There's no telling when, exactly, Kevin Garnett will bring down the curtain on one of the all-time great careers in basketball history.
On the one hand, Mother Nature and Father Time have hinted that the time for Garnett's retirement is nigh. The Big Ticket turns 37 in May, is in the midst of his 18th NBA season, plays just a shade over 30 minutes per game and has to carefully manage a body that's suffered through myriad injuries incurred over the course of more than 1,400 games played between the regular season and the playoffs.
On the other hand, KG is still a fantastic ball player whose role with the Boston Celtics is bigger and more important than ever. He's played in all 44 games for the C's this season, averaging 15 points (on 50.2 percent shooting), 7.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per. He'll be starting for the Eastern Conference squad in the 2013 NBA All-Star Game—his 15th—thanks to an outpouring of fan support.
Garnett is also the anchor of a defense that now ranks seventh in the league in efficiency, per NBA.com's stats database. As he recently told Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports:
I have a lot of responsibility at 36. I don't have the presence of having anything less than that. I have to guard the best post player. I have to strategize for defensive post and defensive strategies. I always constantly talk with other guys versus having a solidified role or a lesser role. I'm still in the thick of it.
The stats certainly bear that out. According to NBA.com, the Celtics allow 97 points per 100 possessions with KG on the floor—a mark that would rank third overall, just behind the Memphis Grizzlies and the Indiana Pacers. When he sits, that number jumps to 105.6 points per 100 possessions, which would place the C's 26th in the NBA, just between the Toronto Raptors and the New Orleans Hornets.
In other words, Kevin Garnett is the Celtics' defense. And if defense is at the heart of Boston's identity, then so, too, is Garnett.
Even more so now that Rajon Rondo is done for the season. The Celtics announced during their 100-98 double-overtime win against the defending-champion Miami Heat on January 27 that Rondo had, indeed, torn his ACL during a 123-111 double-overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks just two days prior.
The responsibility of picking up the pieces in Rondo's absence will have to be shared by the rest of Rondo's teammates if they're to salvage the second half of the 2012-13 season. As the most vocal of Boston's remaining leaders, that burden may fall most heavily on Garnett's shoulders.
Not that anyone should expect KG to start dribbling all over the floor and whipping no-look passes like he's the second coming of Bob Cousy. Rather, it'll be incumbent upon KG—a capable offensive player who's averaged as many as 24.2 points and six assists in separate seasons—to step up his game as a scorer/facilitator. Garnett figures to get more touches in the post, wherein he can burn his defender with his patented fadeaway jumper or drop a productive dime to one of Boston's many off-ball cutters, including Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee.
At this point, an immediate future without Garnett seems as unlikely as it does unpalatable for the C's. He's a fiercely loyal guy who just inked a new three-year, $36 million deal to stay in Boston this past summer. The no-trade clause included therein gives Garnett veto power over any potential trade that general manager Danny Ainge might cobble together.
And it's not as though the market is exactly teeming with teams willing to give up the sorts of young players and NBA draft picks that Ainge would be seeking in return for any of his veterans, KG included. The new collective bargaining agreement, with its severe restrictions on player salaries and roster retooling, has rendered cheap talent that comes from draft selections that much more valuable.
In this climate, it's tough to imagine any team finding it best to forfeit its future to pursue a title-contending upgrade with an aging Garnett in the middle. Brandon Jackson of Celtics Hub floated the Oklahoma City Thunder as a possible destination that KG might find palatable, on account of former Boston teammate Kendrick Perkins' presence in the middle. But, if James Harden's current membership with the Houston Rockets is any indication, the Thunder are and would be reluctant to take on any salary that might hamstring their future flexibility and incur a burdensome luxury tax payment.
Especially if the player involved is already well past his prime.
The Celtics, for their part, have little, if any, leeway with which to heed the calls of some to "blow it up." As ESPN's Brian Windhorst pointed out after Boston's big win over Miami, the Celtics' payroll can't top $74 million because they spent their full mid-level exception on Jason Terry this past summer. A current bill of $72 million leaves the C's with freedom enough to sign free agents to nothing more than the league-minimum salary and practically nullifies any attempt to bring back more salary via trade.
All of which leaves retirement squarely on the table as an option for Garnett. He may not want to leave Boston, and the Celtics may not find any takers. But if he stays, will he want to toil on a team that, barring some unforeseen turnaround and/or miraculous roster shakeup, will either continue its slow, steady decline or dive head-first into a long and painful rebuilding process that could carry his current contract through to completion? Will he want to push himself through the year-round training and treatment regimen that he needs to succeed on the court if the end result leaves him nowhere near the second Larry O'Brien Trophy that he so covets?
Or will he call it a career? Will he run out of fuel to keep the fire and desire to play the game burning in his belly? Will the prospect of settling into life after basketball—wherein he'll get to spend time with his friends and family while enjoying the spoils that come with nearly $300 million earned in NBA salary alone—seem that much more appealing without the glint of championship glory serving as the carrot to keep KG motivated?
As Garnett told Marc J. Spears when asked how much longer he'd play:
I don't know. I will make a decision every year. I want to make sure I am having fun. I want to make sure I am productive. I got a lot of responsibility on me right now. I'll figure it out. But right now I'm still enjoying myself for the most part.
That is, he'll keep lacing 'em up, so long as doing so is something in which he still takes pride and pleasure. The day may soon come when that isn't the case, but for now, Kevin Garnett is a Celtic and figures to be one until he bids the NBA adieu.