I had started this analysis last week, but I didn't finish it and after KG started showing signs of life last weekend and the level of hope around here picked up (Plus Greg wrote a nice article that had some similarities) I didn't plan to. But in the wake of a lot of bleakness and low feelings around these parts I decided to finish crunching the numbers and see if there is any realistic data to support that this team could still be what they were: serious title contenders. (Disclaimer time: this article is about Kevin Garnett. It isn't meant to re-start the "who is the most important Celtic?" arguments that often spring up, and I have no issue if someone would like to do a similar analysis on Pierce or anyone else. That said, let's move on).
In 2007-08 the Celtics won a title in large part because of the contributions of Kevin Garnett. In 2008-09 they lost in the second round in large part because of Garnett's absence. Thus far in 2009-10 Garnett has never been as good as he was in '08 but he has had some distinct ups and downs in the season. The other Celtics are for the most part a bit better now than they were in '08 when healthy, so the biggest question about our chances for #18 deals with just how much we can expect from Garnett in the 2010 playoffs. Here is one man's breakdown of the different phases of Garnett that we've seen this year:
*Injured. I started here because it's the worst case scenario, and it lets us see what this team looks like without Garnett. In the 11 games that Garnett didn't play the Celtics gave up 98.9 points/game to their opponents and scored only 98.3 points/game themselves for a negative scoring margin of -0.6 points. According to 82games.com when KG is off the floor the Celtics scored 109.2 points/100 possessions on 51.7% EFG but allow opponents to score 106.6 points/100 possessions on 49.3% EFG. Short version: without KG the offense is reasonable but the defense blows, and the team itself is average at best.
*Hobbling into recovery: For about the first 15 games of the season and the 15 games since KG returned from injury in January, we have seen what hobbling KG looks like and how the team looks with him. Hobbling KG still plays his 30 or so minutes a game, but in general he is only in scoring/impact mode for about half of that time. Most often it is the first quarter where he shines, scoring the majority of his points and making most of his box score contributions during that quarter. It isn't uncommmon to see hobbling KG have 7 points, 3 boards and 2 assists in the 1st quarter then end the game with 13/6/3.
In game action Hobbling KG is characterized by slow leaping, lack of height on leap, missed alley-oops to the point that people call for them to stop, and slow lateral movements. He goes through phases where he can score at high efficiency but low volume, mainly on open jumpers or finishes at the rim, but also goes through phases where his jumper is off and he can throw up a 4-for-15 performance. On defense his rotations are still good and he still orchestrates the unit, but his lack of quickness prevents him from being able to both hold down his own man and erase mistakes for the unit the way that he used to and it also prevents him from vacuuming the boards.
With Hobbling KG the Celtics have won about 2/3 of their games this season and the team numbers look a lot like the overall season stats (+4.7 scoring margin, vs +4.4 for the season overall). They still have one of the best defenses in the league with Hobbling KG, but they are unable to shut down the elite offenses like they once could. With Hobbling KG the playoff outlook probably doesn't look much brighter than last season, though you still never know what could happen once you get to the big dance.
*Ramping Up: About 15 games into the season, starting around the end of November and running until late December, something happened with KG. All of a sudden he started converting the alley-oops, even in traffic. He was still playing about 30 minutes a game, but suddenly he was playing at impact level for most if not all of his time on the court. It wasn't unusual to see him scoring more than 20 ppg even in the limited minutes (5 of his 6 20+ point performances this season came during this stretch). Everyone remembers his hot scoring touch that earned him Eastern Conference player of the week, but it went beyond that and was very visible in the way that he played.
On offense he was still knocking down the open jumper but at a higher rate, he was still finishing in the paint but at a higher rate, and most importantly he also started adding some offensive moves into the mix. When he got the ball in the post he wasn't just looking for the cutter or kicking it back out, he started working on the footwork and the off-the-dribble turnaround jumpers again. And on defense, while he still lacked the ultra lateral quickness and quick-jumping that he displayed pre-injury, he was noticably more athletic and disruptive both on the perimeter and at the rim.
With ramping up KG the team won 13 of 14 games (14 of 15 overall) with an average scoring margin of +9.8 and were the closest that we've seen to the pre-February-09 Celtics. Their competition wasn't killer, but it was solid and the majority of those games were on the road. More importantly, this was the only time this season that the Cs looked like the championship contender that they have been and that we hope that they will be again by the time to playoffs role around.
Conclusions. So the question becomes...how likely is it that Ramping up KG will make another appearance this year? And if he does, how long will it last? And, dare we hope, is there still a "Peaking KG" gear that we haven't seen yet?
For the first, I'd say there is a very reasonable chance that we see Ramping up KG again before the year ends because we've already started seeing signs of him in the last several games. His leg brace has shrunk from ankle-to-thigh to primarily shin. He's started visibly moving better on the court, though he still isn't where he was nor is it completely consistent. He's converted a few alley-oops and tip-dunks in the last few games, another positive sign. His shot was off last night against the Cavs, but he at least initiated a couple of offensive moves even if they didn't work...something he wasn't even really attempting much in recent weeks. And this point, about 15 games in, is where he started ramping up in the fall so the symmetry suggests that maybe about a month is what he needs to get up to game speed/past the worst of the aches and pains after an injury layoff.
The second question is actually the most concerning to me, because in the fall Ramping up KG only lasted about a month before he went down again. If he repeats that exactly, he'd be in need of another tune-up right around the time the season would be ending and we'd be getting either Injured or Hobbled KG in time for the playoffs. Which would suck majorly. I have to hope, and hope is a 4-letter word around here right now, that Doc being such a stickler on minutes (he's down to less than 29 min in Feb) will extend his recovery time a bit but ultimately lead to a longer, healthier plateau.
Whether there is still a "Peaking KG" gear that might show up in the playoffs...at this point that is nothing more than green-tinted speculation, but if the knee doesn't set back I do think we'll see it. If for no other reason than that he'd likely get more minutes per game and more rest between games in the playoffs, I expect that he'd be able to get into a rhythm and produce at a higher level. But as I said, that's really pie in the sky right now since I think with Ramping-up KG and health to the rest of the cast that would be enough for the Celtics to seriously contend.
Bottom line: The Celtics still have #18 in them this season. We need Pierce and KG to get over their injuries and play to their level, but the key is that we aren't asking them to flash back years nor are we just blowing smoke based on what they used to be. This current team, with everyone playing at a reasonable level of health, has played championship-caliber ball. Thus, our season-record or our win-loss against individual teams is less relevant to me than what is going on on THIS team. Greatness is still here, people. Keep hope alive.