For 17 years, Garnett has said all the right things about teamwork, sacrifice and humility. He has been lauded as the consummate teammate and celebrated for the intangible benefits he provides to his club.
Such things are easy to say when he is one of the three highest-paid players in the NBA, of course. Most people could live with the "sacrifice" of taking a couple fewer shots per game to be a member of the 1 percent's top 1 percent.
In signing with the Celtics for a reported three years and $34 million, Garnett officially put his money — or, more accurately, the Celtics' money — where his mouth is. By agreeing to a salary well below his $21.2 million from last season and far below what he could have attracted as an unrestricted free agent, Garnett positioned the Celtics to simultaneously contend in the near future while retooling for the long-term.
Garnett's return comes as little surprise. By regaining his place among the league's elite players last season and coming within one win of a third NBA Finals trip, Garnett, 36, signaled that he was far from finished. If he wanted another realistic shot at a title, Boston was the most likely place for him.
What is surprising is the dollars. Garnett was the best unrestricted free agent center on the market, period, and the Celtics apparently got him to come back for the cost of David Lee, Ben Gordon or Kevin Martin. In a different time, Garnett may have taken that as an insult. Now, it is a statement.
Before anyone starts camping out in tents outside the TD Garden and Occupying Causeway Street, let us make clear that an average of $11.3 million per year is no pittance. The biggest sacrifice Garnett would need to make off the court is settling on the Glenlivet instead of the Macallan. But salaries in professional sports should not be judged compared to the real world. To put Garnett's reported contract into proper context, he has agreed to a pay cut roughly equal to Ray Allen's full 2011-12 salary. Garnett will make about as much in the next two years as his $22.3 million cap hold for this summer alone.
The Celtics' offseason options suddenly have expanded greatly. Depending on the exact per-year breakdown of Garnett's contract, the team should still be about $12 million below the salary cap, assuming a modest increase from this year's $58 million figure, and about $24 million below the luxury tax threshold. (Boston was about $9 million into tax territory last season.) That is needed payroll flexibility with Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Mickael Pietrus and several other key free agents to fill out the Celtics' 11 unfilled roster spots. (Garnett's signing would decrease the number of unfilled spots to 10.)
Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, the Celtics' 2012 draft picks, will have three whole years to learn under one of the most versatile big men and fiercest competitors in NBA history. Sullinger, who has back trouble and a mostly ground-bound game, can watch and learn how Garnett, robbed of his former lift, excels with his own back troubles. Melo, a raw yet promising shot-blocker, will have a chance to absorb some of Garnett's tricks as an interior defensive force. The list of indirect benefits that Garnett's return provides for the Celtics is long.
Every game night, after he is done talking to the media, Garnett lightly runs his left hand across the large, illuminated Celtics logo near the entrance to the locker room as he walks past. The gesture may be little more than a subconscious tick, such as the way most people cannot resist running their fingers across a smooth marble countertop. Knowing Garnett and the immense admiration he has expressed regarding the Celtics franchise, though, it seems more likely that it is his way of paying silent homage to the players of the past. He knows the history. He respects the history. Or so he has always claimed. Now everyone can know it's true.
When Garnett puts his signature to his new contract, all the things that he has said over the years about team unity and Celtic pride will take tangible form. He will growl and intimidate and motivate for three more years, having proved that he is who he said he was all along.