Why the Boston Celtics Should Be Considered the NBA Championship Favorites
While some may be discouraged by the Celtics’ 0-2 regular season start, I personally believe that this Celtics team displays qualities that make them a true NBA Championship favorite for the upcoming season. Even though they currently sit in the bottom of the Eastern Conference with their winless records, one would be a fool to believe that the Celtics will be unable to win the amount of games necessary to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Therefore, assuming that the Celtics do make the playoffs, which I feel is a pretty safe bet, here are five reasons why the Celtics should be considered one of the favorites to win the NBA Championship trophy this year.
The Impending Return of Paul Pierce
Even though the Celtics have lost their first two games of the season, they have done so to two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference in the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat. They have also done so without, arguably, their best player and Captain, Paul Pierce. His ability to create offense is well documented and well respected, but other aspects of his game have been missed thus far as well. His defensive ability and willingness to guard the other teams’ best player on any given night far exceeds the ability of his replacements during his absence, Sasha Pavlovic and Marquis Daniels.
His chemistry with the rest of the starting lineup is also one of the great dimensions that Pierce brings to the Celtics’ offense. His ability to get into the lane causes defenses to collapse on him, leaving shooters like Ray Allen and eventually Mickael Pietrus wide open. His defensive communications and rotations are also a phase of the game that his replacements simply cannot duplicate.
Paul Pierce provides the Celtics not only with leadership and confidence, but also with the primary scoring option on offense—someone who can not only create his own shot, but create opportunities to get to the free throw line when his jump shot is not falling.
The Evolution of Rajon Rondo
Rajon Rondo, who has become somewhat of a cult figure around the Boston area because of his flashy abilities with the ball and his ability to play through even the most gruesome of injuries (think his dislocated elbow from last year’s playoffs), has taken a major step toward super-stardom in his first two games of the season. Even though this current season is an extremely small sample size, meaning that Rondo’s numbers will eventually round off more toward his career averages, there are subtleties in Rondo’s game this year that were not present in years past.
Rondo seems to be taking mid-range jumpers with significantly more confidence than in years past and also seems to be willing to get to the free throw line more often than before. Whereas last year and in years past, Rondo would shy away from the lane late in games as to not have to make two free throws, this year he seems to be aggressive at every point of the game. Through two games, Rondo has taken 23 free throws. In the last two seasons, in which Rondo played 68 and 81 games respectively, he averaged only two and four free throws per game. The fact that Rondo has taken 23 free throws through two games signifies that he is getting to the line over eleven times per game.
Again, even though the sample size is only two games and his free throws will certainly decrease when Paul Pierce returns to the lineup, I believe that this shift in Rondo’s confidence makes him an even more dangerous offensive option than he has been in seasons past.
The Celtics Play a True Team Game
I do not believe that the Celtics have a player on their team that would be considered a top-10 player in the league, maybe even a top-15 player in the league…which is exactly why they are as good as they are. The Celtics are one of the few teams in the league that boast four or five players who could erupt on any given night. They have numerous types of threats on their team.
When Paul Pierce returns to the lineup, which he is expected to later in the week, opposing teams have to worry about Ray Allen’s ability to move without the ball and fire jump shots whilst coming off screens, Paul Pierce’s abilities on isolation plays and going to the basket, Rajon Rondo’s ability to get past the first line of defense and force opposing teams to collapse into the paint, and Kevin Garnett’s ability to be one of the league’s best safety valves in taking mid-range jump shots late in the shot clock. With the acquisition of Brandon Bass, which looks like a steal at this early point in the season, the Celtics have an underrated second unit which could get scoring from Bass, streaky shooter Keyon Dooling, or a wild card like Marquis Daniels or new arrival Mickael Pietrus.
The Celtics' Shift in "Big Man" Philosophies
Unless they make me eat my words with a midseason trade or free agent acquisition, I am thrilled to see that the Celtics have stopped their obsession with needing size in order to win. Last year, I saw the Celtics collapse because they relied on Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal for production at the center position. While both O’Neals have size, they do not have the skills that this new wave of Celtics bigs have.
During last night’s game against the Miami Heat, Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett played together during the final stretch of the game, meaning that the Celtics played Garnett at the five. While this lineup is small, it presents better offensive options than having Jermaine O’Neal in the game or some other non-factor on offense. Instead of players like Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal, the Celtics acquired 6’10’’ Chris Wilcox instead.
While Wilcox’s size is limited, and he will have trouble guarding larger centers, he is serviceable on defense, is an above-average rebounder and provides the Celtics with possible second chance points on offense.
Bass, who is only 6’8’’, provides the Celtics with a big man who will be able to spread the floor, shoot mid-range jump shots and also provides the Celtics with toughness and effort while playing.
Low Expectations from the Media
Right now, everyone looks at the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat, and Chicago Bulls as the three biggest favorites for the NBA title. The Celtics have many flaws in their lineup and their composition that has caused many analysts and writers to shy away from naming them a favorite for the NBA Championship. I think this lack of attention serves the Celtics well during the season.
Without any added attention, the Celtics will be allowed to play their veterans less than most other teams during the regular season because they will not be under such immense pressure to win every game they play. I believe that they will also be playing with a chip on their shoulder because of the fact that most people have written them off as title contenders. With proud veterans like Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce, the notion that their window to win a championship has closed will fuel their competitive fire even more and hopefully will provide the motivation they need to put together one more run at a championship.
To add to the current adversity which faces the team (age, expectations), the Celtics also faced adversity throughout the pre-season. Jeff Green, who was slated to play a very large role in the Celtics rotation this year, was lost for the season because of heart surgery. The Celtics openly shopped Rajon Rondo in their pursuit of star point guard Chris Paul. The Celtics also lost out on free agent prize David West to the Indiana Pacers.
It was during the pursuit and eventual loss of David West that I found the type of fire I was looking for in the Celtics. After West committed to signing with the Pacers, Ray Allen was quoted as saying, “I don’t understand it…[West] wanted the dollars. I guess it comes down to ‘what is a championship worth to you’” and, “We [the Big Three] all had to do less when we won. We’re still taking less to make it work. But it’s worth it.” In saying that about West, essentially accusing him of taking money over the chance to win a championship, Allen sent a message to his teammates—winning is the most important of his priorities. This attitude sets high expectations within the locker room, even if expectations outside the locker room are much lower.