Mike Fine: Don't overlook Garnett as league MVP

Mike Fine

I told someone the other day that I was torn about my choice for MVP of the NBA.

I was thinking that it had to be a two-player race between the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and the Hornets’ Chris Paul, but I was giving the nod to Paul because of the way he directs a team that otherwise would have no business leading the Western Conference.

I was misguided. Kevin Garnett will not win his second MVP this season, for a variety of reasons, and he should. There isn’t  a player in the NBA who has a more dramatic impact on his team than Garnett. Chris Paul and the Hornets? 52 wins. Kevin Garnett and the Celtics? 60 wins and start-to-finish league domination.

The problem is, people outside of Boston probably have no clue about the inner workings of this team and how Garnett’s ethic has permeated it since the day he first arrived in Boston.

Here’s what really put me over the top:

Paul Pierce, March 30: “Hands down, he (Garnett) should have it. You’ve gotta understand where I came from a year ago. I couldn’t have imagined it. The whole face of the Celtics nation turned around when the trade happened with this guy. Everyone talks about the MVP and they talk about numbers, but this guy has changed the whole culture around here and I think that says a lot for everything. The mentality, the day-to-day aspect … everything is changed from a year ago.”

Pacers coach Jim O’Brien, April 2: “I don’t think I can remember a player coming into a franchise like Garnett has and completely and single-handedly changed the culture of the organization, and I think he’s done that. So there might be people on the court that are better statistically than Kevin Garnett. I think if you’re talking most valuable, I can’t imagine anybody any more valuable to their team than Garnett is.”

That’s the thing. Paul leads the NBA in assists and steals, while averaging 21.4 points per game. He’s playing on a team with only one other All-Star, David West, and it’s a team that would otherwise be fighting for a playoff berth.

Bryant is fantastic. As Celts coach Doc Rivers says, he probably should have won an MVP before. This season he’s averaging 28.7 points a game, and there’s little doubt that the Lakers wouldn’t be anywhere near as strong as they are without him.

Many throw in LeBron James’ name, too. The Cavs forward is averaging a league-best 30.3 points and he’s a fabulous basketball player, but y’know what? Come see me when his team is a little closer than 18 games out of first place in the East, and, oh, at least 10 games above .500.

All things being equal, borderline candidates start getting eliminated immediately when their teams aren’t blowing away the opposition. So Paul and Bryant are eligible. James is not.

Now, the reason that Garnett won’t win the award is twofold. First, he’s not blowing anyone away with his statistics. His double-double totals are down considerably from his Minnesota days. He led the NBA with 66 last season but is down to 27 this season.

Voters will see his 18.4 points and 9.4 rebounds and think, Amare Stoudemire’s doing better than that. Bryant and James are doing better than that. Orlando’s Dwight Howard is doing better than that, too.

Secondly, they’ll see Garnett excelling because he has Ray Allen and Pierce playing alongside him, thinking that’s the reason he looks so good on the court.

But here’s what they don’t see: His defense, for one. It’s been the catalyst for the entire season. O’Brien on Wednesday called the Celts the flat-out best defensive team in the NBA. That didn’t happen because the Celtics added Allen, or James Posey. It didn’t happen overnight, either. It happened because of Garnett. But few will inject that into their reasoning.

One other thing they won’t include, because they really don’t see it, is the underlying Garnett effect on this team, from the locker room to the buses and planes, to his nurturing of young talent to his pushing Rajon Rondo off the free throw line to calm him down after shooting an air ball.

Yeah, from the moment he arrived, Garnett was on the phone with Allen and Pierce, making plans, getting commitments.

The team was on the court the first week in September, a month before it was required, because Garnett wanted to establish something and others couldn’t wait to be around him. Nobody knows that. Nobody sees his intensity in practice, which is where it all starts.

Few will admit that while the Lakers and the Hornets wouldn’t be what they are without Bryant and Paul, neither would the Celtics without Garnett. And the Celtics are head and shoulders above the rest.

"I think Kevin Garnett is such a great player that he makes people play together," said Denver coach George Karl after his Nuggets lost to the Celtics by 26 points in the first week of the season. "He won't tolerate it any other way. I think Pierce and Ray are both only thinking about winning now. I think they're legitimate."

“I think everyone’s impressed with what they’ve done and how they go about their business,” said Nets coach Lawrence Frank. “And it all starts with Kevin. That’s why the guy is a Hall of Fame player.”

He’s subordinated his game to make Pierce and Allen — and everyone else — stand out. Again, all things being equal, the Celtics this week won their 60th game and are 36 games ahead of last year’s pace, tying the 1997-98 Spurs for the biggest turnaround in NBA history. That mark will soon be shattered as the Celtics claim homecourt advantage for the playoffs.

There’s one reason for that -- an MVP reason.

The Patriot Ledger