The Brooklyn Nets had to lose their best players to begin playing their best.
Weird, right? Nobody expected this stretch. The Nets just lost their youngest All-Star, Brook Lopez, for the season. Then Deron Williams went down, undergoing treatment on both of his ankles. They got dominated by a San Antonio Spurs team heading into the New Year. At 10-21, without a draft pick, all seemed lost.
Today, they stand at 15-22, in the playoff race. And while there are a lot of factors, they’ve got 37-year-old Kevin Garnett to thank most.
Garnett’s been vocal about his disdain for playing center, citing more comfort at the power forward position. He signed off on the trade to Brooklyn partially because he’d play next to Lopez, who would take his position in the paint. He played the majority of his first sixteen years at the power forward position, only playing spot minutes at center until playing it full-time his last two seasons in Boston. He, um, didn’t like it.
“Should’ve put that s— in my contract,” Garnett jokes about playing only at the 4. “Don’t tell Jason I said that.”
But with Lopez out, coach Kidd didn’t have much of a choice. Rookie Mason Plumlee is promising, but nowhere near a starting-caliber player yet. Andray Blatche is at the pinnacle of entertainment precisely because he’s at the nadir of reliability. Garnett was the natural choice, even if he doesn’t consider it his natural position.
Though it’s not explicitly stated, it’s implied that Garnett doesn’t want to be thought of as just another center. The term “center” conjures images of slow, plodding players, known more for winning the genetic lottery than their fleetness and athleticism. Flip Saunders, Garnett’s old coach, joked to Sports Illustrated in 2003 that Garnett was actually 6’13”.
He takes to his newfound role like a moth to darkness. “It’s not my preference, but it is what it is, and whatever we have to do to win,” Garnett says of sliding over to the 5. “That’s what it is.”
Kidd’s done what he can to make the change more palatable. “There are no positions,” Kidd said when asked about Garnett’s change. “Just guard the guy in front of you. We don’t call him a five, we call them basketball players.”
But despite the positionless basketball mantra, the roles and responsibilities are quite clear. In a lineup filled by a point guard and three wing players, the towering Garnett, at 6’11”, 6’13”, or whatever height he is, mans the middle as the team’s procedural center.
And the difference has been staggering.