Highly-touted player, drafted high directly out of high school to a perennially-struggling team in a small market hungry for a championship.
That’s LeBron James, right? Or is it Kevin Garnett?
It’s both, clearly, but these two mega-stars have a lot more in common than just being drafted out of high school.
Let me be clear that I’m not going to be talking about physical similarities, or congruity in how they play the game. LeBron is a 6’8″ small forward, KG is a 6’11″ power forward. I’m not interested at all in comparing shooting percentages or even defensive accolades—the similarity that is the most striking is their career arcs (at least to a certain point).
It’s tempting to try to bring Chris Paul into this discussion as well. He’ll belong, if his New Orleans Hornets can find their way and build upon their second-round playoff run two years ago. The good money, however, is on the Hornets falling apart before ever really getting going, which makes Paul a different case based on criteria I haven’t gotten around to specifying yet.
The King and The Big Ticket both crashed the NBA while still wearing their high school knickers, and eventually found that their teams had a glass ceiling. In all, I’ve found four major similarities in the career arcs of these two stars that are remarkable enough for discussion here.
1. The teams that welcomed them.
Kevin Garnett was taken fifth in the 1995 draft by a Minnesota Timberwolves that had been a bottom-feeder since joining the league in 1989. Before Garnett’s arrival, the franchise was 126-366 in its entire existence and had never made the playoffs.
LeBron James was the first pick in the 2003 draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers who drafted him had a longer history than the T-Wolves, but it wasn’t terribly illustrious. They had gone 17-65 the year prior, and since their creation in 1970 their greatest accomplishments were losing twice in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Both players, obviously, quickly became the leaders of their respective teams and the key pieces of their success, but it didn’t come immediately for either. KG’s Wolves only went 26-56 in his rookie season, and didn’t make the playoffs until the following year when he was joined by Stephon Marbury. The Cavaliers won 18 more games in LeBron’s rookie season than the year before, but that still only amounted to 35-47.
From a qualitative angle, both players quickly became bigger than their teams. That’s nearly impossible with some franchises: Despite Kobe Bryant’s greatness, he’s not bigger than the Lakers and their storied past; neither Derek Jeter nor Alex Rodriguez is bigger than the Yankees. But the legacy of Kevin Garnett is a great deal more memorable than that of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and LeBron James quickly became a bigger deal than the Cleveland Cavaliers he plays for.
2. The increasing success over time.
With only slight hiccups, both teams got better every year while led by these mega-stars. It wasn’t that the teams immediately became contenders—there was growth year over year.
The graph at the right illustrates the increase in each team’s wins, lined up as though LeBron and KG’s careersÂ started at the same time. They lines would be even more identical had the Cavaliers not exploded for 66 wins last year, something the Wolves never did (and didn’t even get close until Garnett’s ninth season).
The major difference here is playoff success. While it took Garnett and the Wolves nine years to make it as far as the conference finals, LeBron & Co. improbably made it all the way to the NBA Finals in only James’s fourth season. That’s tough success to improve upon, especially with only marginal roster improvements (more on that in a minute), and the Cavs haven’t been able to match it since.
Garnett obviously has a ring from his time since with the Boston Celtics, but his time in Minny is really what’s pertinent here.
What the graph doesn’t show is the T-Wolves’ dropoff after their 58-win season and Conference Finals run. They dropped out of the playoffs the following year, and below .500 the year after that.
3. The struggle to build a supporting cast.
It’s the plight of small-market teams, I suppose. It’s difficult to sign major free agents, as both the glamor and checkbooks of larger markets lure them elsewhere, so smaller-market teams are forced to build through the draft.
And that is, of course, how the Cavaliers and Timberwolves landed James and Garnett. Despite their best efforts, neither team was able to put together a supporting cast compelling enough to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy, and the Wolves were ultimately unable to keep Garnett happy and in town.
In 1998 Minnesota let Tom Gugliotta get away in order to give a big paycheck to Stephon Marbury—and a year later had to trade Marbury away the the New Jersey Nets because, well, he’s crazy.
They spent the next ten years shuffling the roster to become a contender. The Wolves picked up Terrell Brandon in the Marbury trade, Wally Szczerbiak in the draft, and Joe Smith as a free agent. By trading away Szczerbiak and Smith they brought in Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, and along with Troy Hudson were able to make their one run to the Western Conference Finals. It was that same team, however, that didn’t make the playoffs the following year.
The Cavaliers’ story is somewhat similar.
The Cavs team that made it to the NBA Finals in 2007 was, by all accounts, there entirely on the back of LeBron. After being swept by the Spurs, Cleveland made a dramatic move, shedding Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Cedric Simmons, Shannon Brown, Ira Newble and Donyell Marshall from the roster in a mega-trade with the Bulls and Sonics that brought in Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith (possible trend here?) and Delonte West.
The following year they turned Damon James and Joe Smith into Mo Williams, and it was that team that put together 66 wins and a conference finals run this past year.
Still not satisfied, the Cavaliers have brought in a rapidly-aging Shaquille O’Neal for the 2009 season, and we’ve probably all had enough speculating on whether or not Shaq is the piece that will finally give LeBron enough help to win a title.
4. The plateau.
This is the most frustrating part of both James and Garnett’s careers.
The Cleveland Cavaliers had been to a conference final before, most recently in the Mark Price/Brad Daugherty era, but LeBron took them a step further into the NBA Finals. Garnett led his T-Wolves to their first playoff appearance ever, and eventually to a conference final.
But that’s it.
It’s been much speculated that the reason LeBron James will want to leave Cleveland next year is to find a team that will better help him win a championship. We know Danny Ferry and the Cavs brass haven’t been shy about trying to bring him more help, but so far it hasn’t amounted to much.
It’s three seasons ago now that Bron’s team was in the Finals, and every year since has ended in disappointment for Cleveland fans. The team has been able to win more games during the regular season, but has twice folded in the playoffs.
They’ve hit their ceiling, and in an increasingly-competitive East it may be even more difficult this year to break through.
It’s somewhat of a misnomer, however, to say that Garnett and the Wolves plateaued. They peaked in 2004, when they lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, and then completely crumbled—it was as though they’d put all their eggs into that one season’s basket, and had nothing left the following season.
After winning 58 games in 2003-04, the Wolves won 44, 33, and 32 games in subsequent years, until they finally traded Garnett to the Celtics for five players (including Al Jefferson), two draft picks, and cash.
And that’s not a good thought for The Cleve. If the Cavs, with their bear-sized roster changes, still can’t replicate their 2007 success this season, their chances of keeping LeBron drop significantly. And if they drop off anything like how the Wolves did in ’04, then they might as well pack his bags and call him a taxi.
Wrapping it up
It’s surely not a new or unique situation to have a superstar player on a struggling team. Kobe Bryant’s Lakers spent a few years in the NBA’s cellar. The same goes for Dwyane Wade’s Miami Heat, and Kevin Durant has sure received plenty of accolades for being on an Oklahoma City Thunder team that only won 23 games last year.
But with LeBron James we have a remarkable precedent in Kevin Garnett. The KG Experiment in Minnesota doesn’t lend a lot of hope for proponents of keeping The King in Cleveland—if the Cavs can’t bring in better support than the Wolves did, then they can expect the same result; and LeBron can look to KG’s eventual championship ring in Boston as a sign that he should be looking at his options come the summer of 2010.
LeBron James is a unique player, however, and seems poised for greater things than even Garnett. If anyone can break the mold and win a championship by sheer will, it seems to be LeBron.
With or without help.