beyond the standard measuring sticks applied to big men.
Do you know who led the Los Angeles Clippers in assists last season? That distinction belongs to Griffin, a power forward who stands 6-9 and weighs 250 pounds. The 22-year-old plays with his head up, unlike most big men who become a black hole once the ball is entered into the post. Griffin features enough handle and quickness to keep defenders from hounding him out on the high post. It is there in the high post where he flaunts Garnett’s unique versatility. …
But that’s not to say that Griffin already sees eye-to-eye with the early 2000s version of KG. Remember, Garnett has long been the best defending power forward in the game and has a trophy to show for it. Last season, the Clippers were three points worse defensively per 100 possessions with Griffin on the court, which isn’t a crime, but it’s not small potatoes, either.
Griffin has a way to go defensively before we can start projecting him to supplant Garnett in the first-team All-Defensive team, but he’s right on track to compete with him everywhere else. In some respects, he’s already there.
Sure, Griffin’s offensive numbers compare favorably to a 21-year old Garnett, but Garnett’s greatness could never be explained solely by offensive numbers. If it could, Zach Randolph would have obtained All-Star status long ago, and Carlos Boozer and David Lee would actually deserve their ginormous contracts.
Like a young Garnett, Griffin is a double-double machine with the court vision of a much smaller player. In 2004, so was Brad Miller.
All tongue-in-cheek Brad Miller references aside, I understand why Haberstroh made the comparison. Griffin has Garnett’s ability to control games without scoring every possession, and his assist numbers, for a 21-year old power forward, or any power forward for that matter, are gaudy. But until Griffin becomes a real defensive asset — and I’m not saying he won’t, just that he’s not even close now — the comparison holds very little value. Remember, defense is half the game.