Back to the future: New heirs to the legacy of Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The NBA’s landscape in the 2020s has largely been dominated by giants. You only have to look to the MVP race over the past three seasons to see the behemoth-sized finalists. The impetus placed on acquiring versatile big men has taken over from the 2010s search for the ‘3-and-D’ wing, as title contenders have been increasingly reminded of the importance of action around the rim in the playoffs.
A new crop of rangy, diverse and towering talent entering the league has only fed teams’ demands to ascertain one of these young titans. Specifically, the arrival of two big men, Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren, looks to have further accentuated this trend.
Whilst this young duo has felt like a brave new world, regarding their skillsets, the NBA is merely repeating the cyclical nature of time. Take a trip back to the late 1990s; the NBA welcomed Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan in the space of three years, two colossuses in both stature and historical impact.
The path for what we are witnessing in today’s game was paved by Garnett and Duncan. The consequential older duo was intrinsically linked through their careers, and even though we’re only halfway through the first year of Wemby and Chet, signs point to this repetition of NBA history as another analogous relationship.
On an entry-level, both duos exist in the Western Conference. Except for Chet’s Oklahoma City Thunder, the other teams drafted their stars on the back of 20, 21 and 22-win seasons. Even the draft positions for our duos are similar:
Wemby – Round 1, Pick 1 2023 Draft
Chet – Round 1, Pick 2 2022 Draft
Duncan – Round 1, Pick 1 1997 Draft
Garnett – Round 1, Pick 5 1995 Draft
Their rookie seasons have all shown improvements to their team’s respective offensive and defensive ratings (as you’d hope for such high draft capital) and their raw statistics look much the same. For the sake of comparison, Garnett’s numbers are taken from his sophomore year after Chet was red-shirted during his first year, both having had time to practice and build their body to fit the NBA game:
Wembanyama – 20.6 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, 3.2 BPG, Fouls/Game 2.3
Chet – 16.7 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.7 APG, 0.6 SPG, 2.6 BPG, Fouls/Game 2.5
Duncan – 21.1 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 2.7 APG, 0.7 SPG, 2.5 BPG, Fouls/Game 3.1
Garnett – 17.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.4 SPG, 2.1 BPG, Fouls/Game 2.6
We can see that Garnett and Chet’s production looks more akin, whilst Duncan and Wemby’s work fits more closely together. Whether that spells the future for the young duo’s careers evidently remains to be seen, yet the similarities are present.
Before we break down the on-court production, let’s observe the mentality with which the former and reimagined big men approach the game. It goes without saying, no one is Kevin Garnett in this department; a rabid dog doesn’t even quite do him justice. The man elicited a fervour on the court that will most likely never be matched again in the NBA. However, the tenacity and doggedness that Chet exhibits, along with reports of his competitive constitution, is closer to Garnett’s model.
If we are to then say that Wembanyama is more like a Tim Duncan; consummate professional, focused, doesn’t expend energy on antics that lie outside the game, then we wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. However, much in the way that Garnett resides on one extreme of the animated scale, so too does Duncan, just as a polar opposite.
Chet and Wemby are more aligned in their personalities than the differences between Garnett and Duncan. From the first half of the season, though, Wemby’s competitive fire is clearly visible, just more attuned to that of the prior San Antonio star.
Looking to the current duo’s offensive approach, the context of that end of the floor has shifted drastically since the days of Garnett and Duncan. The growth in exterior shot-making, is an added development of the modern game, and Wemby and Chet are mostly benefactors of this.
Yet playmaking is an interesting point of comparison. Wembanyama’s flair and ball-handling skills make this facet of his game more like Garnett’s than Duncan’s.
Initiating action in the half-court as well as running the fast break, separates him from a more traditional big man’s range of playmaking. Namely, this is where Chet identifies more closely. Whilst still having a better handle than his predecessors, Chet’s playmaking is located around the high post and elbow, much like Duncan.
The greatest similarities are on defence. To say that everyone in this article has historic instincts on defence would not be doing it justice. We are talking about generational defenders, pantheon-level disruptors and destroyers of offensive schemes. They are all truly elite rim protectors, having fantastic feel and timing of when to contest or jump for a rebound. Furthermore, they all possess a very understated ability to surprise drivers and rim threats by keeping their hands down until the last second; their wingspans are all at or greater than 7’4”, with Wemby estimated to be a mind-blowing 8-foot wingspan.
Each player’s length and positional IQ allow them to cover multiple positions in one defensive sequence. Garnett and Duncan were pioneers in the versatility of defensive coverages for power forwards; Garnett especially having a case as the most effective coverer of ground when casing the defensive end.
Whilst staying on defensive movement, the youngsters are extremely fluid and more akin to Garnett’s lithe dynamism than Duncan’s stout and clever positioning. If we want to reach for superlatives, the younger duo has a case for being a better shot-blocking duo than the former:
Wemby: 9.5 Block %
Chet: 8.1 Block %
Duncan: 4.5 Block %
Garnett: 4.8 Block %
(Note: All numbers are taken from halfway through respective first seasons – second season for Garnett as previously mentioned)
Back in the late 1990s, I wonder how many people would have predicted that Garnett and Duncan were setting the mould for a successful modern-day big man. Offensively proficient, cerebral, able to move the ball in the flow of the offence as well as initiate it, all whilst anchoring the defensive end. The collective move away from a twin towers style, required the old power forward model to evolve into the modern-day centre, due to increased spacing and a demand for better mobility.
Now the responsibility is bestowed upon Holmgren and Wembanyama to further transmute the position like their basketball ancestors did before them. Future big men will follow their influences on the sport; perhaps an increase in ball-handling decision-makers who still defy the will of offensive forces by incorporating skills of prior bulwarks of the game.
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Make no mistake though, the effect that these two duos, separated by time, exert on their teams is comparable and indelible; basketball history is once again repeating itself.