Debating Garnett vs. Duncan
Updated: May 23, 2012, 4:17 PM ET
By Austin Link | TeamRankings.com
With similar career arcs and statistics, there's one way to settle this.
Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images A meeting in the NBA Finals would help settle the debate between Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.
Twenty-four days apart in the spring of 1976, two of the greatest NBA players of their generation were born. Baby Tim Duncan and baby Kevin Garnett both grew to a full 6-foot-11 without shoes. In addition, they each developed enough basketball skills to contend for the title of Greatest Power Forward of All Time.
Garnett entered the NBA early, kicking off a run on drafting high school players that lasted nearly a decade. While he quickly developed into a phenomenal individual talent, his teams struggled to advance in -- or even make -- the playoffs. During his 12 years in Minnesota, only one of Garnett's teams made it past the first round.
Meanwhile, Tim Duncan took his full four years at Wake Forest before becoming the No. 1 overall pick of the San Antonio Spurs. With David Robinson returning from injury, Timmy immediately had a Hall of Fame counterpart to work alongside. He won his first NBA title just two years into his career.
Given the differences in surrounding talent and resulting disparity in postseason success, comparing the careers of Duncan and Garnett is a rather difficult task. Their similar ages, skills and places in NBA history make it a necessary one, though, especially since the two stand a chance of facing off in this year's NBA Finals.
Chris Ballard's recent profile of Tim Duncan for Sports Illustrated pointed out that despite parallel lives, Duncan and KG are less than chummy with each other.
"In fact, Duncan hates Kevin Garnett," Ballard wrote. "Hates him the way liberals hate Sean Hannity." The rumor mill swirls with reports of particularly nasty trash talk that the famously foul-mouthed KG has whispered in Duncan's ear.
If there's an intense personal rivalry here, why hasn't Garnett versus Duncan developed into the new millennium's version of Magic versus Bird? Unfortunately, it's simply been too lopsided when their teams have played.
To sample one of Ballard's numbers, Tim Duncan is 44-17 all-time against Garnett. Both times they've met in the NBA playoffs were easy first-round victories for Duncan's Spurs. You don't need advanced stats to tell you that Robinson, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker make a far better supporting cast than an old Sam Cassell, Terrell Brandon, Wally Szczerbiak and a young Stephon Marbury.
KG's move to Boston has finally gotten him some quality teammates, but he has had fewer regular-season games against the Spurs and no playoff meetings since then.
Mano-a-mano: The early years
To isolate the better player as opposed to the better team, we need to look at both players' statistics. This is not a perfect form of evaluation, as stats can't capture many of the intangible or "soft" skills of a team leader. However, unless you believe Robert Horry is the greatest power forward of all time, it sure beats counting rings.
During a five-year peak from 2001-02 to 2005-06, both Duncan and Garnett put up extraordinary numbers. Garnett had a PER of 26.9, averaged .236 win shares per 48 minutes played, won an MVP in '03-04 and made four first team All-Defensive squads. Duncan had a PER of 26.2, averaged .237 win shares per 48, won two MVPs and made three first team All-Defensive squads. It's almost uncanny how statistically identical these two players were at their career peaks.
Duncan bests Garnett slightly in performance outside of the peak, though. He made eight straight All-NBA first teams when he entered the league while Garnett has made only four total. Duncan has a career PER of 24.7, slightly higher than Garnett's 23.3. And the overall success of the Spurs should at least add a few bonus points in Duncan's favor.
The latter years
Since Garnett's trade to Boston and Duncan's most recent championship, their roles have changed in similar fashion. Both players have shifted more and more playing time to center, especially this season. Both players no longer have the legs to be a primary scoring option night after night, and as a result have focused more on defense while still being capable of racking up points at times.
As a result of this recent defensive emphasis, the value of Duncan and Garnett has become harder to ascertain. Defensive metrics are far less developed than offensive ones; even advanced statistical measures, for example, don't measure successful picks set, shots altered or rotations called out on defense.
One more general metric works well, though, because it is entirely based on changing scores. Adjusted plus/minus takes into account teammate and opponent strength to examine how many points above average a player is worth in 48 minutes played. There is error inherent in adjusted plus/minus numbers even during the course of an entire season, but given the players' similarities it's our best way to compare the current versions of Garnett and Duncan.
Looking at the numbers
The adjusted plus/minus values for Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett in the past five seasons.
The table to the right shows the values for the two players in the past five years.
Once again, the numbers show Garnett and Duncan in almost a dead heat. A value of 6.0 is good for roughly 15th best in the league, so even at 36 years old both players are still better than the star of a typical lottery team.
Overall, though, the numbers seem to confirm what the rings say. During the course of their entire careers, Duncan has been a slightly better basketball player than Garnett. It's an incredibly tough call, though, which means there would be one incredibly exciting way to settle this debate: on the court, during the 2012 NBA Finals. Will it happen?
According to the TeamRankings.com projections, there's about a 1-in-7 chance (14 percent) right now that the Boston Celtics and Spurs meet in the 2012 Finals. Those aren't great odds, but if it happens, one can only imagine the intensity that these two personal rivals will bring to the table.
A chance to finally settle the score will be a battle of the aged … and for the ages.
Austin Link is a writer for TeamRankings.com.
No reason to debate this. Timmy is more professional, better teammate and superior player. No nastiness or trash talking by TD, only giving away free lessons on the court.
“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising in every time we fall”
Absolutely no debate here - Tim anchored the Spurs to 4 titles - Garnette was a passenger on a winning Celtics team build around Pierce, Allen etc...
The old punchline is that the hammer and the nail frequently meet, but that doesn't make it a rivalry.
My guess is that Garnett would love to be Duncan while Duncan doesn't care one way of the other about Garnett.
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