By Steve Lichtenstein
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With the Nets’ season spiraling out of control—their mini West Coast swing just yielded two consecutive wipeouts by a combined 74 points (making the Nets only the fifth team in NBA history to reach those depths)—their postmortem can’t come soon enough for me.
Brooklyn general manager Billy King wasted recent opportunities to make deals from strength and now the franchise is pretty much helpless and hopeless for this season and the near future.
The Nets are about to enter a stretch of five games against top-level opponents—starting on Monday when they host Portland—and will likely lose ground against those teams who are also vying for the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. With first-place Atlanta owning the Nets’ 2015 first-round draft pick, the Nets can’t even get the tanking part right.
Soon we’ll be reading about what a sad end this is for Kevin Garnett. Many are assuming that the Nets’ 38-year-old forward (KG turns 39 in May) will retire after this, his 20th NBA season. His place in league history is secure and future Hall of Fame recognition is a lock.
Unfortunately, Garnett’s two-season stint in Brooklyn never lived up to the hype following King’s blockbuster trade with Boston. Garnett and Paul Pierce were supposed to transform the Nets into a team that would no longer accept mediocrity. Of course, those dreams never materialized, for a host of reasons documented previously in this space.
No one will blame KG, who is still extolled as the ultimate teammate even while his team has deteriorated.
However, something has always bugged me about Garnett’s tenure here. It’s one thing for Garnett to blow off the media as he has so often done (although we are merely conduits to you, the fan, who may or may not be interested in hearing what he has to say on basketball-related topics).
But I wonder what his teammates thought, for instance, about KG taking a “rest day” while they were getting blown off the court in Los Angeles on Thursday?
The Nets were teetering on the edge of falling into Lottery Land. Mirza Teletovic attempted to play on Thursday before heading to the hospital, where he was eventually diagnosed with having blood clots in his lungs. Newsday reported on Sunday that Joe Johnson has been gutting out major minutes over the last month or so despite painful tendinitis in his right knee and left ankle.
But Garnett needed a day off because he logged 14 minutes the previous night up the coast in Sacramento?
Now, I’m not going to state as a fact that the outcome would have been different had Garnett suited up. The Clippers were just too good while the Nets played without energy, passion or intellect. The Nets got obliterated in Utah on Saturday with KG in the lineup.
Also, I’m fairly sure that if you asked any of Garnett’s teammates, they would give him the benefit of the doubt. You watch how Garnett gives his all on the court, or the effect he’s had on center Mason Plumlee—on everything from defensive communication to free throw shooting—and you know he will be missed when he moves on.
Still, Garnett is getting paid $12 million this season. To play, not to dispense advice from the sidelines.
The Clippers absence was the eighth such occurrence out of 43 games (he missed one other game due to a suspension for instigating an altercation with Houston’s Dwight Howard after just four minutes of action).
That’s even a higher rate than last season, when then-coach Jason Kidd held Garnett out of most back-to-backs before back pain sidelined Garnett for 19 consecutive games in March.
For a long time I was unsure as to who was ultimately behind those play-or-not-play decisions, as Garnett initially came out vociferously against that type of plan shortly after the trade. With blunt Lionel Hollins having taken the reins from Kidd this season, there is much less subtlety. According to Hollins, if Garnett tells him he can play, Hollins puts him in. If not, he doesn’t.
Which begs the question: Unless Garnett is actually injured, should he be given any more days off?
The data shows that Garnett, despite noticeable limitations in mobility and endurance, is still a pretty effective player. He has the second-highest defensive rebounding rate (31.4 percent) in the league. His mid-range shooting percentage is not far off his career levels (though his efficiency finishing in the paint has taken a nose dive). He’s by far the Nets’ best-passing big man out of the high post.
And, according to NBA.com, the Nets are a superior team when he is on the floor versus when he is off. You can see the difference in the Nets’ defensive activity when KG is out there—he contains pick-and-rolls, makes sure he’s in proper help position, and works hard to get after the ball once it’s shot.
The Nets obviously have no reason to give up the postseason chase, so they need to get whatever they can out of Garnett now—especially with Teletovic done for the season (and possibly his career, if doctors are unable to determine the source of the dangerous condition).
Rookie Cory Jefferson is an intriguing project, but he’s an offensive liability and needs time to learn the NBA game. He’s not ready to take all of Teletovic’s minutes. I like Jerome Jordan, but at best he’s strictly backup material for short bursts. There’s no other bodies up front behind Plumlee and Brook Lopez.
The season prior to the big trade, Garnett logged an average of just under 30 minutes per game for the Celtics. In Boston’s six-game first-round playoff loss to the Knicks, that number jumped to over 35 minutes.
I’m not calling for Garnett to return to playing that much—there’s the law of diminishing returns for players who are at such advanced ages.
But he certainly can give Brooklyn more. After all, what are the Nets really saving him for?
After this season, Garnett has the rest of his life to rest while basking in his vast accomplishments.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.