Backpicks GOAT: #7 Tim Duncan

Key Stats and Trends

  • Elite defensive metrics and a key to the best defensive dynasty since the ’60s
  • Strong isolation scoring and good creation helped him carry weaker offenses
  • Mediocre passing and outside shooting limited offensive scalability

Scouting Report

For a decade, Tim Duncan’s game was so similar that his different seasons were only distinguishable by hair style. He was quicker in his early years, allowing Gregg Popovich to deploy him as a small forward during his rookie season on a triple-tower frontline with David Robinson and Will Purdue; Duncan even guarded point guards at times!1 He was mobile enough to contain guards on switches, then recover and protect the rim:

That play highlights his tendency to block shots at their point of release instead of in the air, near their apex. From a psychological perspective, this habit might have cost him a Defensive Player of the Year award to sexier, aerial shot blockers.2 Duncan was still agile enough to tally the occasional Sportscenter block; in the next clip, he tracks the ball before using his length to erase a layup:

Duncan called on his deceptive reach to constantly interfere with shots in the paint. In the first clip below, notice how he’s positioned perfectly, allowing him to impact the attempt with a quick reaction:

Although his reactions weren’t always this quick, when he was locked in on the ball and ready to pounce, he provided elite rotations in his prime. In the next clip, he loiters near the 3-point line to safeguard on Dirk Nowitzki’s trail, then recovers to help at the rim:

I tracked about 800 Duncan possessions from 1998-2008, specifically looking at these rotations, and his tendencies were steady throughout his career. He rotated “well” on 4 plays per 100 and provided an “elite” rotation play, like the previous one, about once a game. For perspective, this was two-and-a-half times the rate of Shaq’s quality rotations but 20 percent below David Robinson’s frequency during their primes.

Naturally, he was a low-error defender, with most of his breakdowns coming when he switched onto quick offensive wings. In sampling him for this series, Duncan was in the top quartile of defensive error rates, and in my 2010-11 tracking he was in the 91st percentile.3 He could hold his own against many perimeter players, fluidly switching and then recovering:

Sometimes, he was reluctant to stray too far from the hoop and would often sag back in pick-and-roll coverage, conceding space on outside shots. His on-ball defense was quite good against other big men, as he used his length and lower body strength to hold position and disrupt shots, even against the strongest of giants:

Most wings were reluctant to challenge him in the lane, and his wingspan allowed him to blanket the paint. His only notable defensive weakness was a lack of top-end quickness that prevented him from making certain five-star saves:4

As he aged, more of his rotations were a half-step slow, although he was still better positioned than most. He was also a phenomenal defensive rebounder, posting 11 relative rebounding seasons above the 94th percentile historically (+12 percent or better), peaking in the 99th percentile.

On offense, Duncan was no slouch either. His patented move was, of course, the face-up banker:

But he didn’t call on that as much as advertised. Instead, he owned a full arsenal of post moves from day one, including hooks, fades, and drives:

In those clips, notice how powerful he is, rooting down into the floor and holding positions near the basket or dislodging defenders on his penetration. This wasn’t Shaq or Wilt strength, but at 250 pounds, his sturdy base moved opponents and claimed valuable interior real estate. He had some agility too, and his spin move was one of his most effective attacks:

At times, he pounded the ball too much, symptomatic of the isolation malady of the late ’90s. This slowed down the offense and ate enough clock that, sometimes, no other options were available:

He was also a fantastic offensive rebounder, using his size to carve out space near the rim, then his length to snatch the board:

Among top-1,000 scorers, Duncan’s offensive rebounding rates were above the 86th percentile in every one of his first 13 seasons, peaking in the 93rd percentile. During his prime, he turned this into offense, tapping in his own misses as part of his attack:5

Duncan wasn’t a great outside shooter, as shot-chart data for his career pegs him at around 40 percent from the midrange and 39 percent on long 2-pointers, limiting his value as a pick-and-pop player or finisher. He was never a great passer either, although he improved as his career unfolded. He could hit a basic, first-level cutter, and developed an ability to find skip passes when doubled:

However, he lacked vision to make elite passes, sometimes struggling with double-teams, failing to read the defense correctly:

He was even blind to easy passes early in his career, and although he improved his reads, the poor vision remained nearly a decade later:

In my sampling, prime Duncan made “good” passes on under 2 plays per 100 possessions, slightly more often than he threw “problematic” ones such as those shown above. His creation rates were solid and undersold by the classic Box Creation estimate, more accurately captured using the non-3 version of the metric. In tracking, he peaked around 7 shots created per 100 during his peak years, and was closer to 4 or 5 in the surrounding seasons.

Duncan’s quickness started to fade in 2005 and he battled nagging injuries during that stretch of his career. As he aged, his defense slowed slightly — he couldn’t stay with wings as well, he couldn’t cover quite as much court, and he couldn’t react around the goal quite as quickly. Still, Old Man Riverwalk was so positionally sound and lanky that he remained an impact defender through his final seasons:

He wasn’t quite the same offensive weapon by 2009, still chock-full of post moves, just at slower speeds. He improved as an extra-passer in his final act, serving as valuable connective tissue in the Spurs hot-potato offense. By 2011, his isolation shifted into full old-man mode, relying on guile to provide post scoring in bursts. He slimmed down and was able to play effectively in limited minutes until 2015, his 18th season.

Impact Evaluation

Duncan’s polished game made an immediate impact in San Antonio. His team defensive metrics were historically good, as were his individual plus-minus metrics. When asked to carry the load, his postseason scoring was excellent, but San Antonio’s offenses really took off when Duncan’s role diminished, a testament to the unparalleled coaching of Gregg Popovich.

Duncan joined San Antonio in 1998 in one of the great turnarounds in NBA history. With David Robinson returning from injury, the Spurs added 11.3 efficiency points to their relative defensive rating (rDRtg), by far the biggest single-season improvement ever.6 Per the scouting report, Duncan was an immediate impact defender, and despite logging time at small forward, he still posted a block rate in the 84th percentile as a rookie.

Teams struggled at the rim against the Spurs with Robinson on the court, but according to rim protection metrics, they were even worse with Duncan in the game. Opposing field goal percentage is a noisy stat, but it supports Duncan’s dominion over the lane that we saw in the scouting report:7

Duncan’s arrival spawned the most dominant defensive dynasty of the 3-point era. While credit must be given to Popovich and studs like Robinson and Bruce Bowen — two of the best defenders ever at their positions — Duncan was an impressive centerpiece on San Antonio’s backline for more than a decade. The ’98-02 Spurs authored the second-best five-year defensive stretch of the 3-point era, with an rDRtg 5.6 points ahead of the league, slightly behind the ’90s Knicks’ mark of -6.1. (The lower the rDRtg, the better.)

When Robinson retired after the 2003 season, the Spurs paired Rasho Nesterovic alongside Duncan in the middle and improved by 4.9 points on defense, finishing with the best rDRtg in the 3-point era (-8.8) in 2004. This kicked off a new, five-year run that bested their ’98-02 mark, in which San Antonio’s average relative defense was an incredible -7, making Duncan a linchpin on the best regular season and postseason five-year periods of the modern era:8

In 2004, the rules (and officiating) rewarded physical defensive styles like Bowen’s and Duncan’s, and Popovich was a master of exploiting the rulebook, bringing in Robert Horry and upping Ginobili’s minutes — both savvy plus-defenders. (Horry was known for clutch shots, but he was an excellent team defender and strong passer during his prime.) The Spurs posted an impressive -6.3 rDRtg in 13 games without Duncan that year, so the defense was elite without him, but he also made a sizable impact.9

Since he played his entire career in the play-by-play era, we can corroborate Duncan’s defensive impact with plus-minus data. He holds three of the top-50 defensive adjusted plus-minus (DRAPM) seasons ever recorded, and his scaled four-year peak ranks second, behind only Kevin Garnett. If we weight values by minutes per game — accounting for years in which his per possession impact was lower but his overall game impact was higher — Duncan’s four-year peak ranks second to only Dikembe Mutombo. Here’s how Duncan’s minute-weighted defensive APM compares to Garnett’s throughout their careers (individual seasons and their all-time rank are included in the background):

Duncan’s drop-off on the back nine of his career coincided with his gradual loss of movement that is noticeable on film. Still, his ability to maintain defensive prowess for nearly two decades is astounding. Excluding their injury-plagued 1997 season, the Spurs have posted an above-average defensive rating in 27 of the last 28 years (!) and in 22 of those seasons they were at least 3 points better than league average. With Duncan, their only seasons worse than -3 came in 2011 and 2012, before a slimmer Timmy bounced back with new defensive talent like Kawhi Leonard.

Offensively, Duncan’s assemblage of scoring moves and moderate creation moved the needle as well. While he never crafted a huge scoring season — his career-best rate of 25.1 points per 75 ranks 280th all-time —  Duncan’s post game was the centerpiece of the Spurs offense during his peak years, and the team finished with an above-average attack in each season from 1999-2003. However, they never created too much separation with this approach, topping the +1.5 rORtg mark only twice (when healthy) in Duncan’s first seven seasons. Those early teams were constructed for defense while Duncan kept the offense afloat.

Timmy became the offensive focal point in 1999, leading them in load as Robinson dialed back his attack. The Spurs offensive rating improved from slightly below-average to slightly above-average en route to a 61-win pace (7.1 SRS) and a title. Those teams lacked a perimeter creator, so they played an inside-out game, with 3-and-D wings like Jaren Jackson and Mario Elie flanking Duncan. Then in 2001, they leased Derek Anderson for a year, who was a perimeter threat that served as a low-grade second option. The team shot a fiery 40.7 percent from downtown and produced what was easily the best offense of Duncan’s prime (+3.6 rORtg).10

Like a handful of other greats in this series, Duncan’s arsenal was resilient against stingier playoff defenses. In the single postseason he missed (in 2000), the Spurs rORtg was -8.1 for four dreadful games, the only year of his prime that his team’s playoff efficiency fell below average. Below, I’ve compared him to the other great modern bigs in the Big 3 box categories during their three-year peaks, first in the regular season, then in the playoffs. While his regular season scoring efficiency never stood out, he maintained it in the postseason when most trailed off:

At his apex (’02-04), he actually upped his efficiency and creation in 44 playoff games. That’s not a cherry-picked sample, either — any three-year playoff stretch until 2006 would look similar. Duncan’s often lauded for his ’03 season, but his 2002 season may have been more impressive. The Spurs posted a +4.4 rORtg in 60 games with Robinson, Tony Parker and sharpshooter Steve Smith (who shot 47 percent from 3) while Duncan posted career bests in scoring volume and efficiency. These are commendable results, consistent with Duncan’s package; his isolation scoring and post-creation lifted San Antonio’s floor, even if his game didn’t scale too well.11

When Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili emerged in the middle of the aughts, Duncan slid into a costarring role before taking on a tertiary part in 2008. And the more the Spurs moved away from Duncan-ball, the higher their ceiling climbed. After leading San Antonio in offensive load from ’99-04, Duncan slid to fourth on the team in ’06 while struggling with nagging injuries like plantar fasciitis. Yet, the Spurs registered an impressive +4.8 rORtg when healthy that year (a figure that dropped to -1.4 in 17 games without Ginobili). At full-strength, the similarly constructed ’07 team finished with a +4.1 rORtg. Later, the Spurs offense jumped another level behind Parker, Ginobili and a collection of skilled role players, posting jaw-dropping full-strength ratings of +9.1 in 2012 and +7.6 in 2014.12 Duncan deserves credit for scaling down his isolation on these teams in exchange for valuable extra passes.

I’d be remiss not to acknowledge Popovich more, who, for my money, is the greatest coach in NBA history. He transitioned the Spurs from a defensively-oriented team that orbited around its twin-towers, to a perpetual motion, Euro-style offense built around perimeter players who could pass and shoot. This morphed into a brief offensive dynasty, peaking in 2014 with one of the greatest teams of all-time, unheard of for an ensemble production that lacked a troupe of stars. Popovich’s success on both sides of the ball does take some of the shine off of Duncan for me.

Duncan is one of the favorites of the plus-minus family. In every scaled season from 2001 to 2008, he falls in the 99th percentile historically, and each of his first 14 seasons is above the 95th percentile. He is the only other player besides Kevin Garnett with top-50 APM peaks on both sides of the ball. While his two-way value is excellent by any assessment — plus-minus, box stats or game-level regressions — teasing out his impact from Popovich’s is not trivial. Unlike a great teammate on the court, plus-minus data doesn’t “see” Pop’s value.

Duncan’s portability isn’t top-notch either; he’s savvy enough to scale down his offense (as he did in later years), although his limited passing prevents him from matching Garnett’s impact in a secondary role. His longevity was fantastic, tallying 17 All-Star seasons by my valuations, tied for tops in this series. He, KG and Wilt all have similar peaks and era-adjusted career value, and thus feel nearly interchangeable in these slots. So, while Garnett and him are neck and neck, if I were forced to choose, I’d oh-so-barely side with Duncan. (Are ties allowed?)

Backpicks GOAT: #8 Kevin Garnett

Key Stats and Trends

  • Dominant box and non-box metrics due to versatile skills on offense/defense
  • Strong team offenses in Minnesota, all-time level team defenses in Boston
  • Elite court awareness on offense (passing) and defense (rotations)

Scouting Report

Kevin Garnett was a video-game creation —  a quick 7-footer with guard skills and the highest revving motor in NBA history. In his second year, he emerged as an All-Star, flying all over the court on defense while planting the seeds of his scoring arsenal, unveiling spins, fades and stepbacks:

In those early years, he was a lockdown perimeter defender, often assigned to unsuspecting guards who had to face some sort of supersized Sydney Moncrief incarnation that made finding clean looks a nightmare:1

His quickness and length shrunk the court, allowing him to help then recover, which played into one of Garnett’s greatest strengths, his defensive rebounding. He would rotate and roam constantly until a shot went up, then dive toward the rim and inhale the board:

Once he became a full-time power forward, Garnett’s relative defensive rebounding rates were among the all-time leaders, posting five consecutive seasons above the 96th percentile and leading the league twice in the category. His four-year peak of +15.8 percent ranks eighth since the stat was kept in 1974.

On offense, he used quickness to attack bigs, often facing up on the perimeter like a guard and driving. As Garnett moved into phase two of his career, his passing emerged, finding teammates off of penetration like this:

He developed into one of the greatest passing big men in NBA history, dolling out eye-popping interior dishes, touch passes, or point-center dimes from the pivot, as he demonstrates in the first clip below after forcing Michael Jordan’s doppelganger into a turnover:

In tracking over 1,000 of Garnett’s possessions from 1997-2009, his rate of quality passing was near John Stockton’s, and using just his games from 2003 to 2008, his rate of “good” passes was over 4 per 100, comparable to Jason Kidd. While Garnett’s on-ball load dipped in Boston, his passing was better than ever, making life easier for the offensive weapons around him. He was also the most prolific creator of any big man in history (if we don’t count Larry Bird). In tracking Garnett, his creation rates were similar to his estimated non-3 Box Creation marks — in the 7 per 100 range — placing him at the top of the heap since this stat became available in 1978.

Over the years, he developed a mid-post repertoire of fakes, spins and of course, his bread-and-butter fadeaway:

I tracked 151 Garnett on-ball scoring possessions in his sample, and he averaged a stellar 1.08 points per play on such attacks.2 It’s a small sample, but nearly identical to Tim Duncan’s 1.07 points per play in my tracking, mirroring Synergy’s “post up” similarities between both players.3

However, Garnett struggled to generate easy points for himself in the half court. While other greats like Duncan could use power to bang into traffic for free throws, Garnett relied more on quickness and finesse. His free throw attempts weren’t low, per se — between about 8 and 9 per 100 during his best offensive years — but Duncan was at 11 or 12. KG wasn’t quick enough to regularly turn the corner and absorb contact, yet his high center of gravity prevented him from rooting deep in the lane or dislodging defenders for easy put-backs. In that last clip, a stout Chuck Hayes pushes him about five feet off his spot. Notice how he scarcely improves his positioning on this repost against a slimmer Robert Horry:

He did pick up layups in transition, especially when younger; he was always one of the first players down the court, running like an automaton the moment his team possessed the ball. Notice on this play, after one of his typical trampoline closeouts, how he outruns two defenders by instantly bolting when Boston gained possession:

And he used that speed and energy on defense more than most players in history:

Garnett was a diverse defender, owning brown and black belts in multiple disciplines. His hands and feet were always active, sometimes making basic entry passes difficult:

He lacked historically good shot-blocking numbers, but was a strong rim protector, using length and verticality to swat away countless attempts:

Garnett was able to contest like this while rarely fouling, ranking as one of the lowest-fouling bigs on record since 1997. After watching tape on him for a while, it’s not the highlight blocks that stand out, but instead how well positioned he is on nearly every play. He tracks the ball, slides in step with pick-and-rolls and reacts to threats like a basketball T-cell:

To borrow Bill Russell’s vernacular, his “horizontal game” was better than his vertical one. He could switch onto bigs and smalls and was constantly in the right position to deter attacks. Even in his Celtic days, he could totally disrupt wings or help on the biggest of centers:

Overall, Garnett’s athleticism, awareness and motor made him one of the best team defenders ever. In my sampling, from 2003-09, he committed defensive errors at a rate of just 0.7 per 100 (96th percentile). This was nearly identical to his rate during my 2010 and 2011 tracking (which included 2,500 more Garnett possessions). Additionally, his frequency of “good” help plays is second in my historical tracking to only a young Hakeem Olajuwon, at over 7 occurrences per 100, ahead of Tim Duncan’s peak rates of more than 6 per 100. (Olajuwon had far more elite blocks, but Garnett was capable of mind-bending blocks too.) Even in his 16th season, he was still a rotation machine, instantly switching and recovering wherever offensive threats emerged:

Unlike most great players, Garnett’s offensive and defensive peaks nearly overlapped. He likely maxed out on D in 2003 — it was the height of his tracking numbers in my sample and the last year before he started to lose a bit of his invaluable motor — while his offense crested from 2004-06 as his passing continued to grow and his post game added polish.

In 2005, a sore knee inhibited his movement and likely eroded some of his defensive value, and in 2007 he was shut down at the end of the season with a nagging thigh injury. After a major injury ended his 2009 campaign , he returned as a defensive specialist, with a strong argument for DPOY in 2011 at age 34. His size and immense basketball IQ helped him retain defensive value until 2013.

Impact Evaluation

Garnett’s robust skill set produced one of the greatest analytics portfolios in league history. He repeatedly elevated marginal teams in Minnesota, then led some of the best defenses ever in Boston. On the few occasions he was surrounded by viable talent, he guided his teams into the upper-echelon — including a transcendent Boston team — and he did this with nearly unrivaled impact metrics. Only his imperfect scoring prevented him from landing on basketball’s Mt. Rushmore.

Garnett’s development as a player in Minnesota coincided with the Timberwolves steady ascension from expansion-doormat to playoff team. In Year Two of the KG era, the Wolves drafted Stephon Marbury and crossed the 35-win plateau, and in Year Three, Minnesota played like a 45-win team before Tom Gugliotta’s season was ended by injury. Minny then started with a bang in the shortened 1999 season (53-win pace for 18 games) before contentiously trading Marbury for Terrell Brandon.

But then the Wolves spiraled into an historically unmatched stretch of personnel corrosion. First, they were stripped of three first-round draft picks for illegal contract shenanigans with Joe Smith. Then Brandon was forced into early retirement due to knee problems, playing his last full season in 2001. Two years later, Wally Szczerbiak, Minnesota’s only notable addition between 2000 and 2003, missed 30 games and hobbled around for 28 more in ’04. After the ’02 season, the Wolves couldn’t afford to re-sign their best young asset, Chauncey Billups, and even worse, guard Malik Sealy died tragically in a car accident. While many superstars enter their primes with a fully stocked kitchen, Garnett was left with a bare cupboard.

Minnesota’s roster was offensively slanted, with players like Brandon (a borderline All-Star who struggled defensively), Anthony Peeler (a streak shooter who fared well from downtown from ’01 to ’03), Szczerbiak (an excellent shooter who also lacked defensive prowess), and Troy Hudson (a solid pick-and-roll scorer who was a defensive sieve).4 During those years, the Wolves hovered around a 50-win pace, and in 2002 played at an impressive 48-win clip (2.3 SRS) in 51 games without Brandon.

Their modicum of offensive firepower paid off when everyone was healthy, likely boosted by Garnett’s elite passing and strong creation: In 2000, they were 4.5 points better than league average in relative efficiency (rORtg); in 2001, +2.2; in 2002, +4.5 in 40 games without Brandon; and in 2003 an elite +5.4 with Szczerbiak. For perspective, if those were full-season averages, Minnesota’s five-year offensive rating from 2000-04 would be +3.9, nearly identical to the ’83-87 Celtics (+4.0) and the ’00-04 Lakers (+3.9).

Garnett never captained an historically dominant offense, likely caused by his inability to collect easy points and a lack of accompanying firepower. Similarly, he never generated great scoring and efficiency rates in the postseason — his playoff numbers dipped slightly more than expected — although the sample sizes are too small to put much stock in. Over a larger sample, against quality defensive teams, he didn’t appear to decline in any abnormal way. Here’s how he stacks up in the Big 3 box score dimensions among the great modern bigs, where he was the least impressive scorer, but the most prolific creator:5

This kind of profile — lighter on scoring, strong on playmaking — is the inverse of someone like early-’60s Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt could score oodles of moderately efficient points, sometimes single-handedly swinging games, but he couldn’t help his teammates enough to generate efficient offenses in the long haul. On the other hand, Garnett couldn’t ramp up his scoring like some of the behemoths, but when surrounded with weapons, his passing and creation unlocked their potential.

His team’s defense, however, was another story during those years. Minnesota lacked defensive talent, and the Wolves constantly floated around league average with Garnett on the court and then struggled mightily when he was off it. In 2001 and 2002, they were nearly dead average with him in the game and about 4 points worse without him.  Those defenses were held back by quirky lineups; in ’01, Garnett played 1,200 minutes at center next to defensive milquetoast LaPhonso Ellis in a small-ball lineup, then in ’02 logged over 1,500 minutes alongside two other bigs in oversized lineups. In 2003, playing more at his natural power forward slot, the Wolves were 1.2 points better than average with him on the court and a disastrous 7.3 points below average with him on the bench.

In 2004, Minnesota upgraded its roster, acquiring Sam Cassel, just the second teammate of Garnett’s from ’98-07 to make the All-Star game.6 The Wolves balanced their lineup with more defensive talent, and while the offense posted a mark comparable to prior years (+3.0 rORtg) it was the defense that finally brought them to the fringe of title contention, posting an rDRtg 3.2 points ahead of the league. This wasn’t a dominant defensive team, but such heights were unlikely under Flip Saunders without another star defender next to KG.7

In 2005, the Wolves roster issues came home to roost. Latrell Sprewell, on his last legs, clanged his way to a dreadful -4 percent relative true shooting percentage (rTS), and the Wolves played at a 37-win pace (-1.4 SRS) in 29 games without Cassell. In those games, the offense regressed to right around average while the defense dipped below-average, the likely penalty for trotting out Hudson, Spree and Michael Olowokandi. With Cassell, they played at a 50-win pace (3.0 SRS), making them arguably the best team in league history to miss the playoffs. In 2006, the band broke up, the roster was scrambled, and they sank into the lottery.

In the first half of the ’06 season, Minnesota hovered around .500 before panic-trading for flotsam, and in 2007, again floated at .500 before a coaching change formally derailed the year. In those two seasons, they were outscored with Garnett off the court by 11.9 points per 48 in 2,021 minutes, approaching some of the extreme lows in history. It was commendable that those teams sniffed .500 given that the roster was replete with replacement players who could barely make the league.8

When Garnett arrived in Boston, his pinpoint rotations and blanket court-coverage spearheaded the second-best relative defense since 1970, 8.6 points better than league average. Boston was strong offensively as well, posting a +3.7 rORtg when healthy. In his first two Celtic seasons, Garnett missed 39 games in which the other starters played, and without him, Boston performed like a 51-win team (3.4 SRS). But with him, they played at a 65-win pace (9.0 SRS), a degree of lift rarely matched in NBA history.9 KG missed another 19 games in 2010 and 2011 and the Boston defense dropped by a substantial 4.9 points without him. Even with Garnett’s missed time, the Celtic’s five-year run of defense ranks second since 1970.

Garnett’s non-box value-signals extend beyond his missed time. He’s arguably the king of adjusted plus-minus (APM), as he’s the only player on record with a top-40 (scaled) four-year peak in both offensive (26th) and defensive APM (first), reflecting the balance he shows on tape. His 2004 season is the best single-year on record and 13 of his seasons as a heavy-minute player fall in the top-200 ever recorded. APM is excellent at describing situational value — who correlates with changes in the scoreboard based on their presence on that particular team — but sometimes huge APM marks are merely the result of a good fit and targeted coaching. Yet Garnett posted three of the 20-best APM seasons ever with different teammates of varying style and skill, demonstrating his incredible portability:10

While many people might balk at ranking him this high, Garnett is the poster child for multiple biases discussed in Thinking Basketball. His strengths — off-ball defense and passing — are historically overlooked by telescoping on isolation scoring and block totals. Before the stigma of the first-round curse and the collapse of the Timberwolves, KG was widely argued as an equal to Duncan and hotly debated as the game’s best player. From 2000 to 2005 he won an astounding nine Player of the Months (POMs), including six of nine starting in early 2003. For comparison, Shaq claimed five POMs in that time span, Kobe four and Duncan won three in his entire career.11 Garnett was second to peak Shaq in MVP voting in 2000, then claimed 73 percent of the share in 2003, narrowly losing out to peak Tim Duncan before grabbing 99 percent of the vote in 2004. Along with Kareem and Karl Malone, he’s a member of the 25-14-5 club and is third all-time in NBA All-Star selections.

Even at eighth, I still question whether I underrate him. He achieved his incredible statistical profile on a broken franchise with mediocre coaches, whereas someone like Duncan played under a metric-enhancer in Gregg Popovich. While Garnett’s scoring limitations and lack of base strength prevented him from a GOAT-level peak, there’s a viable argument, especially from the film, that I’m slightly underselling his offense by taking his small-sampled postseason scoring efficiency at close to face value.12

He and Duncan are the most balanced megastars among the all-time greats, although Garnett leaves a slightly larger impact footprint, trumping Duncan in both (regular season) box and non-box metrics. He was a longevity giant, stringing together 13 All-NBA quality years and eight strong MVP ones by my estimation. Most importantly, his elite passing and high-post offense — which opens the lane for isolationists and allows him to pair with ball-dominant guards — is far more scalable than any other all-time great big. That’s a difference-maker at these heights, and gives Garnett a top-10 peak, just enough to propel him above Wilt for the eighth-best career in NBA history.