On July 11, a white flag of surrender was visible in Boston, when Celtics guard Ray Allen took it upon himself to officially declare the end of the Big Three. Allen signed a free agent contract with the NBA Champion Miami Heat, the same team that had just ended the Celtics' season for the second year in a row.
Since 2007, when Allen and forward Kevin Garnett joined Paul Pierce to form the Big Three, Boston was consistently considered a championship contender. They won a title, they won big games, and all three players are likely Hall of Famers. There is little debate regarding the excitement and interest that they brought to basketball in Boston and the NBA over the last five seasons.
There is debate, however, regarding their legacy.
Is the legacy of the Big Three one of resounding greatness? Agree with it or not, success in today’s NBA is achieved only by winning a title, and true, lasting success is measured by how many titles you win. Michael Jordan, holder of six titles, epitomized this thinking in response to Ray Allen winning his first title in 2008: “Talk to me when you get two.” (ESPN.com, May 23, 2012) By joining the preseason favorite Heat, it is apparent Allen had no faith that conversation would happen in Celtic green.
It poses a question: Did the Big Three underachieve?
Consider how they measure up against other teams of the current era. During the Big Three’s time together, Boston won one title, the Lakers won two, and Dallas and Miami each won a title. Two of those teams defeated Boston on the way to their title.
Did they leave a greater mark than any of those teams? By comparison, let's take a look at another one title team from the past decade: the Detroit Pistons. They faced similar competition, had the same basic officiating standards and salary cap management rules as well. Can it be argued that they achieved just as much, if not more than the Big Three's Celtics teams?
Notice the equal regular season winning percentage. Detroit had a better postseason winning percentage. Even if you remove the one postseason Boston played without Garnett, and Detroit reached the conference finals more times.
Each team reached the finals twice and won once, both defeating the Lakers. In each of their losing appearances in the finals, they lost Game 7 on the road. Detroit had a better record in the Finals, and won their title without the benefit of home court advantage. Boston had more division titles. They met once in the playoffs, with Boston winning the conference finals 4-2 in the Big Three’s first season together. It was also the final year in Detroit’s six-year run of making the Eastern Conference Finals. In Boston's lone title season, 07-08, it took them an NBA-record playoff 26 games to accomplish the feat.
Boston coach Doc Rivers’ statements regarding how injuries hurt the Big Three’s run are well-documented. But injuries affect everyone’s run at the title. Lakers fans can just as easily point to starting center Andrew Bynum’s absence in the 2008 Finals as the reason they lost that series (coincidentally, to Boston, for the Big Three’s only title). Fans of this year’s Oklahoma City Thunder can point to center Kendrick Perkins’ torn groin as a big reason they lost the Finals. The impossible-to-answer question of “What if?” will go on in any sport as long as there are games being played.
So are the shortcomings of winning only one title held over their heads? Or are they affirmed and praised for winning once and consistently contending? Whose voice is loudest in deciding their legacy? With the Big Three's final game in the books, they can no longer build a better case for themselves.