By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Oct 16 2012 2:13PM
Five years after acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, the Boston Celtics are still thinking championship, not yet ready to push the reset button on their veteran roster. The Celtics have rebuilt their bench in the wake of Allen's departure for Miami, but their championship dreams are only possible because Garnett is still a beast.
Before training camp began, Celtics president Danny Ainge said that point guard Rajon Rondo was his team's best player, and it's hard to disagree. Rondo is ridiculously talented and incredibly savvy. If Ainge had to argue his case in front of a jury, Rondo's performance in last year's playoffs, especially the 44 points he scored in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, would be Exhibit A.
But there's a difference between a team's best player and its most valuable player. And there is no Celtic more important to the team's success than Garnett, Boston's anchor on both ends of the floor.
"He's our life," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of Garnett during last season's playoff run. "He really is. He just does so many things out there that don't have numbers to it."
Way back in 2004, Garnett was the league MVP, averaging 24.2 points and 13.9 rebounds. Eight years later, at the tender age of 35, his numbers (15.8 and 8.2) were far more pedestrian. And he didn't receive a single vote (first, second, third, fourth or fifth place) for MVP.
But we all know that per-game numbers can't really describe Garnett's impact, which begins on defense. We also know that defense rarely gets equal consideration when it comes to awards or rankings.
Plus-minus numbers, however, make it obvious how important Garnett was for the Celtics last season. When KG was on the floor, the Celtics had the point differential (plus-7.7 points per 100 possessions) of a team that would win 64 games out of 82. When he was on the bench, their point differential (minus-2.6) was that of a 28-win team.
In the playoffs, the difference was far greater. The Celtics were downright awful (minus-27.6) when Garnett sat in the postseason. Rondo played more minutes than Garnett, but he didn't have nearly that kind of impact.
KG is a top-five defender in the league, whether it be pick-and-roll defense (where he's arguably the best), help defense, or one-on-one defense. He does it all, and there's no doubt that the Celtics are better defensively when he's on the floor.
The Celtics' other defensive star is Avery Bradley, a nuisance to opposing guards. But Bradley is recovering from shoulder surgery and will miss the start of the season, making Garnett's presence all the more important.
Of late, Garnett has actually made greater impact on the Celtics' offensive numbers. Last season, they scored a somewhat efficient 103 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, and a putrid 94 with him on the bench. Yes, he played most of his minutes with the Celtics' other stars, but he anchors the offense as much as he does the defense.
Even before he was moved to center midway through last season, Garnett was the Celtics' only real hope for an inside presence offensively. With two jump-shooters -- Garnett and Brandon Bass - on the frontline, the Celtics' offense moved even farther from the basket. They attempted just 42 percent of their shots from the paint last season, the second-lowest rate in the league. And their free throw rate regressed from 10th in the league in 2010-11 to 22nd last season.
Rondo and Pierce can get to the basket, but the Celtics need Garnett to establish position on the block. He has one of the best pick-and-pop games in the league, but his team needs him to play inside-out as much as possible. Boston was 16-2 last season when KG scored at least 10 points in the paint.
Rivers and the Celtics did their best to preserve Garnett over the course of the year, using a five-minutes-on, five-minutes-off method for his playing time. This season, they're hoping that some additions to their frontline will keep the scoreboard from going so far in the wrong direction in those minutes that Garnett rests.
Chris Wilcox, who missed the final 28 games of last season after being diagnosed with a cardiac irregularity, is back and healthy. Veterans Darko Milicic and Jason Collins were added to take up space. And rookies Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo were selected with the 21st and 22nd picks in the draft.
But none of the five can give the Celtics the package that Garnett brings to the table. And there's little chance that both the Celtics' offense and defense won't continue to suffer when KG steps off the floor.
Ironically, Garnett talked often about retiring after last season. He's 36 now, and health is always going to be a concern. But while Garnett dealt with a hip flexor issue last year, his knee problems seem to be a thing of the past. He's played 252 of a possible 283 games (89 percent) over the last three years.
If Garnett can keep that up, the Celtics are still a contender, even if his value isn't fully recognized.
1. Doc Rivers made it clear last year that his team wasn't in shape to start the season. They were just 15-17 at the All-Star break before locking down defensively and winning 24 of their 34 games after the break. In their previous four seasons, the Celtics were an incredible 94-14 in games played before Christmas.
2. Courtney Lee and Jeff Green bring some younger legs to the Celtics' rotation, so the Celtics would also like to run more this season. Last year, they ranked 19th in fast break points per possession, even though they ranked fourth in forcing turnovers.
3. One other thing holding the Celtics back offensively is their lack of second chances. They've ranked 30th in offensive rebounding rate each of the last two seasons, and last year's Celtics were the only team in the last 35 years to grab less than 20 percent of available offensive boards.
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
LAST YEAR: 39-27, 1st in Atlantic
FINISH: Lost in Eastern Conference finals
2011-12 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2011-12 Stats|
RAJON RONDO, POINT GUARD
11.9 PPG | 4.8 RPG | 11.7 APG
His shooting (45 percent from the field) and efficiency dropped for the second straight season, but then he was predictably brilliant in the playoffs.
COURTNEY LEE, SHOOTING GUARD
11.4 PPG | 2.7 RPG | 1.5 APG
Lee is the Celtics' best 3-point shooter, but might be holding Avery Bradley's place in the starting lineup until Bradley returns from shoulder surgery.
PAUL PIERCE, SMALL FORWARD
19.4 PPG | 5.2 RPG | 4.5 APG
Improved as the season went on last year, but still declined overall and shot just 34 percent in the conference finals, dealing with an ailing knee.
BRANDON BASS, POWER FORWARD
12.5 PPG | 6.2 RPG | 0.9 APG
Averaged a career-high 12.5 points per game last season. One of the league's best mid-range shooters, but a poor finisher at the basket.
KEVIN GARNETT, CENTER
15.8 PPG | 8.2 RPG | 2.9 APG
One more reason why KG is so important: Jared Sullinger could be one of the steals of the draft if he can enhance his skills with KG's tutelage.
|Avery Bradley||6-2||180||G||Not a good shooter, but one of the best off-the-ball cutters in the league.|
|Jeff Grreen||6-9||235||F||Critical in the effort to keep Garnett's and Pierce's minutes down.|
|Jason Terry||6-2||180||G||Boston's bench offense has been pretty awful. Terry can help fix that.|
ADDED: G Jason Terry, G Courtney Lee, C Jason Collins, F/C Darko Milicic, F Kris Joseph, C Fab Melo, F Jared Sullinger
LOST: G Ray Allen, G/F Marquis Daniels, C Ryan Hollins, C Greg Stiemsma, C Jermaine O'Neal, F/C JaJuan Johnson, G E'Twaun Moore, G/F Sasha Pavlovic, F/C Sean Williams, G Keyon Dooling
RAJON RONDO, POINT GUARD
If anyone can bring a new collection of players together in Boston, it's three-time All-Star Rondo. The NBA assist leader last season with 11.7 per game, Rondo has the uncanny ability to get everyone involved, which will be vital with so many new faces.
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