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As a long time fan of the Boston Celtics, I had the privilege of watching Larry Bird, Kevin Michale, Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish play into the twilight of their career's. What a time that was for the NBA. The basketball world seemed to revolve around the Boston Celtics in the east and the Los Angeles Lakers in the west.
As the mid 80's gave way to the early 90's, the Boston Celtics front office was faced with a legitimate dilemma, break up the fab-5 of the 80's or try to win one more time.
The legendary Red Auerbach made his decision and it may have served as one of his only mistakes. From a business standpoint, when Larry Bird was forced to sit out the entire 1988-89 season, Red should have made his move and disbanded the front line of the Celtics. Instead, Red decided to trade away the only youthful element of the line-up for some help with big men. Ironically, the man Red traded was Ainge.
Despite sustaining a knee injury in 1987, Ainge had been the only Celtic to exist without major injury. Trading Bird was virtually impossible in a city that adored him and the aging Johnson's value had decreased substantially. McHale, though hampered by nagging ankle problems, was still one of the league's top big men. After fielding several options, Red refused all deals and decided to press forward with his aging team.
The next three season's the Celtics played hard, contended for the top record in the east and yet failed to get out of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In 1990, Red waived Johnson, receiving nothing in return. The Celtics started that season steamrolling opponents as they notched a 25-5 record out of the gates. Soon after their hot start, age and injury began to deteriorate the Celtics front line. Soon enough, Bird was out of the lineup for 22 games and recording career lows in nearly every major statistical category.
As the season wore on and Bird's inclusion in the Celtics lineup became less and less frequent, the world watched as Bird became only a shell of his former self. His debilitating back injury had left Bird inconsistent as scouts and media personnel began to question which Bird would show up nightly.
Red Auerbach's only fatal error haunted the Celtics franchise for several seasons and it can be said that it was not until 2008 that the Celtics finally moved on from the Larry Bird era.
Twenty seasons later, Ainge, ironically the lone Celtic to be traded away from the team, is now faced with a similar conflict. He was tempted to trade away Ray Allen at the trade deadline and resisted as, similar to McHale twenty years ago, no one can match the talent that would be relinquished by sending Allen out of Boston.
As Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce continue to play inconsistent, the future of the franchise seems to have returned to the era of inferiority that followed Bird's retirement.
Can the aging Celtics contend for one more championship? Like Auerbach, 20 seasons ago, Ainge feels they can. The 2010 Celtics continued their roller coaster performances with an 86-83 victory over the lowly Wizards last night at TD Garden. Ironically, Ray Allen was the hero. He hit the game winning shot and kept the Celtics close down the stretch.
If the Celtics do not at least make it to the final round of the playoffs, fans and basketball scholars will begin to debate what the fate of this storied franchise will be. Allen will be a free agent at the end of this season and, just as with DJ in 1990, the Celtics run the risk of getting nothing in return if Allen walks. There have also been some muttering in the basketball world that Paul Pierce may do the unthinkable and opt out of his balloon payment year if he feels the Celtics cannot compete next season.
We all knew the risk we were taking in forgoing the future to secure an aging roster that can compete for the championship today. If that championship is not won in June, Ainge will find himself in a similar situation as Auerbach did at the end of the original big three era.
Sound like deja vu?
Lets hope the Celtics do not suffer in basketball purgatory for another 20 seasons.