Are Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce Officially over the Hill?

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Are Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce Officially over the Hill?
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and questions about whether Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are officially too old to lead another Celtics playoff run.

As sure as winter turns to spring, fans and media alike take to their soapbox right around this time of year and begin to wonder if KG and Pierce have what it takes to circle the wagons one last time.

We heard it after a disappointing regular season in 2010 and then watched the No. 4-seeded Celtics get within six minutes of an NBA title.

We heard it in 2011 and then saw the Celtics start the postseason 5-2 before Rajon Rondo's elbow was dislocated by Dwyane Wade, ending any chance the Cs had against the Heat.

And we heard it in 2012 as well, before a rejuvenated Garnett and a banged-up Pierce pushed Miami to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals

Why would this year be any different?

The question makes sense. After all Garnett is six weeks away from turning 37 and wrapping up his 18th NBA season. Pierce, a young pup compared to KG, is 35 and putting a bow on his 15th year in the Association. The aging stars should be winding down their careers, they should be "over the hill," but they're not. Instead the duo has reinvented themselves, changing the manner in which they play, yet amazingly staying nearly as effective as they were in the prime of their careers.

Pierce is in the midst of an incredible year, averaging 18.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists, while appearing in 72 of the team's 74 games (Pierce did sit out of Monday's loss to Minnesota for
"personal reasons," and the Celtics fell to 0-2 without him this season). Yet, some point to his numbers and say, while still good, he's not the player he used to be.

That's just not true.

Pierce's minutes have dipped a bit from his prime, but on a per-minute basis, he remains fantastic. From 2007-12 (the first five seasons of the big-three era), Pierce averaged 19.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists per 36 minutes of action (per-36 stats are great for comparing players who play different amounts of minutes), shooting 47 percent from the field and 39 percent from three. Elite numbers to be sure. 

This year, at age 35, the Celtics captain has averaged 20 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists per 36 minutes—his best numbers over the past five years. In the absence of Rondo, Pierce has become more of a distributor, averaging a career high in assists, without a decrease in his scoring output.

How is he doing this? Simple: he has reinvented himself.

According to Synergy Sports, Pierce now spends 16 percent of his possessions coming off of screens, compared to just 5.6 percent of his possessions in 2009-10 (the first year Synergy tracks). Pierce has also seen the number of times he cuts to the basket and "isolates" dip over the past few seasons as his athleticism has dwindled. Here's the full breakdown of 2009-10 Pierce vs. 2012-13.

Type of play 2009-10 2012-13
     
Isolation 20.5% 15.1%
Pick & Roll Ball Handler 18.4% 13.3%
Post-Up 7.9% 9.3%
Pick & Roll Roll Man 1.8% 2.9%
Spot-Up 17.1% 17.3%
Off Screen 5.6% 16%
Hand Off 2.4% 4%
Cut 4.8% 2.1%
Offensive Rebound 1.5% 2.1%
Transition 15.7% 13.6%
All Other Plays 4.3% 4%

The difference is visible. Let's take a look at Pierce's 20-point performance in Game 4 of the 2008 Finals against the Lakers. Pay attention to how he gets his points. 

Four times in the first minute of that clip Pierce takes his defender off the dribble and gets into the paint, something that we've seen less and less of this season.

Now let's compare that to "modern-day" Pierce. Here are some highlights from Pierce's 40-point game against Cleveland in December. In this one, take a look at how many screens the crafty Pierce comes off to get open.

Holy screens. Pierce scores 11 points off of screens in all, coming around his teammates and fading behind the three-point line for open looks.

And then there's Garnett. KG is currently injured, dealing with a sore foot that has cost him the last six games (Boston is 4-5 without Garnett this season). Garnett's current injury is certainly reason for concern and a definite drawback of employing aging NBA stars. They will get banged up and they will miss games. But despite his current state, Garnett has been a picture of good health over the past four seasons, averaging fewer than 10 games missed per season. 

He has also been able to, like Pierce, fight back against father time by changing the way he plays. Many people look at KG's numbers and see a player in decline, as he's dipped to 14.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game this season. However, that has more to do with his decrease in minutes played (just 30 per contest) than it does anything else. 

Look at Garnett through the same lens we looked at Pierce, and it's clear he is still performing at an elite level. From 2007-11 KG put up 18.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 52 percent from the field. This season those numbers are 17.8 points, and 9.4 boards while shooting 49 percent. Have the numbers dipped slightly? Sure. But enough to call the "Big Ticket" too old? No chance. 

Taking a look at Garnett's habits on Synergy, he has seen a spike in how often he shoots off the pick-and-roll, while he has seen a decrease in how many buckets he gets in isolation and cuts, two moves that are predicated on a player using their athletic advantage. In other words, KG is relying a lot less on his athleticism in the post, but a lot more on his jumper and his teammates getting him open. Here's a look at the numbers.

Type of play 2009-10 2012-13
     
Isolation 3.4% 2.6%
Pick & Roll Ball Handler 0.1% 0.3%
Post-Up 31.9% 31.2%
Pick & Roll Roll Man 14.9% 21.8%
Spot-Up 18.9% 17.8%
Off Screen 2.2% 2.4%
Hand Off 0.6% 0.2%
Cut 10.8% 8.7%
Offensive Rebound 3.6% 3.6%
Transition 7.7% 4.5%
All Other Plays 6% 7.1%

You can see this when taking a look at some of Garnett's big games. First off, we have Game 6 of the 2008 Finals, the game in which KG dropped 28 points as the Celtics drove a stake into the heart of the Lakers, ending their 22-year championship drought.

The one-on-one move against three Lakers defenders at the 34-second mark is vintage Garnett. Ball fake right, fadeaway jumper left; smooth as silk. Unfortunately, that KG makes very few appearances these days, and instead we're left with the modern Garnett, who is still very good, albeit in a different way. 

In this February game against Toronto, Garnett scored a season-high 27 points, beating the Raptors all over the court, but especially off of pick-and-rolls. 

Watching clips of Pierce and Garnett from 2008 certainly makes you realize what both players are missing from their games. The explosiveness, athleticism and the ability to beat defenders off the dribble have all deteriorated as both players have climbed in age. Yet here they are, on a per-minute basis, as efficient as they have been at any point during this run. 

Much like an aging pitcher who no longer can throw 95 mph, instead forced to win games on pinpoint control, Pierce and Garnett have adapted their games to fit their aging, but still bountiful skill sets.

It's why they're still playing at an All-Star level after all these years, and if Garnett comes back healthy, it's why they're the one team Miami would rather avoid come playoff time.

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