Kevin Garnett is Ben Wallace with longer arms and a jump shot. He has Richard Hamilton's stamina, Chauncey Billups's toughness and, to borrow Larry Brown's phrase, he plays the right way. Unlike those Pistons worthies, Garnett didn't win a tide this season—but he did embody the qualities of a champion, which is why he is SI's NBA Player of the Year.
Among Garnett's many attributes, the most compelling is his desire to make the Timber-wolves better. Last year, after being vilified for not taking Minnesota past the first round of the playoffs for the seventh straight time, he used the leverage of his impending free agency to persuade team owner Glen Taylor to bring in veterans Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. Garnett even provided the salary-cap room, "settling" for $83 million less than the maximum raise and signing a five-year, $100 million extension.
Garnett then led his new crew to a 58-24 record, the best in the Western Conference, while running away with the MVP award. He set career highs in scoring (24.2 points per game) and rebounding (a league-leading 13.9); averaged 5.0 assists; ranked in the top 20 in both steals (15) and blocks (2.2); and became the first player in 29 years to lead the NBA in total points (1,987) and rebounds (1,139). For the fifth straight season Garnett averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists, tying a record held by Larry Bird.
And he's durable: Garnett didn't miss a regular-season game and averaged 39.4 minutes. The Timberwolves were outscored by 164 points in those scant moments when he was on the bench, but they held a 614-point advantage when he was on the court. "Garnett makes plays for everybody else," says Mavericks coach Don Nelson, "and dominates that way."
Yet in the playoffs Garnett showed he could take over a game when his team needed it most No one is ripping him anymore after his decisive performance against the Kings in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals: 32 points, 21 boards, five blocks and four steals in 46 minutes. He poured in 13 straight fourth-quarter points, including a buzzer-beating three that put Minnesota up 77-70 with 3:39 to go. "There was a ton of pressure," said coach Flip Saunders after the 83-80 victory, "but he had an amazing calm about him."
The 6'11" Garnett is everything a coach could want: a leader by tireless example, a catalyst whose all-around game elevates the play of his teammates and a take-charge scorer down the stretch. With Garnett at the helm, the T-Wolves will go into next season aiming confidently at a championship if they can come up with reliable play at center and a solid backup point guard to spell Cassell, whose back injury doomed Minnesota against the Lakers in the conference finals.
Despite his playoff breakthrough, the 28-year-old Garnett is writing off the past season as a period of transition for his upwardly mobile team. His potential will be fulfilled only by winning a championship, and it's hard to imagine him ever retiring without one.