This is a picture of a phone with a thumbs up coming out of it. Beside the phone it says: Kevin Garnett on Defense

Kevin Garnett on Defense: The Best of All Time?

Kevin Garnett may be the best defensive power forward in league history. Garnett’s amazing anticipation, great vision, and elite motor made him one of the best help defenders to ever play basketball. In addition to playing amazing team defense, KG could shut down players one on one and guard all five positions. 

Kevin Garnett on Defense: Stats

When it comes to sports, everyone has their memories and most everyone knows theirs are correct! 

If you talk to my Dad, he’ll tell you why the Patriots are destined to fall apart any game now. That’s because in his defining years as a sports fan, they always did. 

Things change, but our memories tend to be somewhat fixed. That’s why in my various  articles on the defensive  prowess of some of the best offensive players of the past, I prefer to start with the stats. 

Advanced stats are not magical. They can be limited in some ways. They are much better at judging a player’s offense than they are his defense. 

But even with their limits, looking at statistics can give us more of an unbiased look at a player’s career than our memories can. 

Basketball Reference lists five defensive statistics in its advanced statistics section. They also list defensive rating in the per 100 possessions section.  

I will dive into each of those numbers individually for The Big Ticket below. 

But, when taken together, these numbers tell a pretty compelling story about Kevin Garnett as a defender:  KG is one of the best defenders to ever play the game. 

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Kevin Garnett on Defense: Rebound, Blocks and Steals

Great power forwards like KG should get their fair share of defensive rebounds. Garnett most certainly did. His defensive rebounding percentage was 26.0%. 

If you scroll down to the table later in this post, you’ll see that KG finishes third in defensive rebounding %. But that is most certainly misleading. 

The table compares him to two of the greatest defensive rebounders in history: Time Duncan and Dennis Rodman.  The Big Fundamental had a career 26.5% while The Worm had a 29.6%. 

All three are in the all-time top 15 for career defensive rebounding percentage with Rodman being the highest ranked non-active player in the history of the league. 

So KG is the third in that group, but the group is pretty insane. Garnett was not just a good defensive rebounder, he was a great one.

KG was also a great help defender with terrific length. You would expect him to alter and block some shots. He did. His 3.0 career block % is 81st all time. 

He also got steals. His career 1.9 steal percentage was 200th all time. He was no John Stockton, but for a power forward KG got his hands on some balls. 

Kevin Garnett on Defense: Overall Statistics

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We all wish there was one number you could look at and find out if a player was a good defender. While there is no one number that can give us that as of now, there are many different stats that try to do just that. 

We’ll look at three of them here. All three of the stats in this category attempt to measure a player’s defense overall. 

Defensive rating essentially measures how many baskets a player gives up per 100 possessions. KG’s defensive rating is really good.

His 99.1 career defensive rating puts him 19th on the all-time NBA leaders list for this stat. 

Defensive box plus/minus is a similar stat.  It is an estimate of how many points a player gave up per possession when compared to a league average player & team. 

KG’s 2.09 defensive box plus/minus is very similar to his defensive rating: he is 20th on the all-time list. 

Defensive win shares is a complicated stat that attempts to measure how much a player contributes to his team while on the floor. 

KG’s 91.5 career defensive win shares is even more outstanding. He is ranked 7th on the all-time NBA defensive win shares list. This is influenced at least a little by how long KG played. But it is still an impressive number. 

Kevin Garnett’s career defensive statistics are incredible. You’ll see in the table below that they are a step below Tim Duncan’s

But there is no shame in being a tick below Tim Duncan’s stats. KG’s numbers are still better than any other player I have written about. They are simply incredible. 

Kevin Garnett on Defense compared to Tim Duncan and Dennis Rodman

Defensive stats in isolation can be less than useful. We all know what points per game means and what a good points average is. But that is less true when it comes to defensive box plus/minus. 

I am including some player comparisons to provide that context. I have chosen to compare KG to two of the best defensive big forwards of all time: Tim Duncan and Dennis Rodman

(rank on
all-time NBA
top 250 list)
(rank on
all-time NBA
top 250 list)
(rank on
all-time NBA
top 250 list)
Reb. %
26.0 (15th)29.6 (6th)26.5 (13th)
Block %3.0 (81st)1.2%(NR)4.6 (26th)
Steal %1.9 (200th)1.1% (NR)1.1 (NR)
99.1 (19th)100 (36th)96 (3rd)
2.09 (20th).5 (184th)2.3 (11th)
91.5 (7th) 54.5 (36th)106.3 (2nd)

This comparison is enlightening.  Dennis the Menace was one the best defensive forwards to ever play the game. He was an incredible one-on-one defender who guarded players as different as Shaq and Michael Jordan. 

But Rodman was not the help defender that Duncan or KG were. Their stats show that, while all three were insanely valuable defenders, you’d probably choose one of KG or Duncan if you got to pick because their impact on the overall defense was greater.

In comparing Duncan to KG, the stats are considerably closer but favor Duncan slightly. I wrote in Duncan’s article that it is hard to say if that is because of the great defenses Duncan anchored or because he was just slightly better.  I stand by that. 

What is clear is that both KG and Duncan were all-time great defenders with insanely great career defensive stats. 

Kevin Garnett on Defense: The Eye Test

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As a Boston-area resident and lifelong Celtics fan, I know KG was considered great at defense while he was playing. 

He transformed the Celtics culture, led them to one title, and came close to a second, mostly with his insane team defense. In my article on Ray Allen’s defense, I said Ray tricked me. 

I watched Ray Allen way, way more as a Celtic than at any other time in his career. The Ray I watched was good on defense while the Ray for other teams was not so great. 

There are several explanations for Allen’s transformation in Boston. But, no doubt, one of them was playing with KG. 

Playing with Kevin Garnett changed you. He expected great effort and great defense and he mostly got it from those Celtics teams. 

But he didn’t expect you to win one-on-one by yourself. He was right there to bail you out if your man beat you. And playing with someone like that reinforces great effort because you know you are not wasting your time. 

There was a reason KG won the Defensive Player of the Year his first year in Boston. 

But the KG I watched in Boston was slightly past his prime. By the time he went to the Celtics he had already put in 12 great years in Minnesota. 

Garnett was insanely athletic throughout his career but astonishingly so in his first few years in the league when he was  a seven-footer who regularly guarded small forwards. 

Garnett is one of the few players in the league who could guard nearly any player on the court. Some of the biggest centers were too strong for him early in his career, but even that changed as he got older. 

During those Minnesota years he got stronger and became a full-time power forward but he could still shut down guards and wings when switched onto them. 

KG had a level of defensive awareness and anticipation that are almost unrivaled in the history of the game. He saw everything, reacted with lightning quickness to shut down drivers beating their man and had the length, strength and leaping ability to impact nearly anyone’s shot. 

Almost anyone who has played or coached basketball knows defense is largely about effort. Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter were great athletes. But neither of them wanted it that badly on the defensive end. 

KG wanted it. His biggest advantage may have been his motor. He gave relentless effort on defense consistently. He was always working at it harder than nearly anyone else on the court. 

When you combine a relentless motor with crazy athleticism, you get KG: one of the very best defenders to ever play the game. 

In his great series on the best peak years of players in the NBA since the ABA merger, Ben Taylor says he’d take KG’s defense over Duncan’s because of his ability in space. I think I agree with him, but I am a Celtics fan. 

Even if Taylor is wrong and Duncan is better, there is no doubt it is close. Kevin Garnett is one of, if not the best, power forwards in league history on defense. That puts him right there as one of the best defensive players to ever play. 

Garnett  made 9 All Defensive 1st teams and 3 more 2nd teams. He almost certainly deserved them all. 

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Kevin Garnett is one of the best defensive players to ever play basketball. KG was an amazing help defender with great anticipation and vision. Garnett made his teams better on defense and won the Defensive Player of the Year while leading his 2008 Celtics to an NBA title. 

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