Posted: Thursday April 8, 2004 1:39PM; Updated: Thursday April 8, 2004 2:12PM
Kevin Garnett ranks in the top 20 in virtually every statistical category.
David E. Klutho/SI
My NBA Awards ballot arrived the other day. Usually this means a chance to start off a firestorm of debate. Fans love to argue over awards, and it's always fun to toss a little gasoline on the old fire. Unfortunately, there isn't much to quarrel about this year. At least not in the MVP category, which is today's topic. The other awards feature some much juicier debates; I'll get to those on Friday (including a head-to-head debate with my SI.com colleague Jack McCallum over Coach of the Year).
For MVP, I'm going with Kevin Garnett in a close race over Tim Duncan. Peja Stojakovic, Jermaine O'Neal and Kobe Bryant each merit consideration as well, but none has been better all-around than Garnett. By almost any criteria, Garnett has bettered his competition. Stats? He leads Duncan and O'Neal in points, rebounds, assists and steals. Defense? He rates among the NBA's best and ranks among the league's top 20 in blocks and steals. Leadership? He never takes a night off while playing the role of the first option on offense and the last line of defense. Team success? The T'wolves are fighting for the NBA's best record, a mere half game out of the top spot as of Wednesday. Versatility? He plays three positions -- often during the course of the same game. Durability? He's on pace to appear in all 82 games. When you also consider that KG has actually elevated his play this season, setting career highs in points, rebounds and blocks, it would be almost criminal to deny him the hardware.
And why deny a player who complements such a sterling statistical record with a number of quality intangibles that everyone from David Stern to the fans in the seats can appreciate? Garnett truly is the Howlin' Wolf, a fiery competitor who sets the tone for his team each and every night. He melded seamlessly with new teammates Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell and gave them the shots they needed while still carrying the bulk of the dirty work. Of the other candidates, only Duncan can make a compelling case over KG. Stojakovic carried the Kings in ChrisWebber's absence, but, as a defender, he is in nowhere near the same realm as Duncan or Garnett. O'Neal has been the best big man in the East, but he doesn't shoot a high percentage. Bryant's off-court issues have hurt his team too much for him to win MVP this season.
Burns' 2004 MVP ballot
Preseason pick: Shaquille O'Neal
Duncan's numbers are nearly as good as Garnett's in most significant categories (Duncan leads in blocks), and like KG, he excels at both ends of the floor. He's also picked up his game down the stretch, playing his best ball when his team needs it the most. As of Wednesday, the Spurs were the hottest team in the NBA, and had closed to within a whisker of the T'wolves for the Midwest lead.
One could even argue that it's Duncan -- not Garnett -- whom most NBA coaches would pick first if they had to win a playoff series right now. Duncan is a true 7-footer and a horse in the low post. Unlike Garnett, he can back his man down all night and be a go-to guy at the end of close games. But Duncan started the season sluggishly, and wound up missing a dozen games to injury. In addition, his foul-shooting has been atrocious. Adding water to the fire stoking the Duncan candidacy are two consecutive MVP Awards and an ultra low-key style. The media loves a fresh face, and there's a feeling that it's KG's time. After so many great years, Da Kid is finally getting his props. In an otherwise tight race, it's enough to tip the scales to Garnett.
That would be good news for NBA fans, as KG will immediately be challenged to validate the honor in the crucible of the playoffs. In recent years winning the award often has been akin to placing a massive bull's-eye on a player's back. Think back to Charles Barkley in '93 and Karl Malone in '97. Each won the award over Michael Jordan, only to have His Airness exact revenge in the Finals. Or how about Hakeem Olajuwon dominating David Robinson in the '95 Western Conference finals after the Admiral "stole" the Dream's second-straight MVP?
If Garnett thought battling Duncan and the Spurs was tough before, just wait until the postseason. Although the MVP won't be announced until June, it is widely assumed KG will win it. And if that's the case, Duncan (or Kobe) surely will be personally motivated if they meet the T'wolves.
The pressure should be nothing new for KG, though, who entered the season with intense scrutiny already upon him. After seven straight first-round playoff exits, Garnett has come under fire for not doing enough to lift the T'wolves to elite territory. Even Magic Johnson criticized him last year for not taking over enough at the end of games.
This spring offers Garnett yet another opportunity to answer his critics. Garnett might ultimately prove his MVP was deserved, but the guess here is that it won't be nearly as one-sided on the court as it's going to be in the ballot box.