Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are unquestionably the two best players on the Boston Celtics now that Rajon Rondo is unavailable. Both are consistent, smart, battle-tested and in complete control of both their own strengths and weaknesses.
Despite their advanced age, both play at an All-Star level night after night and are in the conversation as best players at their respective positions.
Before weighing Garnett's value against Pierce's, it should be said that if the Celtics lost either to injury, they'd almost certainly turn into first-round fodder. Here's a look at which player is more treasured by Boston, albeit with the slightest margin possible.
Without drowning in a deep pool of digits and decimal points, the easiest way to measure an NBA player's contextual importance is done by taking a look at how their team does on a per possession basis with them on and off the court.
Unsurprisingly, the numbers indicate both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are vital to the Celtics success. Shocker.
This season, Boston's offense averages 97.3 points per 100 possessions with Pierce on the bench and 102.0 with him on the floor, according to NBA.com/Stats. Defensively, Pierce's on/off numbers are basically negligible, with the Celtics allowing about one fewer point per 100 possessions with him on the court as opposed to off.
Pierce's impact on the offense is obviously large. Whether dribbling the ball or curling around a pin-down screen, he draws a sizable amount of the opposing team's attention on just about every possession, and the result is an ability to set up teammates repeatedly in half-court sets when things have fallen stale.
Against the Miami Heat on Monday night, he was the primary distributor on a majority of Jeff Green's open jumpers, and it was Pierce who threw a cross-court dart to Avery Bradley for a crucial corner three to give Boston a two-point lead late in the game.
Conversely, Garnett's impact is rightfully attributed to the defensive end. When he's on the court, the Celtics are basically impossible to score on; they allow 6.8 more points per 100 possessions when he's off the court than when he's on. That's basically the difference between a below average defense and being ranked second best in the league.
On his own, Garnett is one of the most disruptive pick-and-roll defenders in NBA history—even if his speed and quickness aren't what they were five years ago, he's still one of the best in the league at hedging, sagging, corralling ball-handlers and switching back to a rolling big.
He's also Boston's best rebounder and as crucial as anyone on the roster at fortifying their trend setting strong-side zone scheme. Garnett leads the team in rebounds per game, blocks per game and is second in points per game, according to basketball-reference.com.
On offense his elite ability to knock down mid-range jumpers opens up the floor for everybody else, especially out of pick-and-pop situations with the likes of Jason Terry, Avery Bradley and Pierce. And his passing ability from the high post remains a lethal weapon opposing defenses constantly struggle with.
Going to Garnett in the post isn't as common as it once was, but he's still more than a handful with his back to the basket. The high release on his turnaround jumper makes it one of the most difficult shots to block in basketball history, and this season more than ever he's utilized nifty tricks—such as a fundamentally sound up-and-under—in the low post.
Here's Garnett's heat map, courtesy of basketball-reference.com.
When Rondo went down with an injury, it was widely thought that Pierce would step up and dominate Boston's offense. According to the numbers, this hasn't happened, as the Celtics have become more of a transition-based offense that looks for the open shot no matter who's taking it.
According to NBA.com/Stats, Pierce's usage percentage since the All-Star break is actually 1.1 percent lower than what it was before. He's still an important part of Boston's ball movement and half-court offense (especially his pick-and-roll with Terry), but Doc Rivers hasn't nearly relied on him as much as some figured he would.
On the other hand, Garnett's work on the defensive end can't be replaced. He's in line to make the 13th All-Defensive team of his Hall of Fame career. Opponents score 89.4 points per 48 minutes with him on the court, and 99.0 when he takes a seat.
Picking either Garnett or Pierce as the more critical piece in Boston's playoff run would be like asking someone if they'd rather go without food or water for the next six months. But for the past few years, Garnett's humongous influence on the defensive end has been Boston's most invaluable commodity. Until he retires, that isn't likely to change.
He's the one they desperately need.
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