Could you find any random NBA big man to average 15.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game over the course of five seasons? Absolutely.
A player of this caliber is really nothing special in the league today. On top of that, one shouldn't have to sacrifice three years and $36 million to a 37-year-old to receive that production. The value of this signing would seem to be off. That is, until you found out that the player is Kevin Garnett and the team is the Boston Celtics.
It was pretty clear entering into the free agency period this summer that Garnett was going to be worth more to the Celtics than any other team. Over the past five seasons, his value has been thrown all out of whack. The value he would have had to a different franchise was fairly marginal to his on-court play. In Boston, however, that value extends far beyond the reaches of the TD Garden hardwood.
Looking back five years ago, the Celtics were coming off a 24-win season. The team had bottomed out after some mediocre Antoine Walker years. Boston had very little in terms of an identity—an odd mixture of inexperienced youth and an increasingly volatile Paul Pierce.
The Ray Allen trade may have kicked this whole thing off, but even that wasn't going to change much. Boston's championship identity wasn't going to be formed by Pierce and Allen. It was going to take more, and more is what the Celtics got when they traded for Minnesota star Kevin Garnett.
More than anything, this was a culture change. Nothing in green would be the same. During the 2006-07 season, prior to Garnett's arrival, Boston finished 18th in the NBA in points allowed. The team surrendered 99.2 points per game.
With Garnett patrolling the paint and barking out orders in 2007-08, the Celtics dropped that average by nearly nine full points. The team finished second by virtue of allowing just 90.3 points per game. Things haven't wavered from that point. Boston finished third, fifth, first and second in each ensuing season in that department. Garnett's intensity won't make him many friends, but it does make a defense.
These stats are not the work of Allen, and Tom Thibodeau moved on prior to the past two seasons of defensive dominance in Boston. This is all the granted result of Garnett's influence on the organization and its defensive philosophy.
The frontcourt teammates have changed on him seemingly every season. Whether it was P.J. Brown, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O'Neal, Greg Stiemsma or Ryan Hollins, Garnett has made them better defensively.
His prowess in the paint has freed up guys like Stiemsma and O'Neal to block shots, or covered up for the defensive liabilities in Davis and Wallace. But his greatest work of art is Perkins, a completely raw 22-year-old whom he helped mold into one of the league's premier defensive big men.
His work in helping along young players has not been solely limited to those with which he shares a position.
Huge amounts of Rajon Rondo's growth can be attributed to the veteran presence of Garnett. If that Minnesota trades never happens, is Rondo the player he is today? I can't see how. So much of what Garnett does on the court has opened up the paint for Rondo's penetration and so many of his assists come on Garnett's patented 18-foot jumper.
With the trusted big man behind him, Rondo has also gambled his way onto four All-NBA Defensive teams. When Garnett is in the game, it gives Rondo the opportunity to jump lanes and rack up steals.
Garnett's value came in a changed franchise. In order to be successful in Boston, you must be both conscious of what is hanging above you at the Garden, and in a way defiant of it. If you ignore these banners and numbers, you will be rejected by a storied fan base.
On the opposite end, if you allow it to reside in your mind, you can be swallowed whole by the expectations. What Garnett exudes is the perfect mix. It is easy to tell that he is respectful of the Celtics past, while also pretty clear to decipher that this doesn't intimidate him.
Prior to his arrival, the leadership on the team rested solely on the shoulders of Pierce. But even for the captain, this was a bit much.
Pierce had so many responsibilities throughout his Celtics tenure, keeping rookies and newcomers in-line fell by the wayside. With Garnett in town, Pierce is able to focus on his on-court leadership. His clutch play and overall offensive responsibilities allow him to lead by example. Garnett is the one policing the inexperienced.
Without Garnett, does Glen Davis take all those charges two years ago? Do Hollins and Stiemsma still have NBA jobs without the work ethics installed in them by Garnett last season? If Jeff Green winds up helping this team win a championship, it will be because Garnett made Perkins into an attractive enough piece for Oklahoma City to part ways with their small forward.
Garnett's no-nonsense work ethic and expectations for his teammates are responsible for countless NBA talents right now. Over the course of his 17 years in the NBA, I can't imagine the number of players games he has affected.
This current incarnation of the Boston Celtics would seem to be built around Rondo. However, even though the roster is heading decidedly in that direction, for another year the heaviest workload will reside on Garnett.
It is almost impossible to place a value on a quality center in the NBA right now. The position is in such high demand that below-average bigs are signing monster deals. Boston's center position is incredibly thin behind Garnett. He is the only center on the roster capable of producing offensively on a consistent basis.
Jason Collins and Fab Melo are on the roster merely as depth pieces. Boston expects little to no production out of either player. More likely, the Celtics will run an undersized second unit with Chris Wilcox.
Garnett poured in 19.2 points per game last postseason, more than he had since the championship run and nearly four more than the regular season. He showed an ability to athletically dominate the slower centers in the Eastern Conference, a part of his game we all thought might be lost forever.
His proficiency from deep-mid range allows Rondo the freedom to do what he does best offensively. It also frees up what Avery Bradley does best offensively. Garnett threw countless back-door passes to Bradley for layups last season. The floor-spacing he provides the Celtics is invaluable to their offensive efficiency.
In addition what he provides the Celtics on the basketball court, Garnett's true value extends to every part of that stadium and beyond. The big-screen howling and knuckle push-ups may seem extraneous to some, but they make up Boston's atmosphere.
Take out all of Garnett's antics and the Garden can be a very subdued place, which is the opposite of what you want. Boston's home court has become a fantastic place to watch a game as a direct result of what Garnett has brought to the city.
Because his face and No. 5 jersey are plastered across Boston now, his value is greater than the man. Garnett isn't so much a player as he is a brand or mind-set. Garnett is an attitude. One that states "whatever it takes to win." The Boston Celtics now have that same attitude for another three years.