When General Manager Danny Ainge overhauled the roster of the Boston Celtics in the summer of 2007, the team underwent an almost miraculous transformation from league laughingstock to championship contender.
At that point, it was realistic to give them a four-year window for championship-level success, because by the fourth year the Celtics might not have their Big Three at all, let alone in their mid-30s and the twilight of their respective careers.
Now, two years have passed, and the window is halfway closed. The Celtics had to battle like lions through this postseason without Kevin Garnett, their emotional leader and defensive anchor. They struggled throughout two series to figure out different ways to stop their opponents’ offenses.
The Magic ultimately defeated the Celtics with their prowess from behind the three-point line. Dwight Howard turned out to be something of an x-factor in the series, as the Celtics obviously could not ignore him on defense but ended up giving way to the open man as Orlando drained three after three to send the Celtics’ season swirling around the drain quickly and convincingly.
Without invaluable members of the bench who were vital to their championship in 2008guys like Leon Powe, P.J. Brown, and James Posey the Celtics replaced them with mediocre-at-best role players like Brian Scalabrine and Mikki Moore and underachievers like Stephon Marbury. Eddie House at times had to play way over his head for the Celtics to have a chance to win certain games, something he never had to do last season.
But make no mistake, the biggest loss for the Celtics by far was Garnett. His ailing knee never fully recovered, and now Celtics fans are left to wonder if he could have made a magical return had the Celtics advanced beyond the second round.
What was a four-year window for the Big Three-led Celtics is now two at most, with Garnett looking to already succumb to the injury-riddled decline years of his NBA career.
There’s no doubt that Garnett’s desire and intensity that could make him a coach some day is still there. He still has the fire in his belly that drove his motor and infected the rest of the Celtics in a way that they rallied around each other and reached the summit as a team, a complete unit.
But his body is betraying him. His 6′11″, 240-pound frame can only sustain the rigors of an NBA season for so long, and at 32 years old, Garnett could already be burning out.
How did head coach Doc Rivers feel about the game seven loss and the Celtics’ season? As usual, he made no excuses for his guys, no “We missed KG” posturing, no blame to be placed. He acknowledged that they clearly didn’t play well in game seven, but also that the Magic deserved credit for the win.
Above all else, the sweaty, emotionally-drained Rivers made it clear how proud of his guys he was at how hard they fought to repeat their magical playoff run.
It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Garnett will be right back in the Celtics’ starting lineup come this November as the pivotal 2009-10 season kicks off. What also commences at this point will be Garnett’s three-year, $60 million extension. With his age, injuries and missed games on the rise, the Celtics will need to be even more careful with Garnett throughout the season to avoid another 2009-like disaster.
Garnett’s minutes will need to be monitored even more closely than in his first two seasons as a Celtic. He averaged 32.8 and 32.2 minutes in his first two seasons, respectfully. That number might now need to dip below 30 for the first time since Garnett’s rookie season in 1995-96 to keep his legs and knees fresh and 100 percent for the postseason, which even with Garnett out they should plausibly reach again.
A positive in the Garnett situation is that Glen “Big Baby” Davis really stepped up his game in the postseason and showed his ability as a future starting power forward in the NBA. He will likely receive a bigger workload than the 21.5 minutes per game he averaged this season, and it would come as little surprise if he and Garnett split their minutes down the middle from now on.
The Celtics were very impressive during the regular season, perhaps more than they got credit for, going 62-20 despite missing Garnett for 20 games. But in the postseason, where their opponents got better and took their games to another level, the Celtics struggled. Almost every game was a battle, and the defense often looked disorganized.
Now the Celtics need to start thinking about the future. Garnett will likely be around for at least two-and-a-half of the three years of his extension, and potentially could become an albatross by then. Ray Allen will likely enter the epic free agent class of 2010, where someone might be willing to dish out a five-year deal to get him. The Celtics, however, like aren’t one of those teams.
Paul Pierce will be the final domino to fall in the Big Three’s departure from Boston, but he is by far the most likely to stay with the team for the remainder of his career. As the third-leading scorer in the history of the franchise, putting him behind only John Havlicek and Larry Bird, it’s only right that Pierce would never don another jersey in his career.
In this age of free agency, athletes who stay with one team throughout their career are only getting more and more rare.
Pierce has a legitimate shot to pass Bird and possibly Havlicek if he stays with the Celtics for the rest of his career, so because he’s won a championship and will see his #34 raised to the rafters one day, why not make him a Celtic for life?
The Celtics will need to be patient with Pierce, but not too patient. There’s no doubt Pierce has an undying love for this team, its fans and the City of Boston. But with his last chance to cash in coming in two years, what reason is there to believe that Pierce wouldn’t at least consider a lucrative offer to play near his roots on the West Coast, say for the Clippers, Warriors or even gulp the Lakers???
For the next three years, deciding what to do with the big three will be the biggest task to manage for Ainge and his front office. But what also needs to be considered before it’s too late is what to do with their young stars who have already blossomed into at least above-average NBA players.
Davis averaged 15.8 points in 14 postseason games, including five games of more than 20 points scored and a game-winning shot at the buzzer of game four against the Magic.
Kendrick Perkins is also developing into a reliable-enough scorer in the paint area, averaging 11.9 points on 57 percent shooting, while being a great rebounder. He still fouls too much, but he is still young and developing.
At the very least, Perkins figures to average double-digit rebounds as he enters his prime, and could even develop into a Marcus Camby-type when he reaches his peak. It’s hard to believe this kid is still only 24 and has been in the league six years.
Despite Davis and Perkins’ accelerated maturity, the biggest rising star on the Celtics is undoubtedly Rajon Rondo. The 23-year-old, fleet-footed, deft-handed point guard was absolutely spectacular in the postseason this year, averaging a triple-double (16.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, 9.8 assists) and giving the sports world notice that he belongs in the discussion of the league’s very best point guards.
Rondo still doesn’t have the shooting ability of a Deron Williams or Chris Paul, but he is a high-percentage scorer who can drive to the hoop with the best of them, and once Jason Kidd is done, Rondo could take over as the very best rebounding point guard in the league.
His long arms and enormous hands give him the ability to move the basketball with efficiency and deception, and his quick feet make him a dangerous target at any spot on the floor.
I think it’s realistic for Rondo to average something like 17 points, six rebounds and nine or 10 assists per game in his prime. And it also can’t be stressed enough that he is one of the most reliable defensive point guards in the game. Celtics fans must hope that Ainge does not forget about locking this young star up with a long-term contract before another team makes him an offer he can’t refuse.
In June 2007, the window of opportunity of Celtic championships was closed, dirty and dusty, and the locks had gathered plenty of rust. But in just one year, Ainge cleaned the window, removed the rust and opened it as wide as he could as the culture of the Celtics in Boston completely changed.
They took on a life energy that had not been seen since the teams of the late-1980s. And like those teams, they delivered a championship. They took home a title while the window was most open.
But now that window is starting to close. The rust is starting to recollect itself. Aging stars are starting to break down. And worst of all, LeBron James is entering his prime. Yes, he’s entering it. He’s not there yet. But neither are Rondo, Perkins or Davis.
At this turbulent and uncertain crossroad for the Celtics, it’s ultimately most important that the young stars stay around long enough, and that the Big Three are healthy enough to keep this window open for several more years.