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Kevin Up The ever-improving Kevin Garnett emerges as SI's Player of the Year

Kevin Garnett is Ben Wallace with longer arms and a jump shot. He
has Richard Hamilton's stamina, Chauncey Billups's toughness and,
to borrow Larry Brown's phrase, he plays the right way. Unlike
those Pistons worthies, Garnett didn't win a title this
season--but he did embody the qualities of a champion, which is
why he is SI's NBA Player of the Year.

Among Garnett's many attributes, the most compelling is his
desire to make the Timberwolves better. Last year, after being
vilified for not taking Minnesota past the first round of the
playoffs for the seventh straight time, he used the leverage of
his impending free agency to persuade team owner Glen Taylor to
bring in veterans Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. Garnett even
provided the salary-cap room, "settling" for $83 million less
than the maximum raise and signing a five-year, $100 million

Garnett then led his new crew to a 58-24 record, the best in the
Western Conference, while running away with the MVP award. He set
career highs in scoring (24.2 points per game) and rebounding (a
league-leading 13.9); averaged 5.0 assists; ranked in the top 20
in both steals (1.5) and blocks (2.2); and became the first
player in 29 years to lead the NBA in total points (1,987) and
rebounds (1,139). For the fifth straight season Garnett averaged
20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists, tying a record held by
Larry Bird.

And he's durable: Garnett didn't miss a regular-season game and
averaged 39.4 minutes. The Timberwolves were outscored by 164
points in those scant moments when he was on the bench, but they
held a 614-point advantage when he was on the court. "Garnett
makes plays for everybody else," says Mavericks coach Don Nelson,
"and dominates that way."

Yet in the playoffs Garnett showed he could take over a game when
his team needed it most. No one is ripping him anymore after his
decisive performance against the Kings in Game 7 of the Western
Conference semifinals: 32 points, 21 boards, five blocks and four
steals in 46 minutes. He poured in 13 straight fourth-quarter
points, including a buzzer-beating three that put Minnesota up
77-70 with 3:39 to go. "There was a ton of pressure," said coach
Flip Saunders after the 83-80 victory, "but he had an amazing
calm about him."

The 6'11" Garnett is everything a coach could want: a leader by
tireless example, a catalyst whose all-around game elevates the
play of his teammates and a take-charge scorer down the stretch.
With Garnett at the helm, the T-Wolves will go into next season
aiming confidently at a championship if they can come up with
reliable play at center and a solid backup point guard to spell
Cassell, whose back injury doomed Minnesota against the Lakers in
the conference finals.

Despite his playoff breakthrough, the 28-year-old Garnett is
writing off the past season as a period of transition for his
upwardly mobile team. His potential will be fulfilled only by
winning a championship, and it's hard to imagine him ever
retiring without one.
Will Kevin Garnett become SI's Sportsman of the Year for 2004? To
cast your vote, and to get more NBA Player of the Year coverage,
go to

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO After a brilliant regular season, Garnett took charge against the Kings.

Who's Got Next?

Kevin Garnett is the favorite to repeat as SI's NBA Player of the
Year. Here are his top challengers.

KOBE BRYANT In the Lakers' new offense--and with or without his
345-pound sidekick--he's sure to dazzle even more. Odds: 3 to 2

SHAQUILLE O'NEAL After a subpar (for him) postseason, the Big
Bellyacher will have much to prove--whichever team he's playing
for. Odds: 4 to 1

TIM DUNCAN If the Spurs upgrade his supporting cast and he's
not worn out by the Olympics, he could vault back to the top.
Odds: 4 to 1

JERMAINE O'NEAL For the Pacers to reach the Finals, he must
become the East's version of Garnett. Odds: 7 to 1Ben Wallace
His standout defense and rebounding will no doubt be the
difference if the Pistons win the championship again. Odds: 10
to 1