By Ian Parfrey @Ianparfrey
As we watch Kevin Garnett struggle mightily to contribute anything to the Nets besides six good minutes Monday night, it might be time to realize that the combination rarely works.
There have been multiple occasions when a veteran Hall of Fame big man has changed teams in the last 15 years, and his game has completely fallen off the table. Why does this happen? Maybe the player develops a comfort level in his former team’s system, and the system covers for the player’s declining skills.
Consider Patrick Ewing. The Seattle Supersonics acquired the 38 year old Ewing from the Knicks in 2000, in exchange for seven marginal players and three draft picks. The deal didn’t do much for either team. It sent the Knicks into a spiral of horrible mismanagement that they’ve yet to really escape from, and the Sonics paid $14 million for Ewing’s 9 points and 7 rebounds per game, and missed the playoffs.
Ewing had averaged 15 points and 9 rebounds for the 2000 Knicks. He was already visibly declining as a player, mostly due to injuries (broken wrist in 1998, torn Achilles in 1999), but I’m not sure anyone was prepared for how bad his season in Seattle was.
Ewing shot only 43 percent, turned the ball over more often despite touching it less, and declined precipitously on both sides of the ball. He declined by six points per hundred possessions on offense, and five points on defense. It may not have been entirely his fault. The Sonics had no other defensive players besides a slightly past his prime Gary Payton, and Ewing’s frontcourt mate, Vin Baker, was in the process of eating and boozing his way out of the league.
Compare that to the favorable situation Ewing was in the year before, with two young defensive minded bigs in Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas to help him guard the rim, and a point guard (Charlie Ward) who was basically in the league because he knew how to feed Ewing in the post.
Ewing was probably done after his 1998 wrist injury, but the friendly confines of the Knicks’ system helped to mask his decline.
The Toronto Raptors made the same mistake a year later, when they traded for 38 year old Hakeem Olajuwon. “The Dream” gave the Raptors one season of 7 points and 6 rebounds, before calling it quits due to a back injury. Olajuwon’s contract clogged the Raptors’ salary cap for two more seasons. Toronto’s GM, Glen Grunwald (!), said, “It was a gamble, and we lost.”
Olajuwon remained a defensive force in Toronto, though he was only capable of playing a little less than half a game. His offense cratered completely, however. Like Ewing, in an unfamiliar system, he shot the ball poorly and turned it over constantly.
Probably the most “successful” gamble on an aging legend was the 2004 Lakers’ signing of a 40 year old Karl Malone. Malone’s skills hadn’t deteriorated much, and he played well for the Lakers (13 points, 8 rebounds) when healthy. But a knee injury kept him out for half of the season, and he reinjured the knee in the playoffs. The 2004 Lakers lost in the Finals to Detroit with Malone gamely trying to play through the injury. He averaged a very pedestrian 5 points (on 33 percent shooting) and 7 rebounds in the Finals.
So yes, recent history doesn’t look favorably on Kevin Garnett and the 2014 Nets. It’s possible that we’re never going to see the KG who was a devastating defender and pick and pop shooter in Boston. It’s possible that Billy King will soon be saying, “it was a gamble, and we lost.” Fortunately, the Nets do have depth, and they don’t have Vin Baker.