Celtics Have Potential . . . To Disappoint
I'm really excited about the official debut of the Boston Celtics' newly assembled Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce tonight at TD Banknorth Garden. The anticipation is like getting ready to tear off the packaging of a new toy on your birthday.
I've written it before, but having a relevant team in Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Los Angeles is great for the league and great for business. If one or more of those teams is successful, it helps draw in casual fans and invigorates some loyal fan bases.
You cannot escape the excitement surrounding the Celtics. Nearly every national sports publication put them - or rather Garnett, Allen and Pierce - on their covers and some experts have even picked the Celtics to win the East.
My predictions didn't get in the newspaper but here they are: Detroit over Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals. Phoenix over Dallas in the Western Conference Finals. Phoenix wins the title (I took into consideration that San Antonio has never repeated and doesn't get past the second round in even numbered years, but I picked Phoenix more with my heart than my head).
But anyway, back to the Celtics. My excitement about seeing them against the Wizards is more out of curiosity than anything else. You don't often see two all-stars join the same team in the summer. But Danny Ainge did the unthinkable, by finally getting Garnett out of Minnesota, only after he plucked Allen out of Seattle.
Folks in Boston are already preparing to add another championship to a town that already has the World Series champion Red Sox and the New England Patriots, who look like they'll win the Super Bowl - and go undefeated. The more I think about Celtics, though, the more I think they have a greater potential to disappoint than raise Banner 17.
I have them going to the conference finals, mostly because I've been blinded by the talents of those three players. Also, the last time Garnettt was surrounded by two players this talented (Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell) he won the league's most valuable player award, the Timberwolves won 58 games and came within a Cassell hip injury of going to the NBA Finals.
I've said in radio interviews that Pierce and Allen are more talented, but I often forget that Cassell won two championships in Houston - so he knows how to win - and Sprewell had been to the NBA Finals and once was named first team All-NBA. Pierce and Allen have never been to the NBA Finals or been better than second-team all-NBA. But they are on the tail end of their prime years, while Cassell and Sprewell were already in their mid-30s when they teamed with Garnett.
The problem I see with the Celtics goes beyond the obvious doubts about their inexperienced point guard Rajon Rondo and their lack of depth (because if one of those top three guys gets hurt and has to miss a lot of games, it could get ugly).
My problem with the Celtics, honestly, begins with the Big Three.
I don't think chemistry will be too much of a problem because I've seen the three of them together and they seem to genuinely like each other. Garnett is also an unselfish star who is willing to share and sacrifice his offense to get everyone else involved. He also has known his new teammates for years. He played with Pierce on an AAU team that won a tournament in Las Vegas and was familiar with Allen since their high school days in South Carolina. They have also spent a good amount of time getting to know each other better over the past few months - especially as the Celtics held training camp in Rome and London.
So what's the dilemma? None of them is a proven winner. For all of his Hall of Fame caliber statistics, Garnett has missed the playoffs three years in a row. Allen has been to the playoffs once in the past six seasons and Pierce has been to the playoffs once in the past four seasons. Granted, they had to carry some lowsy supporting casts, but think about it: one statistic that gets overlooked is that as the leaders of their respective teams last season, Garnett, Allen and Pierce won 32, 31 and 24 games.
That may be what motivates them this year, but it also makes you wonder how three players who have missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons can come together and win a title.
Also, which star will emerge as the true leader? Who will be the alpha dog in this trio? Who will be the guy who is willing to take the shot in the clutch and take the heat if he misses.
It might be cute now that these guys have been doing all of these interviews together, how they've taken all of these pictures with each other and how Garnett has done everything in his power not to slight Pierce, who was the primary building block of this extreme offseason makeover. That's fine and dandy, but somebody has to be the guy.
You can look back at the other Big Threes that won NBA championships in the past 25 years, and there was no question that Larry Bird was the leader of the Celtics; Tim Duncan was the leader of the Spurs. Garnett is the best and most decorated player, so you would assume that he takes that role, but Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor criticized him for not being the sort of dynamic leader who can galvanize his teammates and impose his will on the game. Allen and Pierce don't have those qualities either.
In the preseason, they were unselfish to a fault, but as the season goes on, they will have to step on each other's toes from time to time. It will be interesting to see what happens when they lose three or four in a row and someone has to be the calming influence - or get in somebody else's face. "Kevin's a passionate guy, and Paul's passionate," Allen said, "but they're also stubborn. They're also ornery, and I'm the same way."
We'll see what happens when they have to get ornery with each other. This could really be a legacy-building season for all of them. So far, all that they have done individually is put up big numbers, hit some big shots, make some all-star appearances and do a few commercials. Ray has even starred in a movie.
All three of them have said all of the right things about winning the ring being all that matters, but it's easy to talk about a championship. They've been around long enough to know how hard it is. They finally have help. They are not alone. But they have to learn how to win, as individuals and a unit. Since championship teams are rarely built in the offseason (although Miami came close in 2006), you have to assume that these guys will have to take a few lumps together.
My other concern is with Coach Doc Rivers. Personally, I like Doc. I'm glad that he finally has a talented team to coach for once. He's a great guy to talk to. He can really fill a notebook.
When I talked to him in September, he said that he is happy to finally be in a situation where there are expectations - he doesn't feel pressure, because "pressure is just a word," he said. But Rivers has to prove that he can win in the playoffs. He has yet to lead a team out of the first round, losing three times as coach of the Orlando Magic (including in 2003, when it blew a 3-1 lead against the Pistons) and once with the Celtics, when they were the third seed and lost to the sixth-seeded Indiana Pacers in seven games in 2005.
Once again, Rivers has never led a team this talented before, so he will really get a chance to prove what what kind of coach he is. But since he has never been in this position before - and neither have his players, with the exception of James Posey - it's hard to anoint this team just yet.
Yes, I think they can go far in a wide open East. I just don't see them getting out of the East. And, I'm not saying there is no chance the Celtics win the championship. I just think that the folks in Boston shouldn't start planning that parade in June just yet.
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