Last year, the Celtics started the season with Jermaine O’Neal at center. Anytime you have Jermaine O’Neal starting, it’s not going to end well and the team is going to have to expect that he’ll get injured.
That’s exactly what happened, and it turned out to be a blessing is disguise. What happened next would change the Celtics’ fortunes for the season and for the future.
That change is Kevin Garnett.
Garnett was moved to the center position after O’Neal went down with a wrist injury, and the result was the team was faster. Garnett posted numbers that he hadn’t put up since his first season with the Celtics back in the championship season of 2007-2008. He was rebounding better and scoring at will against almost every opponent. His post moves and shooting ability was deadly. In other words, he found the fountain of youth.
Last season, when he was starting at the four position, he looked old. His numbers were down. He was averaging just 14.3 PPG and 7.5 rebounds a night. When he moved to center, his numbers spiked. His numbers ballooned up to 16.8 PPG and 8.7 RPG. It was great seeing the old KG.
The playoffs was where he really shined. It was like the clock turned back about eight years. Garnett was dropping in double-doubles almost every night. When the Celtics playoff run was ended by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, Garnett was averaging 19.2 PPG and pulling down 10.3 RPG. Those were numbers that we haven’t seen the 36-year-old Garnett average since he was a 27-year-old.
So what’s the reason for Garnett turning into a “younger player” all of a sudden.
Simple, he’s that good and the center position is a position that’s weak and is fading out of the NBA.
Once upon a time the center was key in putting a team together. Almost every team had someone who could at least dominate the paint with rebounding and defense. The last true center in the game was Shaquille O’Neal and he retired after playing with the Celtics during the 2010-2011 season.
The NBA is all about athleticism now. Teams can outrun and outgun anyone with athleticism. Centers on the other hand are normally known for being slow and one-dimensional. In fact, finding a true center who can produce night in and night out is all but extinct if you exclude Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum.
Garnett is part of the new breed of centers in the NBA. He’s tall, athletic, plays defense, can rebound, score and block shots. He does everything well. The downside of him being at center, is he gets abused by some of the top big men in the game and that takes a toll on his body. KG isn’t muscular, so going against a big center is a challenge. It’s a well-known fact that Garnett can’t handle Bynum or Howard. Who can right?
If Garnett puts up numbers like he did in the playoffs and plays his typical stellar defense, the rest of the league is going to have issues with the Celtics. With Howard out west in Laker land, all Garnett has to deal with is Bynum a few times a year. That isn’t bad and he should dominate the competition night in and night out.
To help Garnett get rest and to preserve his body, the Celtics resigned Chris Wilcox, who should be fully recovered from heart surgery last season, and Darko Milicic, the enigmatic 2nd overall pick of the famed 2003 NBA Draft who was a dud. The team also signed defensive-minded and post-up specialist Jason Collins, who gave Garnett a tough time in the playoffs last year when he played with the Atlanta Hawks.
Barring any injury, this position is DEEP. Doc Rivers like the versatility with the personnel he has.
Before Wilcox underwent surprising heart surgery last season, he became a favorite target of Rajon Rondo during fast breaks. He can also rebound, play defense and also fill in at the forward position when needed.
Milicic is a wild card. He’ll never live up to being the 2nd pick of the LeBron James draft.
What he has to do is accept his role as a key bench player and so far he seems to be doing that. During the preseason, he was one of the team’s best players at setting pick-and-rolls. His passing was excellent for a big man too, and he was able to show off his rebounding prowess and shot blocking ability as well.
I’m not anointing him as the next great center, but for this team, in the role he’s in, he could excel. His six fouls and willingness to use his body to draw fouls is a major plus. Milicic should fill in well with this veteran team. Look for him to get some good playing time this season.
Jason Collins is a veteran who can hold his own against Bynum and Howard. His seven foot frame and large body will keep guys from getting into the paint consistently. That will be his role. Collins was a bust coming out of college at Stanford in 2001. He never fulfilled his potential, and has played very little over the last five years. That shouldn’t change with the Celtics. He’ll play when guys get into foul trouble and against the top centers, so Garnett won’t get his body abused. Collins is an excellent option to use when the Celtics want to use up six fouls on a player.
Overall, this position is deep and versatile. Everyone knows what Garnett can do, but the question is can the other guys perform consistently every night? Can they rebound, play defense and draw fouls? Can they all accept their role? The Celtics are probably the only team in the league with four legitimate guys who can play center. I believe they can, and if they perform up to standard, then this position will be a position of strength.
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