But wait. Hold on a little longer. Because it’s not as crazy as it sounds to ask if Kevin Garnett is the MVP of this year’s Timberwolves.
Maybe it seems weird, particularly after a night in which leading scorer Andrew Wiggins piled up 31 points, Karl-Anthony Towns put up his typical 17 points and 12 rebounds and even Ricky Rubio stuffed the stat sheet with at least five of each of these: points, rebounds, assists and steals. All of that came during an impressive 108-102 win over the Clippers in which Garnett didn’t play.
But let’s look inside a few interesting numbers before we all decide that I’m crazy:
1) Last night’s game was the first game this season the Timberwolves won in which Garnett — slowed lately by a knee problem — didn’t play. Going in, they were 14-24 with KG and 0-12 without him. Now they’re 1-12 without him. Some of that is arguably circumstantial because a lot of games he missed early in the year were the second nights of back-to-backs, which are harder to win anyway. But it’s still a dramatic win/loss difference.
2) Lest you think it’s coincidence that the Wolves have won at a much higher rate when Garnett plays … well, it’s not. He’s been one of their most effective players when on the court.
For all the talk of the Wolves’ trio of under-21 players producing big numbers (Wiggins, Towns and Zach LaVine), astute NBA/Wolves observer Britt Robson tweeted an interesting stat on Wednesday: if you look at the 20 most frequent combinations of three Wolves players who have been on the court at the same time, the Wiggins/Towns/LaVine combination has the worst net points per 100 possessions (Wolves points minus opponent points) of all 20. When those three are on the court together, the Wolves are getting outscored by an average of 10.3 points per 100 possessions.
Garnett, meanwhile, is in EACH OF THE TOP SIX GROUPS — including the group of Garnett, Towns and Wiggins, which is outscoring opponents by 5.0 points per 100 possessions. The most efficient three-player group: Garnett, Ricky Rubio and Tayshaun Prince, at plus-9.3.
What about five-man groups? After all, that is the requisite number of players on the court at once. Well, the group of Garnett, Prince, Rubio, Wiggins and Towns — often the starting five when Garnett is healthy — is easily the best of any group of five that has played together for more than 100 minutes this season with the Wolves. That five is scoring 9.1 points more than its opponents per 100 possessions.
Interestingly, if you substitute Gorgui Dieng for Garnett and keep the other four players, the Wolves drop to a stunning minus-7.5 points per 100 possessions — a swing of 16.6 points per 100 just by swapping Dieng for KG. And it’s not like Dieng has been terrible, at least to the naked eye.
3) Garnett’s Player Efficiency Rating is not good (12.6), but much of that stat is a product of offense. Defense is where his profound impact is being felt.
When Garnett is on the court, the Wolves have an offensive rating of 104.9, meaning they produce that many points per 100 possessions. It’s nearly identical when he’s not on the court (104.8). But when he’s on the court, Wolves’ opponents have an offensive rating of just 99.4. When he’s off the court Wolves opponents have an offensive rating of 111.2. So the Wolves gain about 5.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court and lose about 6.5 points per 100 when he’s off the court, with virtually the entire difference being defense. It works out to a net of +12 points per 100 possessions when Garnett is on the court vs. off the court.
Now again, some of this is circumstantial. He’s playing the vast majority of his minutes with the Wolves’ other top players since many of his minutes come at the starts of games. If he had to play more minutes with second-unit players, would his individual net rating numbers go down? Most likely, yes.
But it’s also undeniable that Garnett adds a strong element, much of it intangible (playing good team defense, setting good screens, communicating), to that starting five. Remember, when you swap Dieng for KG, the Wolves suffer dramatically.
Garnett plays 14.6 minutes per game. When he’s back healthy, I’d love to see the distribution of those minutes go something like this: 6 at the start of the game; 5 at the start of the second half; and the final 4 minutes. And I’d love it if almost all of them were with Towns, Wiggins, Rubio and Prince.
Towns is already the Wolves best all-around player. Wiggins is their best scorer. LaVine is their most dynamic player. Rubio might be their most important player.
But their most valuable player? Even though he plays only 15 minutes a game, it might be the nearly 40-year-old guy who’s twice as old as the kids getting all the attention.