Remembering the Kevin Garnett revolution

Kevin Garnett was the NBA's most revolutionary player since Michael Jordan, changing the league both on and off the court.
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Years from now, when basketball fans look back, Kevin Garnett will be remembered as an extremely high-functioning crazy person. This is the correct historical reading. His relentless approach to everything was every bit as ridiculous as his talent. It's what set him apart from everyone else. His stat lines rivaled those of Tim Duncan, but KG's numbers came with chest pounding, trash talk, laughing, dunking, and more trash talk. He was as loud as Duncan was quiet. Nobody who watched this will ever forget it.

After they remember his persona, people will obviously talk about his game. His skills were probably 10 or 15 years ahead of his time, but he was so good that he dominated the 2000s anyway. Imagine Draymond Green, but five inches taller, and better at every phase of the game. That was KG.

I'll remember his commercials. My top five: 5) The Celtics and SportsCenter, 4) Foosball with Brandi Chastain, 3) Carrying the whole world on his back, 2) Interrogating Cherokee Parks with the Fun Police, 1) Tastefully Done

While we're talking old YouTube videos ... Garnett also gave us the greatest post-championship interview ever, the greatest sideline interview ever, and an interview before Game 7 that made the entire country uncomfortable. It was all part of the experience.  

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Some athletes mesmerize you with numbers or highlights, but with KG, it was more amazing that he could exist at all. That much height with that much skill... It didn't seem like his skillset should be possible, and there was no way playing that hard could ever be sustainable. But it was. Garnett played 21 years, scored 25,000 points, got his ring, and finished his career where he started, mentoring a superstar who wasn't even born during KG's rookie year.

Kevin Garnett’s top five ejections

If he's really retiring now, there's just one more thing to say: Garnett was the most influential NBA player since Michael Jordan. He leaves basketball with the highest career earnings of all time, and historians would have an easier time cataloging the crucial elements of the basketball business KG didn't upend. 

Start with the draft. Garnett was the first high school player to enter the NBA in decades, but that's only the beginning. Even after the NBA closed the preps-to-pros door that Garnett opened, his impact remains. Every time an NBA team drafts a spindly teenager who's nowhere near ready to play in the NBA, that's KG. Anytime you hear analysts talking themselves into a 7'1 kid with the rough outlines of perimeter skills and a theoretical place in the paint, again, that's a Big Ticket tribute.

There have been dozens of mysterious lottery picks over the years—from Jonathan Bender to Dragan —that happened basically because teams were terrified of passing on another Kevin Garnett. And for every teenage bust, there have been stories like LeBron, or Carmelo, or Anthony Davis, or Karl-Anthony Towns, all players who changed entire franchises. KG showed the league the power of potential. 

Then, the contract. This Sports Illustrated cover speaks to the shockwaves that KG's first Wolves extension sent through the league. He signed for six years and $126 million, a record at the time that ultimately spearheaded the NBA lockout. "I'll kill you before I let you take of advantage of me," he told SI's Leigh Montville at the time in 1999. He was talking about signing an agent in that case, but his negotiating philosophy clearly extended to the Wolves as well. 

He's often credited with forcing the NBA to adopt the max contract system, but that's not quite it. The NBA would've pushed for that regardless. It was bigger than a max deal. KG didn't only show teams that potential has value in the draft; he also showed future young players that their potential has superstar value on the open market. It was deeply polarizing at the time. Now, the Pelicans commit $127 million to Anthony Davis and nobody bats an eye.

There was his actual game, too. Everything that "superstar power forward" would come to mean in the modern era—including the ability to play as the lone big man in small lineups—Garnett was doing 15 years ago (The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote about this over the summer). He showed that a big man who could excel in space could be twice as dangerous as one who lived in the post. When future fours followed his lead, it opened up offenses all over the league. The entire sport is played differently thanks in large part to players who grew up watching KG and mimicked his skills.

His defense was so legendary and relentless that it didn't actually revolutionize much—it's hard to replicate Hall of Fame talent—but his combinaition of skills and size was everything. He became a prototype that teams have been chasing for the past 20 years.

And superteams. KG's most recent impact on the league is probably his most notable at this point. The rise of the '08 Celtics established a new blueprint for superstars who'd been stranded in dysfunctional organizations across the league. KG waited longer than most others have—he was in Minnesota 12 years before he left—but still, the success of Ubuntu clearly laid the foundation for everything we've seen since. There were two elements to the shift across the league. One was philosophical—players realized it wasn't a crime to seek out great players as teammates—and the other was practical—those Celtics teams (and eventually the Heat, now the Cavs and Warriors) were so good that other players realized they'd need help to have a shot at competing. 

Kevin Garnett’s influence on NBA evident in bond with Kendrick Perkins

Having said all this, most basketball fans probably won't remember Kevin Garnett for revolutionizing the NBA, partly because he's never played that part in public. Through everything, he's never claimed to care about anything more than destroying people on the basketball court. Plus, as legacy discussions go, it's more fun to remember him screaming his way through the NBA for the past 20 years. 

This is fine. LeBron can be the revolutionary everyone celebrates. He's courted that reputation, and he deserves it. But what happened with KG might be more remarkable.  

He first considered the NBA out of high school because his college eligibility was in doubt (his SAT scores would've qualified, but he didn't find out until after the draft). He asked for $126 million because the Wolves had no choice but to pay him. He played power forward the way he did only because his freakish frame and skills made it possible, and he was too skinny to spend his whole career banging with Shaq. He went to the Celtics not to spawn a new NBA era, but because he desperately wanted a real chance at a title. It was all the happiest, craziest accident.

LeBron and Jordan have been incredible because they each knew exactly what they were doing as they reshaped the NBA universe. KG was incredible because he remained indifferent to revolutions for his entire career, and he changed everything anyway.