Each new NBA season brings excitement and optimism around the league, but it also brings difficult goodbyes to retiring stars.
This off-season was particularly cruel, as the NBA lost three of its best players in league history: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. Each star became a transcendent player for their generation, winning championships, individual accolades and an eventual place in the Naismith Hall of Fame. But much like their playing styles contrasted, so too did their goodbyes. Kobe took an entire season to say his farewell. Duncan needed just a short press release. Garnett? An Instagram video.
It's tough to say which star NBA fans will miss most. Will it be the highs and lows of Kobe Bryant? The steadiness of Tim Duncan? Or the intensity of Kevin Garnett? SI.com paneled its NBA writers and asked them which legend they'll miss the most in 2016–17.
Who will you miss most: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett?
Lee Jenkins: Kobe Bryant. I’ll miss Kobe, and not because I think he should still be playing. I’ll miss the unmistakable sensation, when you walked into Staples Center, that something genuinely interesting might happen. It could be a line at a press conference. It could be a look at a teammate. It could be a turnaround jumper, with two guys in his face, and it could be a swish or an airball. Kobe was a fascinating character, to watch and chronicle, and I always felt sorry for the people who got caught up in whether the character was good or bad. I’ll miss him because he was really interesting.
Ben Golliver: Tim Duncan. Not only did Kobe Bryant go out with a 50-shot, 60-point bang—a final chapter so fitting that it made you immediately start praying that he wouldn’t contemplate a comeback—but he said goodbye in every possible way to every single city on his extended farewell tour. What’s to miss about a player who finally came to terms with his basketball mortality, got his affairs in order thoroughly, and then departed in the most memorable way possible? As for Kevin Garnett, his slow fading into the sunset over the last three seasons coupled with his much-ballyhooed full-circle return to Minnesota telegraphed his retirement with plenty of advance warning. A long time has passed since Garnett’s last truly memorable playoff battle—the 2012 East finals against LeBron James’ Heat—and even he, ever the stubborn and fierce competitor, seemed to acknowledge that his second Minnesota tenure was less about him and more about shaping Karl-Anthony Towns.
I’ll miss Duncan the most because his final seasons didn’t let the viewer down easy, a la Bryant and Garnett. Unlike the others, Duncan was still playing very good basketball for a very good team. Unlike the others, he wasn’t that far removed from his glory days, having won a title in 2014 after a masterful playoff run. Unlike the others, he didn’t quite go out on his own terms: The Thunder roared back to rudely dismiss the Spurs from the playoffs and deny San Antonio its long-awaited showdown with Golden State. Meanwhile, the quality of Duncan’s play diminished pretty quickly due to nagging injury issues. Yes, San Antonio was transitioning power away from him towards its younger stars, but late-career Duncan remained a vital part of championship contenders despite a bum wheel and nearly two decades of accumulated mileage. Then, all of a sudden, he was sticking one finger in the air as he walked off the court in defeat, and that was that.
Whereas Bryant departed with an empty chamber and Garnett retired without any juice left, Duncan took off quietly, without a signature goodbye and with plenty of basketball left in his body. The thought of most 40-year-old legends mounting a post-retirement comeback would be anathema. With Duncan, it doesn’t sound so bad at all.
Andrew Sharp: Honestly, I won't miss any of these guys in the NBA this year. Kobe, KG, and Duncan have played for the past 20 years. We're good. (Another season of Kobe think pieces might have given me a psychotic break). The more interesting question... Who will be the best at retirement?
Start with KG. In a perfect world, he starts every day jogging up and down the beach in Malibu, in front of breathtaking sunrises, accosting unsuspecting tourists with motivational profanity. Then he goes to Clippers practice to visit Doc Rivers, and there's more motivational profanity with a helpless DeAndre Jordan. After practice, he tells Big Baby jokes, and then spends four hours in the hot tub with Paul Pierce. He leaves the practice facility in Playa Vista, and jogs home on the 405 freeway. He arrives home drenched in sweat, later passes out while face-timing Rajon Rondo to talk s--- about LeBron James. The next day, he rises at 5:30 a.m. and repeats this process.
The other option is Kobe. He already announced his own venture fund, but next comes a hedge fund. The Mamba moves to Greenwich. He spends every day in khakis and one of those fleece vests. He's glued to a cell phone. He's always chasing the next deal. He's not in the finance business, he's in the information business. Does he play by the rules? Sure he plays by the rules—unless you can prove he doesn't. (Kobe will spend the next nine months living out the plot of Billions). (It's an event-driven macroplay).
And Duncan. He's rocking cargo shorts and birkenstocks every day. He's making surprise appearances at ComicCon. He's the silent partner in 16 different eSports franchises. He's up late drinking red wine and telling stories with Greg Popovich. And when it all gets too be too much? He goes back to his roots to get his hands dirty.
At least once a week, Duncan declines overtures from A&E for a BlackJack Speed Shop reality show. It's never been about fame for him. It's about the work.
Tim Duncan wins retirement because Tim Duncan's not retiring.
DeAntae Prince: Kevin Garnett. The one thing that made Kevin Garnett stand out—and the thing I'll miss most about him—was the joy with which he played basketball. This might sound odd because Garnett took the floor for the Timberwolves, Nets and Celtics with a scowl on his face more often than not, but that was just part of his mystique. You don’t work yourself into a dizzying pregame sweat and bang your head against the stanchion of a rim unless you care. He was a rare personality and a true champion who sacrificed prime years for the city of Minnesota and sacrificed numbers for a title in Boston. And, in the end, that love was more evident than ever as Garnett coached up young Karl-Anthony Towns and his Timberwolves teammates. Garnett didn't play much in those years, yet he was still just as vengeful and disgusted with his opponents as ever (pull up the Eric Gordon video).
And while Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan are roundly celebrated, Garnett doesn't always get the credit he deserves. His size, skill and maturity opened the door for players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to make the leap straight from high school to the NBA. Garnett was so good that he closed a 14-year gap with no prep-to-pros players and jumped from Farragut Academy to the NBA. He opened the flood gates. Not all of the players who entered the NBA draft and skipped college panned out, but 'The Kid' had it from Day 1.
Now, there were definitely times when Garnett was hard to love. Over the course of his 21-year career, he did and said things that made even his staunchest defenders cringe. But when he wasn’t spurning a young Joakim Noah or forcing Steven Adams to pretend he didn’t know English, Garnett was playing the game with an unbridled enthusiasm and intensity that has extended into his early retirement. Sure, players must harbor a certain love for basketball to make it to Garnett’s level, but it was different with him. Somehow you could tell he cared more than every other player on the court. He lived and died with every possession, and he still does.
Matt Dollinger: Kobe Bryant. Tim Duncan has been the constant in our lives for the last 20 years, but I struggle to close my eyes and remember five plays he's made over his illustrious career. That isn't a problem with Kobe Bryant, who has been a shell of himself in recent years but still provided entertaining basketball nonetheless. Mamba's final game, in which he miraculously poured in 60 points, was a fitting goodbye. Even on an abomination of a Lakers team, Kobe was still worth watching. Whether he was dropping 60 or going 0-for-60, Kobe still made things interesting. No opposing arena ever roared with approval or dismay when Duncan or Garnett touched the ball. Meanwhile, there were few NBA arenas the last few years that weren't infested with No. 24 jerseys. Duncan might have had the better career, Garnett might have been the more intense competitor, but few players in NBA history have been as entertaining as Kobe.
Jeremy Woo: Tim Duncan. Although I will kind of miss Kobe Bryant and kind of miss Kevin Garnett, the only one of the trio who was still relevant to the greater scheme of basketball things like winning, blank expressions and mid-range bank shots was Tim Duncan.
And in the spirit of Tim Duncan, that is all I have to say about that.
Jarrel Harris: Kobe Bryant. This was an easy one for me. From a business standpoint, Bryant was everything the NBA ever wanted in a player. Bryant’s popularity amassed Michael Jackson levels, especially in China where Nike once built him a temple called “The House of Mamba” that included life-sized statues. It reminds me of the scene in “Coming to America,” where Lisa’s father tells her that Akeem “Got his own money!” Whether he was on his last leg or not, Kobe always made things interesting, scoring 60 points in his final game ever, maintaining the Shaq feud or becoming the NBA’s ultimate villain. He is this era’s Michael Jordan, and it is pretty clear that he has influenced so many of the younger stars in the league. Just take a look at some of the photos from recent media shoots or preseason games and you will see guys like Devin Booker, DeMar DeRozan and international studs, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kristaps Porzingis, in a pair of Nike Kobe sneakers. I’m sure he is enjoying retirement with his two daughters and a newborn on the way. He also has a marketing portfolio that will last eons. And while I'm happy for him, the NBA doesn’t feel the same without the Black Mamba.