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Kevin Garnett can lead the transition

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff  June 29, 2012 09:57 AM

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Should he return, Kevin Garnett will presumably do so as a mentor now. He will teach. He will mold. And he will help the Celtics transition from one age to another, assuming, of course, that Garnett comes back at all.

Everything is always subject to change in the world of professional sports, particularly when Danny Ainge is involved, but what happened during the annual NBA Draft on Thursday night certainly felt like a transition. With the 21st and 22nd selections in the first round, Ainge and the Celtics did exactly what everyone expected them to do, drafting a combination of youth and size to alter a Boston roster badly in need of both.

The critical question: Was Ainge merely fortifying his roster, or was he beginning to overhaul it? The latter suddenly seems far more likely, with or without Garnett, unless Ainge can unexpectedly orchestrate the kind of magic trick he executed precisely five years ago, the summer he unloaded what seemed like his entire roster for Ray Allen and the irrepressible Garnett.

And so now, as then, we wait on KG.

Or the next KG.

We all have our feelings on Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, but here's the truth: Not a single one of us knows any more now than we did eight years ago, in 2004, the last time Ainge made at least two selections in the first round. That year, selecting 15th, 24th and 25th, the Celtics plucked Al Jefferson, Delonte West, and Tony Allen, the last two of whom he said were ready to play in the NBA. Jefferson ended up as the biggest piece in the deal that brought Garnett to Boston, though he played three seasons here in the interim.

These Celtics are seemingly in better shape to compete than those Celtics were, but we all know how it works in the NBA. You are either a legitimate NBA title contender or you are not. There is really no gray area. Truth be told, the Celtics probably moved into the far more crowded of those two neighborhoods two years ago, a big reason this year's seven-game saga against the Miami Heat was so enjoyable.

Maybe that is why Ainge seems fully prepared to move on, without, perhaps, both Garnett and Ray Allen, particularly at a time when LeBron James is in the prime of his career and has seemingly solved the riddle.

"I feel like I'm over the sentimental for two reasons," Ainge said last week. "First, as an organization, we have given these guys everything we've had to try and give them opportunities for success. I feel the players have given us everything they had. They don't owe us anything. And we don't owe them anything. It's just business."

All of this brings us back to Garnett, who played the last months of the season, for the most part, like a man intent on leaving nothing in the tank. If you had to guess, you'd swear he was preparing to walk. Garnett has played 17 years in the NBA and earned nearly $300 million in salary alone, and he is a surefire Hall-of-Famer. He has been to two Finals and won one. He ranks 12th in league history in minutes played. Garnett could leave the NBA now damn near the top of his game and with positively no shame, and it is quite possible he has already told the Celtics that he intends to.

The Celtics, for their part, have given every indication they want Garnett back, and his return makes sense for them no matter what. Even without any major additions through free agency or trade, Garnett is the perfect mentor for players like Sullinger and Melo. He is a model of commitment, work ethic and the team concept. Finding a true NBA superstar with a greater understanding of team is darned near impossible, something that has made Garnett the perfect centerpiece in Celtics green.

He isn't (wasn't?) a scorer like Kobe Bryant, a corporation like LeBron James. He is (was?) a basketball player. Try to find anything about Garnett's personal life, his interests beyond basketball, his hangouts. Paris Hilton he ain't. No music career. No movie appearances. No time on the gossip pages. For someone with such presence on the basketball court, he's damn near invisible off it.

Would Garnett be willing to come back in a largely ceremonial position, a big brother for players like Sullinger and Melo? The answer is likely no. As Ainge himself said, the beauty of the five-year pact between the Celtics, Garnett and Allen is that everyone got what they were promised.

In recent days, especially, there has been much speculation concerning the Celtics' interest and objectives entering this draft. On Thursday afternoon, multiple reports surfaced that the Celtics were trying to move up in the first round to draft head coach Doc Rivers' son, Austin, ultimately chosen by the New Orleans Hornets with the 10th pick. In the end, the Celtics ended up where they began at Nos. 21 and 22, attempting to dress their most obvious needs with at least one project.

Lest anyone forget, this summer's NBA free agent market is as thin as Louis Orr or, for that matter, Garnett himself. If Garnett returns, the Celtics lose much of their salary cap flexibility anyway. Ainge's best chance to work a miracle was in the days and hours leading up to the 21st and 22nd selections on Thursday night, choices that ultimately took place without interruption.

In the process, maybe Kevin Garnett made his choice, too.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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