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Kevin Garnett's Back Injury Is a Growing Problem for the Brooklyn Nets

Dec 13, 2013; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Brooklyn Nets power forward Kevin Garnett (2) before the game against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Walker HarrisonContributor IIIMarch 12, 2014

The Brooklyn Nets are currently playing some of their best basketball of the season. They also have a significant problem on their hands.

Kevin Garnett missed his seventh straight game Wednesday night against the Miami Heat with back spasms. Head coach Jason Kidd said he'd likely be sitting again Saturday against the Washington Wizards, according to Tim Bontemps of the New York Post:

The Nets have managed to win six of the seven games Garnett has missed. Three of those victories were against the league's cellar-dwellers, though, and Brooklyn will face much better competition in the postseason.

Even though Garnett will turn 38 in May, he has been a key contributor for Brooklyn this season. Conventional statistics don't effectively highlight his importance. Due to a combination of less playing time and declining productivity, his per-game numbers are all down:

 Minutes per gamePoints per gameRebounds per gameAssists per game
Career35.618.710.33.9
2013-1421.06.76.71.5

All statistics per Basketball-Reference.com

But Garnett's value is evident when stepping away from his individual statistics, and looking at how the team as a whole performs with him in the lineup. Compare his defensive rating, an estimation of points allowed per 100 possessions with him on the court, with the Nets' most used players:

PlayerDefensive Rating
Kevin Garnett100
Deron Williams109
Paul Pierce105
Joe Johnson111
Shaun Livingston107

All statistics per Basketball-Reference.com

If Garnett had enough minutes to qualify, his rating would put him in the league's top 15 defenders, amongst the likes of other elite big men like Dwight Howard and Al Jefferson. With Garnett on the floor, Brooklyn is an excellent defensive team—in the entire league, only the Indiana Pacers have an overall defensive rating under 100. Without Garnett, the Nets are below-average at that end of the floor.

Even more is apparent when looking at Brooklyn's most used five-man units (not including those with Brook Lopez, who is out for the season). The two including Garnett offer superb defense. The other two make opposing offenses salivate.

UnitMinutesPoints allowed per possession
Livingston/Johnson/Anderson/Pierce/Garnett121.10.94
Williams/Livingston/Johnson/Pierce/Garnett91.90.85
Williams/Terry/Kirilenko/Teletovic/Blatche55.11.12
Williams/Livingston/Johnson/Pierce/Blatche51.01.09

All statistics per 82games.com

In fact, the unit with Williams, Livingston, Johnson, Pierce and Garnett stacks up against the best that the rest of the league has to offer. Compare their efficiency with the top defensive units of the best teams in each conference (minimum 75 minutes of court time).

TeamUnitPoints allowed per possession
Brooklyn NetsWilliams/Livingston/Johnson/Pierce/Garnett0.85
Miami HeatCole/Wade/Allen/Lewis/Andersen1.04
Indiana PacersWatson/Stephenson/George/West/Hibbert0.92
San Antonio SpursParker/Green/Leonard/Duncan/Splitter0.94
Oklahoma City ThunderJackson/Sefolosha/Durant/Ibaka/Perkins1.00

All statistics per 82games.com

Finally, the Nets need Garnett to snag some rebounds for them. Brooklyn is a terrible rebounding team with or without Garnett. They average 38.2 rebounds per game, per ESPN.com, ahead of only Miami for fewest in the league.

But without Garnett, Brooklyn goes from terrible to downright atrocious. In the seven games he's missed, the Nets have averaged only 32.3 rebounds per game.

Garnett does not provide much help scoring baskets. The Nets could use a more potent interior weapon on offense, but the rugged paint is a dangerous place for an older player like Garnett. As a result, the majority of his attempts are jumpers from more than 10 feet away. 

Vorped.com

He's decently effective from this range, but he isn't in high demand on a Brooklyn team with other capable shooters.

Nevertheless, his presence inside and on the boards for an otherwise poor defensive team makes him valuable.

Garnett also provides services for the team that can't be proven with an avalanche of metrics, as B/R's Brian Robb points out. He and Paul Pierce are leading voices in the Nets' locker room and hold the team accountable after poor performances.

Following an embarrassing loss to the Portland Trail Blazers last month, Garnett made it clear that such inadequate play was unacceptable. "There’s no way we should be losing by 40 to any NBA team with the guys we got," said Garnett, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. "It’s a complete lack of focus. That’s all I have to say. We just didn’t show up."

Back in July when the Nets acquired Garnett, Jason Kidd praised his ability to "not just win a championship, but...to teach these guys what it takes to win," per Danny Jaillet of Yardbarker. Garnett and Pierce are the only players on the roster with a ring and have played almost as many playoff games (267) as the rest of the team combined (297).

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The Nets don't want Garnett to be doing his motivating from the bench, where he's been all of March so far. To complicate matters, the nature of Garnett's injury is unpredictable. Back spasms are neither an injury that can be played through nor ones that can always be given a definitive prognosis.

Sometimes they just flare up: Garnett was supposed to play against the Toronto Raptors on Monday, but his back tightened up about an hour before the opening tip, and he was forced to miss another game. The Nets already know how problematic the injury can be, as forward Andrei Kirilenko missed 25 games with back spasms early in the season. 

Back spasms can also suddenly reoccur or be aggravated by anything from a hard foul to a long airplane flight. Therefore, even if Garnett feels good enough to play next week, it's possible that he could be sidelined again if the injury unexpectedly returns.

The Nets can only hope that something of that sort doesn't happen during the playoffs, when a couple of games without the essential Garnett could spell the end of the season for Brooklyn.

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