By Brian Weingartner
Kevin Garnett is the most valuable player on the Celtics. Period. I know a lot of people say that Rajon Rondo the best player on the team, and don’t disagree with that, but he’s not the most valuable player. This Celtics team has always been built on their defense, and Garnett is the anchor of that defense. Last season, while KG might have lost a step and certainly struggled at times during the regular season, Garnett really stepped up his defensive game during the playoffs. It no coincidence that once Garnett started playing his best defense of the year, that the Celtics as a whole started playing their best team defense of the year. Garnett might not be the complete destructive force he once was, but without him the Celtics have little chance to legitimately challenge for the NBA Title. Even though The Big Ticket is obviously on the down side of his Hall of Fame career, he was still tied for 5th for Defensive Rating and was tied for 10th in Defensive Win Shares amongst centers and power forwards for the regular season. Once the playoffs started, KG lowered his Defensive Rating from 101 to 99. That 99 defensive rating was only bested by Dwight Howard during the playoffs. That’s a pretty impressive feat all things considered.
Now, I touched on this a little bit in my previous post, but the presence of Garnett has been near imposable to appreciate in terms of what he has meant to the rest of the Celtics defense. Looking at all of the players on the 2007-2008 Celtics team, the only player that had ever put up some great defensive seasons before playing with Garnett was Paul Pierce. We all know that Ray Allen was never know as a quality defender before his time with the Celtics and Perkins and Rondo had not yet brought their games to the next level. Maybe this all seems a little misleading. After all it’s possible that maybe it Rondo and Perkins were still both too young and while they had shown potential, they just needed some more time. That might be true, but so is that once Garnett was on the court with all of them, Pierce, Allen, Rondo, Perkins, and even Posey all had the best defensive seasons of their careers. Not just that, but Pierce, Allen and Posey had the best playoffs of their careers as well. No small feat considering that both Pierce and Allen had made Conference Finals in the past, and Posey already had a championship ring.
While I had a hard time finding the impact of a great wing or guard defender drastically helping out a team’s overall defense, examples of post defenders improving a teams overall defense are fairly plentiful. I’ve already mentioned the impact Shaq had with the 2006 Heat, especially during their playoff run. Another great example is Ben Wallace and the Detroit Pistons. During Wallace’s peak he was as dominate of a post defender that we have seen in the league. During the times when Ben was patrolling the paint we got to thinking that Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups were also all great defenders as well. The thing is, that once Wallace signed with the Chicago Bulls, Prince, Hamilton and Billups all struggled to have the same defensive impact they had when they played with Ben. On the other side, Ben Wallace’s first season with the Bulls saw the Bulls become the best defensive team in the league. After that first season Ben seemed to burn out and he got old real fast, but you get the point. If you need an even more current example just look at how players measure defensively before and after they play on the same team as Dwight Howard. Just a few examples; Rashard Lewis became a much more efficient defender once he joined the Magic and at 33 years old, Vince Carter turned in his best defensive season since he was 29 years old. I know that’s not saying much since it’s Vince, but still it’s pretty easy to see that big men make a difference, and one that’s easy to notice.
Simply the best big guys help everyone get better on defense. Poor defenders become mediocre defenders, mediocre defenders become good defenders, good defenders become great defenders, and last, great defenders can become elite defenders. The post defenders can clean up mistakes by their teammates. They can get into the opposition’s head, they can alter shots, and even prevent players from even taking shots.
Back to the Celtics. There is no doubt KG has been that guy for the Celtics in the past, the question is how long can Kevin Garnett be that guy for the Celtics going forward? I know there is a lot of hope around KG right now. Many feel that with a full year’s worth of recovery time after knee surgery that he will be back to being one of the elite players in the league. Still, KG has a lot going against him at this point in his career. First is his age. Garnett is 34 years old and will be turning 35 right around playoff time. That’s an advanced age for any player, but especially for a player that came strait out of high school and logged a bunch of NBA miles onto their legs. It should not be at all unexpected to see Garnett slip farther into decline even if his knees remain healthy all season. I think Danny Ainge recognized that and it’s a big reason why he was so aggressive in picking up both Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal. While both O’Neals are past their collective prime, they can both log meaningful minutes on both ends of the court. Keeping Garnett healthy and rested for another playoff run is the key to another run at the Finals.
Another key to the Celtics making another deep playoff push will be the return of Kendrick Perkins. Under Garnett’s tutelage, Kendrick has become one of the toughest post defenders in the league, and might be able to take the next step at become the Celtics main low post defender. If nothing else, the combination of Garnett and Perkins when both are healthy is one of the toughest defensive frontlines in the NBA. With Perkins sidelined for most of the first half of the season recovering from his own knee issues it is going to be important for the Celtics to be able to bring Perk back into the fold at the right pace. Again, the additions of the O’Neals should be able to help with this. Also, lost in some of the attention that the two O’Neals have received from signing with the Celtics, is that Glen Davies is also becoming a solid defensive presence near the basket. Davis’ regular season was not one of his best, but like the rest of the team, once the playoffs came around Davis put together some of his best defensive performances of his career. It will be interesting to see if Davis can harness that kind of defense energy over the course of a whole season.
To start the upcoming season, the Celtics will have a rotation of Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal manning the center position. First looking at Shaqachusetts, he’s problems with pick and roll defense at the point have been widely documented. Shaq no longer has the quickness needed to be effective defending the play, but down on the blocks is a different story. Last season with the Cavaliers, Shaq put up a good defensive rating of 102 and a 3.9 block percentage. While Shaq might not be able to put up elite numbers over the regular season, it’s clear that against the bigger centers in the league that Shaq could still be quite useful. I also think that in the playoffs could still become a key defender given he is motivated. Looking at Jermaine O’Neal, Jermaine put up similar advanced statistics as Shaq with a 103 defensive rating and a 3.9 block percentage, but got there in a somewhat different fashion. We know at this point Jermaine is quicker and at this point more athletic, and can be effective for longer stretches. Still this highlights what might be the Celtics greatest advantage defensively.
The Celtics at this point have a lot of versatility and flexibility with their big men. If they need big bodies they have Shaq, Davis, and eventually, Perkins. If teams decide to exploited Shaq’s weak pick and roll defense, the Celtics can bring in Jermaine O’Neal. Then there is Garnett who has been able to play great defense under almost any circumstances. The injuries and keeping the roster full of aging players well rested as the season goes is going to be the biggest concern for this group, but at least when Doc Rivers looks at his bench he should have options. All told, if the Celtics can keep their big men healthy and relatively fresh for the playoffs they will once again boast the best defensive frontcourt in the Eastern Conference and have another great shot at banner #18.
In the next, and final, installment of the series I’ll be looking at a few of the other teams in the NBA that might be making a run at the NBA title thanks to strong post defense.