Mr. Versatility

Garnett's triple-threat combination is best since Magic

Posted: Monday February 17, 2003 9:22 PM
Updated: Tuesday February 18, 2003 12:45 AM
 Garnett is seven feet tall, but at times plays more like a point guard. Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images

By John Hollinger, SI.com

Kevin Garnett has always been among the league's most versatile players, but this year he's outdoing himself.

Not only is he averaging his usual 22.5 points a game, but in addition to that he fills up the box score with 13.0 rebounds (2nd in the NBA) and 5.7 assists (tops among NBA forwards) -- both career highs -- making him a nightly threat for a triple double. In fact, he and Chris Webber are the only NBA players averaging at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

But how does he compare to the other top players? Are Garnett's averages more remarkable than Kobe Bryant's 29.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.5 assists? How about Webber's 23.9 points, 12.9 boards and 2.9 assists? And in the bigger picture, how unusual is it for a player to put together the kind of across-the-board stats Garnett is?

All this got me thinking about ways to measure versatility. What I came up with was something I'll call "Versatility Index." I intentionally designed it to reward players who excel in all three categories, as opposed to players who dominate in one or two (Allen Iverson, for example, or the younger John Stockton).

There's a fairly easy way to do this, thanks to the work of an analyst in another sport who had a similar problem. Baseball analyst Bill James designed something called "Power-Speed Number" to rate player's combinations of homerun-hitting and base-stealing ability, and Versatility Index works on the same principle. To compute it, take the player's points, rebounds and assists per game and multiply them together. Then take the cube root of that number. (No, no, please, don't click away just because I said "cube root" -- we're done with the math. I swear.) Most players will end up with a Versatility Index around five or so; the cream of the crop, about four or five guys a season, will be above ten.

As we can see in the next chart, Garnett is way ahead of the pack at 11.8.

Triple threats
Top Versatility Index, 2002-03
Index  Player  Team  PPG  RPG  APG
11.8  Kevin Garnett  Min  22.5  13.0  5.7
11.1  Kobe Bryant  LAL  29.8  7.1  6.5
11.0  Chris Webber  Sac  23.0  10.5  5.5
10.7  Tim Duncan  SA  23.9  12.9  3.9
10.2  Tracy McGrady  Orl  30.8  6.8  5.0
9.9  Jason Kidd  NJ  19.7  5.9  8.3
9.8  Shaquille O'Neal  LAL  25.9  10.6  3.4
9.6  Gary Payton  Sea  20.6  4.8  8.9
9.6  Paul Pierce  Bos  26.4  7.5  4.4
9.3  Steve Francis  Hou  23.2  5.8  6.0

To truly understand how Garnett is filling up the box score this season, we need to take a historical perspective, because Garnett's Versatility Index this season is not only the best of his own career -- it's the best of any player in the last decade.

I went through the stats and dredged up the top Versatility Index scores from each season. Believe it or not, Garnett's score this year is the best since Mr. Triple-Double himself, Magic Johnson, rolled up an Index of 11.9 in 1990-91. Magic averaged "just" 19.4 points that year, but spiked it with 12.5 assists and 7.0 rebounds.

Top Versatility Index, 1994-2003
Index  Player  Season  PPG  RPG  APG
11.8  Kevin Garnett  2002-03  22.5  13.0  5.7
11.5  Shaquille O'Neal  1999-00  29.7  13.6  3.8
11.5  David Robinson  1993-94  29.8  10.7  4.8
11.2  Gary Payton  1999-00  24.2  6.5  8.9
11.1  Grant Hill  1995-96  20.2  9.8  6.9
11.1  Kevin Garnett  1999-00  22.9  11.8  5.0
11.1  Kobe Bryant  2002-03  29.8  7.1  6.5
11.0  Shaquille O'Neal  2000-01  28.7  12.7  3.7
11.0  Kevin Garnett  2001-02  21.2  12.1  5.2
11.0  Chris Webber  2002-03  23.0  10.5  5.5

In fact, in the last decade, only four other players have even cleared the 11.0 mark: Shaquille O'Neal, Grant Hill, Gary Payton and David Robinson; although Kobe Bryant and Chris Webber could add to that list this year. Additionally, none of them did so more than twice; but this will be Garnett's third time in the last four years.

Garnett's multi-faceted game doesn't necessarily make him the game's best player; scoring is still the name of the game, after all, and there's 11 players who are doing that better this year. But in terms of the all-around package, Garnett is establishing this season that he is the most versatile player the game has seen since Magic Johnson.

John Hollinger covers the NBA for SI.com and is the author of Pro Basketball Prospectus.

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