Given his impact on the Boston Celtics’ overall culture—increasing the stakes and self-expectations while offering top-level basketball expertise to a different group of guys each and every year—it’s so difficult to quantify exactly how important Kevin Garnett is to a team.
On both sides of the court, he takes every single possession and wrestles it into submission, exerting a borderline unhealthy amount of energy on plays that the typical professional basketball player would be perfectly content taking off.
But high intensity, influence, and tutelage (even at the highest level we’ve ever seen) from a 36-year-old veteran only goes so far. The NBA is a bottom line business; if you aren’t playing well, then what good is all the other stuff?
Somehow, someway, Garnett has managed to hold off Father Time another year, and his affirmative impact on the Celtics has been crucial to the point of hilarity. Is he declining? From what we've seen so far this season, the answer is "not even close." In fact, he's playing so well on both ends of the court that it's difficult not to say he's one of the most valuable players in the entire league.
In the 615 minutes Garnett has played this season, the Celtics are scoring 102 points per 100 possessions and allowing 93.2 points per 100 possessions, making them 8.8 points per 100 possessions better than their opposition.
In the 418 minutes Garnett has sat, the Celtics are scoring 101.1 points per 100 possessions and allowing 111.1 points per 100 possessions, making them 10 points per 100 possessions worse than their opposition.
That’s an insane 18.8 point average. To give this figure some context, Chris Paul’s overall net difference is 5.7 points per 100 possessions, Kevin Durant’s is 20.1 points per 100 possessions and LeBron James’ is 1.3 points per 100 possessions.
All these numbers aren’t a coincidence. Look at this clip of Garnett preventing an entry pass into his man. He pokes and prods, denying the ball with textbook position until a turnover is forced.
On top of man-to-man domination, Garnett's help defense remains sublime. When opposing players see him on the court, hovering in the paint, they hesitate on drives and with basic decisions. He continues to blitz pick-and-rolls as well as any big man in basketball, and his strong-side back-line help is second to none.
When Garnett is on the court, opponents are shooting 42.7 percent. When he’s off it, that number jumps to 47.8 percent. That just about sums things up.
Garnett’s stout defense has been typically terrific, but where he’s been most impressive this year is with the ball in his hands.
Right now he’s shooting 54.2 percent from the floor, a career best. His usage percentage is higher now than it was in six of his previous seasons, including when he was 21 and 32 years old. He’s averaging five points per fourth quarter, which is more than Rudy Gay, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard and Zach Randolph.
Garnett is also averaging 4.5 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes, which is 0.1 below his career average. And in the post he's making 50 percent of his shots with nearly 35 percent of his offensive production coming from those situations, per Synergy.
Post play and free throws are easy points for both Garnett and the Celtics; expect both scoring avenues to remain steady given the minute limitations that allow his legs to stay fresh later in games (Garnett is averaging 29.3 minutes per game, the lowest of his career since his rookie season.)
Garnett isn’t looking young in all areas of the game (he’s grabbing only 7.1 rebounds per game, again the lowest since his rookie year), but his overall impact within the flow of a basketball game remains incredibly positive. Take this simple pin-down screen as an example.
It does not show up in the stat sheet, but Pierce's two points do. It's the overlooked sequences like this one that make Garnett a case study in productive durability. And this season there are more signs that he'll continue to play well than signs that a decline is imminent. He's one of the most important players in the league, and right now he's playing like it.