After yet another postseason in which the Boston Celtics came up short in their quest for an 18th NBA Championship, fans and media members alike have once again been left to wonder the aging Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen can continue to effectively lead the Celtics through the powerful Eastern Conference in the face of declining performance and the greater potential for injuries.
Largely unchallenged for supremacy in the East prior to the 2010-11 season (save for the brief success of the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic), the Celtics are being forced to contend with younger, healthier teams with their own superstars that pose a great physical and mental challenge for the Celtics' aging core. These teams include the rejuvenated Chicago Bulls, led by reigning MVP Derrick Rose, and the Miami Heat, led by a Big Three of their own in the form LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
As a many a Celtics fan knows, it was Miami who defeated the Celtics in the conference semifinals last May, four games to none.
Certainly the Celtics can continue to match Chicago and Miami's mental focus and emotional intensity—Pierce, Garnett and Allen are some of the hardest-working men in basketball in focus and on-court intensity. However, these men are all well past their prime and are likely very close to retirement, which may come sooner rather than later if the NBA lockout wipes out most or all of the 2011-12 season.
Certainly rebuilding would be easier now than it was a decade or two ago. A variety of factors purportedly negatively affected the Celtics' ability to attract blue chip free agents, with theories ranging from the dilapidated state of the old Boston Garden to Boston's history of being hostile to minority athletes.
Regardless of the the varying truth values of these ideas, the recent success the Celtics have realized and the far more tolerant attitude of the population has made Boston appear at least a little more attractive to upper-echelon NBA talent. This will prove critical in the coming seasons once the Big Three actually retire, as Danny Ainge and the Celtics front office will have an easier time bringing in players to build upon previous success.
However, rebuilding may not be necessary just yet. If the the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association somehow manage to hammer out a collective bargaining agreement that would save a majority of the upcoming season, the Big Three might be able to squeeze out one more competitive season if they can get some decent help and stay healthy.
Emphasis on "might."
Can the Celtics remain competitive with the Big Three?
In the coming years, the Boston Celtics will seriously have to consider their personnel options and the best way forward even as age and injuries begin to pile up for their superstars. Likely, the Celtics will begin considering new talent to be brought in to either supplement or gradually supplant the Big Three, but for now, I believe the Big Three will be entering into its final year with the real possibility of contending for another NBA Championship—assuming we have a season.
I realize we have been saying that their window of opportunity has been either closed or is closing for some time now, but I believe that is the "for real" last possible year. The Big Three, save for maybe Ray Allen, are already on their way down in terms of performance, and they don't have more than one or two seasons left.
The Celtics will certainly have to make the most of what they have with what little time they have left.