Why the New-Look Boston Celtics Won't Contend for the 2012-2013 Title

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Why the New-Look Boston Celtics Won't Contend for the 2012-2013 Title
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Will the Celtics be championship contenders this coming season, a true threat to unseat the Heat and hold off the behemoths in the western conference?

In a word, no.

Sure, they'll be in the conversation, the type of team that'll be included in all those "Playoff Sleepers" articles that spring up in April.

But serious contenders? Unfortunately, that's just too good to be true.

Here’s where we stand.

This coming season’s version of the Celtics looks to be superior to its predecessor. Whereas at the end of the playoffs last year, Boston's best option to backup the starting guards were Keyon Dooling and an out-of-position Mickael Pietrus, President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge has restocked the cupboard with sharpshooters Jason Terry and Courtney Lee to fill those roles.

Forwards Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox, who were on the shelf for most or all of last season, are back and chomping at the bit. Rookie Jared Sullinger was drafted to bring some youthful enthusiasm to the team and to be a bridge to the future.

The reloaded bench will bolster what was already one of the best starting lineups in the league, with Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo once again playing next to the re-signed Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass. Once he recovers from offseason surgery on both shoulders, Avery Bradley, the team’s breakout player last season, will round out the starting five.

All it cost them was Ray Allen, the all-time leader in three pointers, but someone who’s not far from being put out to pasture. His shooting touch, though still impressive, is not what it was and, effort be damned, he’d have a hard time defending a chair (not that that kind of thing hasn’t happened before, courtesy of The Boston Globe). Besides, Bradley, Terry and Lee will more than make up for his play last season.

Moreover, the Celtics took the Heat, a team that dominated the Thunder in five games en route to the championship, to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. They were so close, and now they've shored up their weaknesses.

Yet they’re still not good enough.

We don't live in a vacuum, and time has a nasty tendency to move on even while we expect everything to stay the same. While the Celtics are much improved from when we saw them last walking off the court in AmericanAirlines Arena, their heads held high but still in defeat, other contenders are better, too.

No, not all of them—expect the Bulls to take a step back with Derrick Rose recovering from an ACL tear and some key free-agent losses—but the ones who matter.

Was this a preview of what's to come now that LeBron has his title?

Take the aforementioned Heat. After winning it all, their key players will be back. Watching LeBron’s transcendent performance in the Olympics showed that not only hasn’t he gotten complacent since becoming a champion, winning may have actually set him free, allowing him to reach a level never seen before.

Oh, and Allen? He plays for them, too. Yes, everything we just said about his shot and defending a chair and all that is true. But let’s remember, whatever he has to give to Miami, it will be much more than what they got from Mike Miller.

By the way, the Celtics weren’t the only ones dealing with injuries. They were quite fortunate to play all but four of the seven games against the Heat with Chris Bosh on the sideline, something they can’t count on happening again.

Enough about Miami. Let’s take a look at the Los Angeles Lakers.

Some will say that the Lakers' prized acquisition Dwight Howard is overrated, that as incredible as he is on the defensive end, they’d prefer to face him than Andrew Bynum, the player LA gave up. And on some level, they’re right. Howard’s next post move will be his first.

Ah, but Howard wasn’t the Lakers’ only offseason heist. They also traded for Steve Nash, who is still making the right pass, shooting the lights out and more desperate for a title than ever.

Howard lacks an impressive offensive game—seriously, sometimes it’s downright painful to watch him take the ball in the post—and yet his career field goal percentage is an otherwordly 58 percent. That was with Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu setting Howard up. What kind of damage can he do with Nash feeding him?

Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are still around, too. Older, but among the league’s best at their respective positions. That the Lakers were also able to sign Antawn Jamison, strengthening the team’s biggest failing—its depth—is something that should send shudders through Celtic Nation with LA just one championship away from matching Green 17.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
No one wants to admit it, but Pierce's game has slipped.

There’s one thing more, though, the elephant in the room for Celtic fans: Paul Pierce just isn’t the same.

While KG at center has found a way to extend his career, last season Pierce finally showed signs of slippage.

It can be tough to tell, frankly, because Pierce, who is not particularly tall, strong or fast, has always resorted to bouncing into defenders as a means to create space or to get to the line. Athleticism has never been a part of his game so it’s never quite clear if he’s showing signs of slippage, or if it’s by design.

Clumsy as his play seemed, Pierce knew exactly what he was doing.

But it’s not. At least not anymore. As plodding as Pierce’s game can appear, there was a certain smoothness to it, a sign that his foolhardy-looking drives to the hoop that somehow ended up with made baskets were exactly what he had envisioned all along. 

All the hits Pierce has taken in 14 years of dribble drives have taken a toll on The Truth. He’s lost a half of that deceptively quick first step that puts defenders on their heels and then leaves them completely helpless as he bumps against them for a step-back jumper.

His scoring has always come from veteran guile and dead-eye shooting, so while he can still get his points and have the occasional explosion, he’s past the point of being able to take over a series.

Rondo is now the leader of the team, but when the chips are down, the Celtics still need a go-to scorer. Pierce used to be the player the team could consistently ride to victory in the fourth quarter, but those days are sadly over.

Pierce’s decline, even more than the improved competition, transforms the Celtics from a team with championship aspirations to an also-ran.

Listen: It's the end of August. Training camp doesn't start for more than a month. A lot can change between now and June. LeBron could get hurt. Ainge could use his assets to pull off a heist in the trade market. Howard could elbow Kobe in the end. And not by accident.

However, as things stand today, if fans can take off their green-colored glasses for one minute, they should ask themselves if they can honestly envision the Celtics, with their captain on the downside, beating a Heat team with a reborn LeBron or the top-heavy-but still-stacked Lakers, or better yet, both?

Neither can I.

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