Yes, the Boston Celtics are struggling.
They're struggling a lot, in fact, and not even against the NBA's most formidable lineups -- summed up perfectly by the loss in Cleveland the other night. But, one thing is usually left out of the daily whining sessions and blame games involving these frustrating Celtics. Kevin Garnett, by far the team's most impactful and endlessly important interior presence, doesn't play a whole lot. He spends large chunks of time at important moments seated squarely on the bench, which goes along with Doc Rivers' master plan to keep his defensive anchor fresh over the course of the grueling NBA schedule. Garnett currently plays a mere 29.8 minutes per game -- if this rate keeps up, it would be the lowest in his career and only his second NBA season spent under the 30-minute threshold, which key members of a team's rotation almost always cross when it's all said and done. So, Garnett's stats -- points, rebounding, assists, and shot attempts for starters -- are significantly deflated this season compared to last and his usual impact on the both ends of the floor just hasn't been there on a regular basis.
Rather than fulfilling his role as the Celtics' constant, immovable force in the paint, Garnett has been just another moveable piece in the puzzle, joining Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger, Chris Wilcox, and Jason Collins (yes, Jason Collins) as freewheeling variables in Doc's pick-and-choose rotation of bigs. He's been just another guy, rather than the main man.
How differently would we be viewing the Boston Celtics if Kevin Garnett played a typical slate of minutes as the team's starting center? It's difficult to overlook Garnett's impressive output when given extended minutes -- we saw this in full effect throughout Boston's deep playoff run a year ago, during which Garnett averaged 19.2 points per game and 10.3 rebounds en route to cementing his reputation as one of the game's most consistent bigs. Oh, and during that run, "The Big Ticket" averaged 36.9 minutes per contest, which was instrumental in bringing about those inflated scoring and rebounding rates, as well as earning that iconic nickname once again. Playing 36+ minutes is a far cry from falling short of the 30-minute threshold, Kevin Garnett's designated regular season cutoff point at this stage in his career. However, even this season, you may find that calculating Garnett's statistics per 36 minutes brings you far closer to his 2011-12 postseason averages than anything else, per Basketball Reference.
Given more minutes, he's still a proficient scorer and rebounder, while filling out other significant statistical categories rather well. When Garnett plays more, he still resembles that same double-double machine and pathological competitor. Without question, extending Garnett's playing time would benefit the Celtics tremendously -- it would translate into more consistent showings on the offensive end, a heightened alertness with regard to defensive rotations, and, of course, longer winning streaks to show for it (or, winning streaks of any kind.)
Keep this in mind when you're calling for Danny Ainge to "blow it all up" and pursue DeMarcus Cousins, Josh Smith, Dwight Howard, and whatever other fantastical trade scenarios that brazenly come to mind. Maybe -- just maybe -- the Celtics wouldn't be in this nefarious position if Kevin Garnett just played a little teensy bit more. I'm not disagreeing with Doc's ultimate strategy, but the drastic minute cuts have undoubtedly impacted the regular season win-loss column -- and not for the better.
Call me naive, insane, and irrationally biased, but extrapolating Garnett's minutes over longer periods of time leads me to believe that the Celtics can still make some decent noise in the Playoffs if they make it there -- and, for the time being, that if must stay italicized.