Resting a relatively old basketball player a few more early-season minutes doesn't necessarily guarantee higher-level performance later in the season when the games "really matter."
But still, there’s some logic to scaling the work load back for guys who probably need it. And with 36-year-old Kevin Garnett and 35-year-old Paul Pierce currently trudging along as two vital components of the Boston Celtics’ hunt for an 18th banner, it might be time to dial their minutes down even further until the playoffs start.
The primary reason for playing two of Boston’s three most important players less minutes is that it marginally lowers the opportunity for one of them to get hurt. Due to the extended recovery time, any injury at this age could linger throughout the spring.
Garnett is averaging 28.8 minutes per game, which is his lowest since 1996, his rookie season. And Pierce is playing 33.8 minutes per game, the fewest of his career.
Here are a few numbers to show why neither needs to see any increase in minutes played, and in some cases, why they might already be playing too much as it is.
Kevin Garnett has 38 points in the last five minutes of games when the Celtics are either ahead or trailing by five or fewer points. Only Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and George Hill have scored more. That's an amazing statistic for a 17-year veteran whose substitution pattern takes him in and out of games more often than any regular contributor in the league.
Despite his overwhelming on/off court significance to Boston’s overall success, it would appear Garnett’s minutes per game (three fewer than last year) is more than appropriate in fostering long-term prosperity.
For a player who peeked in an unforgettable MVP campaign nine years ago at the age of 27, Garnett is still going strong, and the Celtics are allowing it with his minute allocation. Anything more is unnecessary and could hinder his durability.
Right now Garnett is shooting 54.6 percent from the floor—a career best—and getting to the line more often than he did at the age of 23. But in the fourth quarter, his shooting falls to 46.1 percent, as does his defense just a little bit. (In the fourth quarter, Garnett is averaging 3.8 fouls per 36 minutes compared to 1.6 in the first and 1.8 in the third.)
Here are two shot charts that show Garnett's shot production in the first and fourth quarters of games this season. As you can see, tired legs are making him misfire on those wide-open jumpers.
We looked at this stat for Garnett, now let's look at it here: Paul Pierce has 25 points in the last five minutes of games when the Celtics are either ahead or trailing by five or fewer points (only three more than Andrea Bargnani). Adding insult to injury, take a look at his shooting chart in this situation (also known as “clutch”):
He’s only shooting 38.7 percent from the floor and 29.2 percent (on a ridiculous six attempts per 36 minutes) from behind the arc in the fourth quarter. Pierce isn't getting to the basket when it matters, and the inaccurate jumper could be the result of aching legs.
His minutes are down from last season, but he remains a major part of the team’s offensive and defensive game plan (he’s second only to Rondo’s 37.3 minutes per game on the team). The Celtics average approximately 11 more points per 100 possessions when Pierce is on the court, and while it's tempting to throw him back out there when things get rough, this is the time of the year to let other guys on the team figure themselves out.
In games where Pierce has logged more than 35 minutes this season, he’s shooting 57-of-142 from the floor, which is 40.1 percent, a tick below his total season average of 41.5 percent (his lowest since the 2003-04 season).
What Should Happen Moving Forward?
The Celtics are 11-9 and currently sitting as the Atlantic Division's second-worst team. Lowering the minutes of two players who're playing at a borderline All-Star level may not be the most obvious decision in the world, but it could be necessary if the Celtics are to achieve their ultimate goal: winning a championship.
Technically, both Garnett and Pierce have had their minutes rolled back a little bit this season, but it's not enough. A big reason why is their blatant importance, and another reason is their backups simply aren't up to the task yet of holding leads or stopping deficits from increasing. As guys like Jared Sullinger and Jeff Green continue to prove that they understand the team's complex defensive rotations, those minutes should go down for Garnett and Pierce.
Minute allotments will jump from game to game (especially for Pierce), but as long as these Celtics get into the playoffs with Pierce and Garnett completely healthy and ready to go, the negative result of them having a lack of reps won't compare to the positive result of them having healthy, strong bodies to let loose in the fourth quarter of a close playoff game.
Sometimes less is more. This is one of those times.