Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Garnett’s time in Boston was brief, but his impact endures.
In six seasons with the Celtics, Kevin Garnett was a five-time all-star, a four-time all-defensive stalwart and the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. It also happened that 2008 was his first season in Boston, when Garnett led the C’s to 66 wins and their first championship in 22 years.
During their game against the Clippers on Thursday, the Celtics announced they would retire Garnett’s No. 5. The timing may have a surprise, but the honor itself should not have caught anyone unaware.
There are only two arguments against retiring his jersey, neither of which have much merit. The first is that he only played six seasons, the shortest tenure of any Celtics player to have their jersey retired besides Reggie Lewis, who was honored posthumously following his death at the age of 27.
Had Garnett stayed in Boston instead of accepting a trade to Brooklyn following the 2013 season, he would have had close to a decade in green. That was his choice, and his stated desire at the time. Instead, Garnett helped kickstart Danny Ainge’s rebuilding process when he agreed to the trade that sent him and Paul Pierce to the Nets.
Among many other facets of that deal, it helped land Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in Boston, ensuring the future of the franchise was in good hands. Holding an unselfish act against Garnett runs counter to the entire spirit of his time with the franchise.
Second, Garnett’s Celtics only won one championship during their tenure, a mere blip in the history of a franchise that flies 17 banners next to all those retired jerseys. This contention fails to take into account just how hard it is to win titles in the modern era.
Over the last 50 years, since Bill Russell retired with 11 championships in 13 seasons, the Celtics have won six titles. The 2008 C’s stand with the very best of those modern era teams, surpassed only by the legendary 1986 squad, and Garnett was clearly their best player on a team of future Hall of Famers.
Because it happened so quickly and so decisively, that 2008 team gets taken for granted in the modern pantheon of great teams. More than anyone involved, their rapid development was Garnett’s influence. While he had more dominant seasons in Minnesota, the 2008 campaign was Garnett’s masterpiece.
There are some who would argue Garnett should have been the Most Valuable Player that year, as well, but the DPOY honor — somehow his first — was a more fitting tribute to his impact. It was on the defensive end where Garnett roared the loudest and where the Celtics made their living.
He and defensive assistant Tom Thibodeau were made for one another, two crazy-intense competitors using a ruthless scheme that brought maximum pressure on ballhandlers and dared you to beat their recovery, which was airtight. Playing that kind of defense requires — nay, demands — complete trust and communication.
That was Garnett’s role on the Celtics. Pierce may have been the captain, but Garnett was their vocal and emotional leader. He set the tone for the entire franchise with his manic devotion to practice and team play. Garnett wasn’t just the defensive anchor, he was the offensive fulcrum around whom everyone else revolved.
During his time in Minnesota, Garnett was often criticized for not giving more of himself on offense, but with the C’s his unselfish nature was a godsend. He willingly ceded the offensive burden to Pierce — whose Truth nickname somehow became “Troof,” in Garnett-speak — and set thousands of quasi-legal screens to free Ray Allen on the perimeter.
Garnett was an underrated passer and a deadly jump shooter who simply did not care how many points or shots he got as long as the end result was a victory. In that way, he was the Celtics mystique come to life, a modern-day Russell who embodied everything the franchise claims as part of their DNA.
Had Garnett not injured his knee late in the 2009 season there’s no telling how many more championships they could have won. Just about everyone connected to that team insists the 2009 team was superior to the 2008 champs. Even when he did come back in a somewhat weakened condition, they still made it within a frantic Game 7 of adding a second title in 2010.
But it’s the 2012 team that will always stay with me as proof of Garnett’s greatness in Boston. That was the lockout year and the aging Celtics, Garnett included, were in woeful shape when that season finally got underway. No one gave them much of a chance in the postseason, but something clicked and they somehow came within a game of knocking out LeBron James’ Heat in the conference finals.
Garnett was on a rather strict minutes count by that time, but he made every second matter. I can vividly recall watching him take his seat on the bench not moving a muscle and saving every ounce of energy for his next six-minute shift. He took that team as far as it could go and gave everything he had to the cause.
When Garnett returned to Boston as a member of the Nets, he got into a tussle with Kelly Olynyk. The Garden erupted in lusty chants of “KG! KG! KG!” as he stared down the rookie. For the fans, he was a Celtic forever. Retiring his jersey only makes that point clear to everyone else.
Read more at SB Nation.