by Evan Mazursky
Count me among the many Celtics fans who thought Kevin Garnett was washed up entering the 2011-12 season. The lanky seven-footer will turn 36 in May, has not played more than 71 games in any of his five seasons since arriving in Boston via Minnesota, and labored through the past two years on two broken-down knees. He never lost his trademark intensity and fiery personality, but it appeared that the effects of over 1200 games, every minute played at 110%, had caught up to him. It was painful to watch the man who used to blow by slower defenders and snatch shots out of mid-air now struggle to finish a fast break over players six inches shorter than him. Garnett’s stats didn’t decline drastically; he still averaged a respectable 15 points and 9 rebounds per game in 2010-11. But he wasn’t the same KG. After undergoing knee surgery in 2009 he was never really the same, and heading into this season there were more than a few rumblings that Danny Ainge should pull the proverbial plug on Kevin Garnett.
I can’t speak for other Celtics fans, but the notion of dealing Garnett, although it seemed like the logical move, was not easy for me to bear. It sounds cliché, but the man is the heart and soul of the Celtics. When he arrived in 2007, he brought with him a reputation for playing with extreme intensity at all times, sometimes to the detriment of his team. Players in Minnesota who couldn’t match his passion and determination, players like Stephon Marbury and Michael Olowokandi, simply wilted under the pressure of living up to his expectations. I had always been a fan of Garnett’s, but while he was in Minnesota I was unaware of how greatly he truly impacts a team. From the day he met his new teammates in Boston, he completely changed the culture of the team. He set the example in the locker room and in the practice gym, always pushing himself as far as he could even with 10 All-Star games on his resume at that point. During games, it was impossible to take your eyes off KG. When his man had the ball, Garnett played suffocating defense, almost always forcing a pass or a contested shot. He constantly barked instructions and encouragement to his teammates. When Rajon Rondo would hit the floor after one of his drives to the basket, Garnett would sprint over to help him up. Eventually, the rest of the team followed suit, and four teammates would rush over to help a fallen Celtic. Garnett revived the lifeless Celtics, coming off of a brutal, uninspired 24-58 season. He rejuvenated Paul Pierce’s career and jump-started the careers of Rondo and Kendrick Perkins (pour one out for Perk, we miss the big fella.) With the acquisitions of Garnett, Ray Allen, and underrated pickups like James Posey and P.J. Brown, the Celtics brought the NBA championship back to Boston for the first time since 1986.
So that is why it was difficult for me to entertain the idea of Kevin Garnett leaving Boston. Still, I assumed that it was the right move for a Celtics team that was past its collective prime and needed to rebuild. Then the 2011-12 season began, after the lockout was resolved, and Garnett looked like he had visited the fountain of youth. Even as his veteran teammates like Pierce and Allen showed up out of shape and rusty from the extended off-season, Garnett didn’t miss a beat. He has looked as explosive as he was in the championship season five years ago. While the Celtics have been up-and-down throughout the shortened season, KG has been a steady force in the frontcourt. His mid-range jump shot has been reliable and he has been taking the ball to the rim with more strength than in years past. At the defensive end, he has been his usual self, not a tremendous shot blocker but an intimidating menace.
Kevin Garnett will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. The issue has surely been mulled over for countless hours by the Celtics’ front office: should they make an effort to bring him back? Given Garnett’s recent injury problems and the fact that he is nearing game 1300 of his career, I can understand the argument for not signing him to a new contract, especially if he asks for a figure close to his current $21 million deal. The fact that Chris Kaman and Kris Humphries are the only other quality big men available this summer also increases Garnett’s value on the open market. However, I would like to believe that Garnett would take less money to stay in Boston. If that is indeed the case, I would love to retain Garnett at a discount for one or two more years while building around Rondo, Avery Bradley, JaJuan Johnson, and two first-round picks in the upcoming draft (Austin Rivers? Royce White?) If Danny Ainge feels that Garnett is demanding more than he is worth, I will trust the general manager (swapping Glen Davis for Brandon Bass was downright genius and partially earned back my respect after the horrific Kendrick Perkins trade) and tip my cap to Kevin Garnett. I really hope it doesn’t turn out that way and KG can retire a Celtic.