Are the Boston Celtics' NBA Title Hopes Riding on Kevin Garnett's Health?
It's tough to tell whose case is more curious—Benjamin Button's or Kevin Garnett's?
Okay, so maybe an old man who ages backwards makes for better silver screen/fairytale fodder than an NBA veteran who offers fleeting glimpses of his glory days, though the Boston Celtics won't likely be signing Brad Pitt to a 10-day contract—or a three-year deal worth $36 million—any time soon, if ever.
The Celts decided to retain The Big Ticket, who chose this summer between a return to Beantown and a surreptitious slip into retirement, for as many millions as he has years on this Earth under his belt.
And yet, keeping KG around may turn out to be the best and most important move GM Danny Ainge made this offseason.
No offense to adding Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, re-signing Jeff Green or drafting Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, but none of those players, individually or otherwise, figures to have as massive an impact on Boston's NBA title hopes as does Garnett.
Not that any offense should be taken. After all, KG was arguably the biggest reason the C's came so close to winning the Eastern Conference last season. With the rest of the roster (the front court, in particular) depleted by injury, Garnett slid over from power forward to center and subsequently stepped up his game on both ends of the floor.
KG's regular season stats (15.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists) were hardly noteworthy for a guy who's bound to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and may well be one of the three best to ever play his position. But, to Garnett's credit, he did lead the C's in player efficiency rating, per Basketball Reference's tabulations.
Worth greater remarks were KG's efforts in the postseason. He paced the C's in points (19.2) and rebounds (10.3) while chipping in 1.5 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals and anchoring the team's defense.
Keep in mind that Garnett, who'd looked like a shell of his former self in recent years, did all this after grinding his way through 60 out of a possible 66 games during a lockout-compressed regular season. In fact, last season was KG's "healthiest" since he first arrived in Boston in 2007—he'd missed 15 games per year on average in his previous four.
To that end, it'd probably be unreasonable, if not downright foolish, to expect The Big Ticket to shine quite so brightly next spring as he did this last. He'll be 37 in May, and though a return to a more normal schedule should help the Celtics to keep KG better rested, the slog of 82 games figures to exact its own toll on his ever-more-fragile frame.
As such, Boston would be wise to shift the focus of its efforts away from Garnett in favor of Rajon Rondo. At 26, Rondo is just entering his prime and—with three All-Star appearances, two All-NBA selections and an assist title on his resume—has established himself as one of the best point guards in a league that's currently loaded at the position.
In other words, Rondo is younger and closer to the top of his game than is Garnett.
But as great a player as Rondo is, he can't carry the C's back to the top on his own, or even with a similarly-aged Paul Pierce as his primary support. For better or worse, Boston's fate rests rather heavily on the skinny shoulders of Kevin Garnett.
The NBA may be a point guard's league nowadays, but its championship is still (typically) decided by the efforts of big men, or at least those who can and often do dominate down low, on the boards and on defense.
All things that, by some miracle or another, KG can do and still does on occasion, and will have to do if the Celtics are going to make one more run at the title this season.
Which Celtics star is most important to the team's title chase?
To be sure, the "beasts of the East" aren't exactly replete with the requisite size and skill in the middle to match up. Chris Bosh may well start at center for the Miami Heat on opening night (against the C's, no less), the Marmaduke-like Brook Lopez will fill that role for the new-look Brooklyn Nets and Roy Hibbert, for all of his All-Star-ness, isn't exactly an indomitable force in the post, as he made clear with subpar efforts against smaller defenders during the 2012 playoffs.
The West is another story, of course. Should the C's advance to the NBA Finals, they'd likely find themselves up against the Los Angeles Lakers (Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard), the Oklahoma City Thunder (Serge Ibaka), the San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan), the Memphis Grizzlies (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) or the Clippers (Blake Griffin).
All of whom employ at least one big man who'd present a challenge for KG on one end of the floor or another, if not both, and who, in turn, render Garnett's presence that much more important for Boston's prospects of success.
This brings us back to the question of Kevin Garnett's health. Celtics head coach Doc Rivers gave a glowing report of The Big Ticket's physical condition during a recent question-and-answer session at Action For Boston Community Development's Hoop Dreams event, telling Bob Ryan:
“He feels fantastic now. He says this is the best he has felt in years going into a season."
Those words should sound like sweet music to the ears of C's fans everywhere. There's no telling how Garnett will feel seven, eight or nine months from now, but his current fitness is all the Celtics can hope or ask for at this point.
And if KG can keep up the whole reverse-aging thing, then even better.
For Boston's championship aspirations, that is.
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