Kevin Garnett returned to action on Saturday after missing 19 games with back spasms. He played only 13 minutes, but put up 10 points and 4 rebounds in that limited time. Granted, this was against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team not far removed from dropping 26 straight games, and Garnett was primarily matched up against Henry Sims. I’m sure you don’t know this (I sure as hell didn’t), but Sims has actually been the starting center for the Sixers for the last month-plus. He’s played fairly well, but this obviously isn’t a team or matchup that’s going to give Garnett a lot of problems regardless of his condition. In fact, Philadelphia offered a unique opportunity to ease Garnett back into the lineup after the extended time off. It’s like sending a baseball player through a couple of games in the minors to get their timing back at this point – Philly has pretty much given up.
In his return, Garnett displaced Mason Plumlee from the starting lineup. Plumlee had been the biggest beneficiary of KG’s absence, gaining a starting spot and increased playing time.
So how much can Garnett really help? He’s suffered multiple injuries this season, and in the time that he has played he has appeared to drop off significantly. His numbers bear this out to an extent: he has definitely never scored this infrequently. On this team, that may not really matter though. He’s surrounded by the likes of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Paul Pierce – somebody can get off a shot.
What Garnett does offer offensively that the team just can’t get from Plumlee is floor spacing and heady passing. First, the shooting – at this point in his career KG is content to take the majority of his shots from the outside, spotting up around other actions or working as the screener in pick and pop plays. Here is his shot chart (on the right) compared to Plumlee’s (left):
You’re reading that correctly – Plumlee hasn’t made a shot outside of 10 ft. all season. This is the range where Garnett thrives these days, and that could open up a ton of space for the wings to operate. The passing is just icing on the cake, really. With all five players on the floor ranking as above-average to very-good passers, the ball movement the starters are capable of is staggering. Without a single ballhandler in his prime passing and spacing are the best ways for the old guys to create good looks for themselves.
All that said, offense isn’t where Brooklyn hopes Garnett helps the most. His defensive impact has aged much more gracefully than his offensive game; even this season, when he has at times looked completely washed up, the Nets have been over five points per 100 possessions better on that end with Garnett on the floor. His ability to elevate a mediocre defense to something like a top-10 squad could be huge in the playoffs.
That’s the real end goal here. This team, as currently constructed, can only compete for so long. The deep pockets of their Russian owner may allow Brooklyn to rebuild on the fly, but this roster has major limitations going forward. They’re as much in win-now mode as any other team in the league.
Make no mistake, Plumlee has played very well as a rookie in his limited role. He is finishing at the rim at a very strong rate and the team managed to go 14-5 in Garnett’s latest absence. But coach Jason Kidd and company are sure to feel more comfortable knowing that they can throw KG out there in the postseason.
The numerous injuries Garnett has suffered this year may have some sneaky benefits. That’s essentially been extra rest time for the 37 year old, and it could help him play longer minutes in the playoffs. In an Eastern Conference that is increasingly looking like it only has one contender, any team that can keep itself together and play hard will have a shot. He helps on both counts, and any additional time he can stay on the floor is time Kidd doesn’t have to worry about papering over the defensive issues of the rest of the bigs (save Jason Collins, who plays sparingly).
At this point the remainder of the regular season will be about re-incorporating Garnett and pushing for a favorable seed. Depending on the draw and injury luck, the Nets have as good of a chance as anyone to make their way to the Conference Finals and a date with the Heat. Locking in on defense and playing sound offense are the keys to making a run, and a relatively healthy Garnett could do wonders for a team that has otherwise maxed out their potential.