When Kevin Garnett's new deal was announced, I was in the minority that thought that Ainge had offered him too much. It's not often that you see 36-year-olds getting 3-year contracts. I love KG and despite how great he was in the playoffs last summer, I felt like the team needed to get younger and tying up $34 million wasn't helping. It didn't seem like that much of a hometown discount, but as Danny fleshed out the rest of the team and fit this talented roster under the salary cap, I saw the bigger picture.
He stocked up on seasoned guards like Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, re-signed Jeff Green and Brandon Bass, and brought in a collection of big men, young (Jared Sullinger, Fab Melo, and Darko Milicic) and old (Jason Collins and Chris Wilcox). I started to make sense of Danny's blueprint. The league has started to trend towards wing play, so he found guards with championship experience and pedigree, guys he wouldn't have to worry about necessarily. However, in the front court, he took some chances. Sure, he hedged his bet with two veterans at the minimum, but he also made some calculated gambles.
See, I have a hunch that that when Danny picked Sullinger and Melo back in the June draft, he was confident that KG was coming back. Garnett was his ace in the hole. With him on board, Danny could afford to take on two rookie big men because he'd have Big Ticket to show them the ropes. And then there's the curious signing of Darko Milicic last week. Darko's 27 and not exactly a kid anymore, but he's still considered an underachiever and if there's anybody that can bring out the best out of a bust, it's Kevin Garnett.
Outside of KG, I don't know if there's another big man in the game that nurtures the development of his teammates like he does. In the off-season, you'll hear about players spending time with Hakeem Olajuwon or Kareem Abdul Jabbar and working on their post moves, but Garnett does it in real time. If you're one of his teammates and willing to listen, he'll take you under his 7'6 wingspan and teach you the game. He's relentless in practice and if you see playing time, he'll be your biggest cheerleader on the bench.
Two years ago, Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald recollected a story about Garnett and Patrick O'Bryant. O'Bryant was one of Danny's big man reclamation projects; he was the 9th overall pick out of Bradley but never caught on in Golden State's up-tempo style. Desperate for a second chance in the league, the hope was that the 22-year-old would soak up Garnett's wisdom just like Perkins had done the year before and serve as the back up center. That didn't happen.
"He helps the ones he likes," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Kevin's great, and I won't use names, but Kevin tries to help every big that comes in here. If that big doesn't listen to him one time, then he'll never listen to him again. Literally. And that has happened a couple of times, and it's been good for that guy. Now those two guys he did that to are no longer here, and that may be one of the reasons."
According to Murphy, after O'Bryant shunned KG's advice, Garnett spent the rest of the practice dunking on him and yelling, "Do you feel me?!" I'm not sure that's a tactic that Mr. Miyagi or Micky Goldmill would take, but that's the Garnett's Way and that's quickly becoming the Celtics Way. We've already started seeing it this season with Jason Terry mentoring Dionte Christmas and Rondo scheduling workouts in LA so that the young guys could get a feel for Pierce and Garnett. Those may have been Terry and Rondo's ideas, but they're born out of a culture that Garnett has cultivated here over the last five years.
With all apologies to Mass General, the practice facility at Waltham has been one of the best teaching hospitals in the New England area since Garnett's arrival in 2007. KG has served on the staff for the last five years as both its best surgeon and dean. Two of his star pupils, Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis, have moved on to successful careers in other cities and handful of unheralded interns that didn't get to spend a lot of time in Boston (second round draft picks Luke Harangody and Semih Erden and undrafted Greg Stiemsma) are using the tools he gave them to defy the odds and make it in the NBA.
Garnett now enters his sixth year as the heart and soul of the team, the middle linebacker of the defense, and the best player/coach in the league. With Melo, he'll have to find a way to make this kid mean. Melo won Funniest Rookie at the NBA's Rookie Transition program but he won't find anything funny when it comes down to working with KG. Melo's demeanor reminds me a lot of Dikembe Mutombo, but even Mt. Mutombo had a mean streak. He carried himself with swagger and wiggled that finger whenever he blocked your shot. Kendrick Perkins was just a modest kid from Beaumont, TX but after only a year enrolled in KG's charm school, Perk transformed himself into one of the best defensive big men in the game.
Milicic is more Garnett than people think. He already has that prickly attitude, but it will be Garnett's job to channel it to what the team needs. From what I've been reading about Darko, the biggest problem was always expectation. Management saddled him with a big contract, coaches demanded he perform, and players counted on him to be The Man. In Boston, he'll get all the support he needs, especially from Garnett. When he's on the sidelines, his towel turns into pom-poms and he'll bark in your ear even if you're on the other side of the court.
It's very rare that a franchise player has the opportunity to tutor his heir apparent and that makes Sullinger a special case. He was highly touted as a potential lottery pick but a back injury derailed his draft stock. Regardless, big things are expected out of him. Historically, guys like him go to losing teams and are thrown in the deep end of the pool and forced to swim. Fortunately, Sullinger will have Garnett to guide his way. Although Sullinger has charted Kevin Love's career path as a course he wants to follow, I'm sure Garnett has another Kevin-who-played-in-Minnesota in mind. It'll be interesting to see how he approaches it. He hasn't been in a situation where he's had to mentor a star student with Sullinger's talent. Most of his understudies have been the raw talented type or second rounders. I see the education of Jared Sullinger to be much more subtle and exacting. Garnett will focus on the little things--footwork, positioning, angles--and when Sullinger's ready, he'll teach him about the bigger picture.
Of all the Celtics, Garnett seems the most aware of his standing in history and tries his best to bridge the gap between the past and the future of the franchise. For him, it's not just about what he's doing today. He gratefully appreciates what people built before him and graciously pays it forward to the next generation. There are two KG moments that I'll always remember: 1) him hugging Bill Russell after winning the championship in 2008 and 2) bear hugging Kendrick Perkins with a towel over his head when Perk returned to the Garden for the first time since being traded. They're images that perfectly illustrate his place not only in Celtics' history, but in the history of the game. His willingness to be both student and teacher is unmatched and it's that virtue that is priceless to Danny, Doc, his teammates, and the fans. It won't show up in the fine print of his contract or his stat line. We've got Garnett for another three years, but I'm sure we'll see his fingerprints on the franchise forever.