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It’s hard to say what’s most impressive about Kevin Durant. Is it his graceful fadeaway, the one that has opposing fans shaking their heads as soon as it leaves those comically gigantic hands? Is it his insistent leaner, in which he throws his rail-thin frame against an opponent, holds onto the ball until the last possible second and then somehow gets off a pure two-handed shot that doesn’t touch even an ounce of iron? Or is it his deceivingly smashmouth dunks, where somehow the 6’9 forward sneaks through two perimeter defenders before reaching back with one long, wiry arm and half-tomahawking the ball over a sheepish-looking center? That’s a lot of hypothetical questions, but it’s all Boston fans have when it comes to the one who got away.
That night in May 2007 was the lowest point in a low season for the C’s. We were all convinced that, despite the 24-58 record, despite the growing pains for Rajon Rondo and Al Jefferson, and despite the injury to Paul Pierce, the future looked bright. With the second-worst record in the NBA, the Celtics were poised to secure the first or second overall pick in the draft, and the right to draft Durant (with 22-year-old former first round pick Kendrick Perkins on the team at the time, it seems inconceivable that Ainge would’ve selected Oden, even with the first pick). Then the ping pong balls bounced in the most unlucky way they could’ve, dropping the C’s to 5th in the draft order and clouding the once bright future. Fans and media alike grumbled about trading Pierce, who had often looked frustrated alongside a ridiculously inexperienced supporting cast. And then…Jeff Green? A solid, likeable, do-all-the-little-things player at Georgetown, Green was nothing like the scoring wunderkind from Texas.
And then the pieces fell into place for Ainge. He parlayed Green’s draft rights, Wally Szczerbiak, and Delonte West into Ray Allen and Glen Davis. With Allen and Pierce, the Celts looked like competitor in the also-ran Eastern Conference, which had produced only two of the last nine NBA Champions. But for most Boston fans, who hadn’t seen a Finals game in the Garden since Bird and McHale were rocking short shorts, a Finals appearance represented progress. The team could at least hope for a better showing than LeBron’s Cavs, whose series sweep at the hands of the Spurs had been one of the least entertaining championship rounds in recent memory.
The arrival of Kevin Garnett changed all that, something that’s essential to remember when imagining an alternate universe where the ping pong balls fell the right way and the C’s got Durant. I wasn’t upset about giving up the first-round picks; Ainge had failed to do anything inspiring with first-round picks, picking up flotsam like Joe Forte and Gerald Green. I wasn’t upset about giving up Providence College product Ryan Gomes, an incredible hustle player who seemed to salivate over the opportunity to dive for a loose ball. I wasn’t even upset about giving up Big Al, whose maturation in three years was almost certainly the sign of greater things to come. When a player like KG, who unequivocally changes the team culture and chemistry in a positive way just by showing up, is available, you have to go get him. And with the chemistry and experience provided by Garnett, Allen, and Pierce, the Celtics did exactly what Celtics should be expected to do: they went into the season as favorites to win a championship, and lived up to expectations, putting up banner number seventeen in the Garden.
We can’t forget about that; say what you will about the team’s struggles this year (struggles that have been very ugly and very public at times), but losing out on the Kevin Durant Sweepstakes ultimately led to a championship. In the salary cap era, we can’t second guess the moves that lead to a championship. We can’t say that we’d rather have Durant, a once-in-a-generation scorer and possibly, if this year’s first round series with the Lakers is any indication, a future all-time great than that seventeeth banner. It does a disservice to that incredible season, which included two classic Game 7’s and a great showdown with the Lakers. But still…what if?
Let’s imagine, in a Lost-style “flash sideways,” that Durant comes to the Celtics. No Ray Allen, no KG. Durant’s an immediate starter, and with Paul Pierce having recently signed an extension through the 2010-11 season, that immediately gives the Celts one of the best scoring combos in the league. Of course, Doc is faced with a tough decision in terms of a starting lineup. The definite starters are Rondo, Durant, Pierce, and Jefferson, but there’s no clear-cut fifth starter. Tony Allen has shown flashes, but is too much of a head case to be back court battery mates with the young Rondo. Szczerbiak is a tried-and-true scorer, but plays matador defense, which will make the C’s woefully undermanned on D with Jefferson (who is, generously, a sub-average defender) and two young players like Durant and Rondo. Delonte may be a (slightly) better defender than Wally, but he needs the ball in his hands a lot (and Rondo, even as a second-year player, is clearly the heir apparent at the point) and starting him makes the back court too undersized. So Doc trots out Rondo, Pierce, Durant, Jefferson, and Perkins. It’s a very appealing lineup, reminiscent of the team Durant plays on now in Oklahoma City.
A weird season ensues in which the defending champs, the Spurs, are a non-factor from jump street. In the East, where the inveterate Pistons are the favorite, there’s still tons of parity. Pierce is healthy enough to put up numbers slightly better than his career average of 23-6-4. Durant, who doesn’t face the burden of carrying an offense by himself, shoots better 43% FG percentage by taking a couple fewer shots a game (13 or 14 instead of the 17.1 he ended up taking in Seattle), yet is still a potent second option; very few teams, especially in the still-woeful East, have the ability to stop both Durant and Pierce from scoring. Rondo is asked to do basically what he did for the 2007-08 championship team: take high percentage shots in the lane and use driving ability to kick to shooters (Durant, Pierce, West – as a sidnote, Wally is likely moved at the deadline, his large contract being bait enough to get back a veteran big man whose only responsibility is to provide energy and defense, e.g. PJ Brown for the championship C’s). Down low, Big Al has space to maneuver and, because of the aforementioned shooters, defenses that try to double down find themselves giving up 3-pointers. Perk ends up being the garbage man, rarely going into double digits (and probably shuffling in and out at the end of the game, with Big Al in for offense, and Perk in for defense), but shooting a high enough percentage to be efficient. At crunch time, the team goes slightly smaller, with Rondo, West, Pierce, Durant, and Jefferson/Perkins. The team is young, and Pierce is clearly the leader, but Durant is Option 1A. In a Conference where two teams would eventually make the playoffs with sub-.500 records, the C’s aren’t a lock. With any luck, though, they’re be contenders, likely a 5 or 6-seed (compared to the 2003-04 team that made the playoffs as an 8-seed, routinely trotting out Jiri Welsch and Raef LaFrentz, this team seems much more playoff-ready).
Additionally, getting Durant has the subtle but essential importance of slimming down the rotation (a problem Doc has faced throughout his coaching career). Rondo, West, Pierce, Durant, Jefferson, and Perkins are the core players, with Gomes, Szczerbiak (and/or a replacement via trade) and Scalabrine playing important minutes down the stretch. Gerald Green and Sebastian Telfair prove that they just don’t get it and sulk with one another on the end of the bench, but even that doesn’t disrupt this team’s natural chemistry. Rondo runs set plays that often have Durant curling off for a jumper or Pierce allowed to create one-on-one. When teams try to shut off the perimeter play, the team spreads the floor and pounds it to Big Al, who punishes one-on-one defense and learns to kick the ball out and trust dead-aim shooters (while Durant’s 3-point percentage was a cringeworthy 28.8% during his rookie year, many of those shots were contested; at the very least, the amount of open 3’s he gets on a far more balanced C’s team bumps that up to a more respectable level). With a sparkplug at the point, an up-and-coming post presence, a fabulous young scorer, and a veteran point forward ready and willing to take the last shot, this is a team that makes some noise.
That’s who they end up being: not a championship team, but dangerous nonetheless. Pierce is a tenacious leader, and Durant’s ludicrous talent level suggests that the team, at its best, can play with anyone. If you match this team up with either the Cavs (the eventual 4-seed, bumped up to 3 here because the championship Celtics ended up being the 1-seed) or the Wizards (the 5-seed), the Celts have at least a fighting chance. Against LeBron and the Cavs, Doc asks Pierce to neutralize the phenom (much like he did in Game 7 of that year’s Conference Semifinals, when Pierce went toe-to-toe with the Cleveland superstar); Celtics fans can’t be unhappy with the “other 4″ matchup being Rondo, Durant, Jefferson, and Perkins v. Boobie Gibson, Devon Brown, Ben Wallace, and Zydrunas Illgauskas, and it will take a Herculean effort from LeBron to win that series. The Wizards’ balance potentially gives the Celts problems. Gilbert Arenas (fresh off an injury but still lethal…and not in a pointing-guns-in-the-locker-room-way), Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, and DeShawn Stevenson will challenge this young Celtics team. But if Perkins can provide some points with his back to the basket against Jamison (whose defense has always been suspect), then, again, the Celtics have a fighting chance.
The hypothetical situation of drafting KD ultimately isn’t about a first-round series in 2008. It’s about the long-term, about having Kevin Durant be a driving force in reviving Boston basketball. It’s about reliving the days of No. 32 and No. 33 by watching No. 34 and No. 35 elevate their play. With Durant, Rondo and Jefferson on rookie deals, Perkins signed to his first extension, Pierce with the team through 2010-11, and some bench pieces in place, the team is poised for at least 2 more years of competing in the East, far more if these guys see just how good they can be together. Extrapolate the respective growths of all the young players (Rondo becomes the floor general we know today, Durant becomes the same player who just averaged 30.1 for an entire season, Jefferson has the best low-post moves of any player under 24, etc.) and you’ve got the chips in place for a team that competes every year in the East.
Maybe we get all the way to 20 banners before Pierce retires. Maybe KD sustains a freak injury and the team never quite gets its act together in the postseason. Maybe success goes to the head of any one of the young players and he bolts too early for the chance at a bigger paycheck. Maybe Doc’s not the right coach to lead the young group (he is, admittedly, not a discipline-oriented coach like Gregg Popovich or Pat Riley) and the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts. Each one is as likely as the next, but it’s the not knowing that keeps C’s fans up at night.
Before the first-round series against the Heat, and given the team’s late-season struggles, I’d have given a couple toes to have Kevin Durant. Now, even with the C’s holding their own against the universe’s best basketball player, I think I’d give my right arm, the toes, and some limbs to be named later. Kevin Durant is a machine, some kind of divine intervention from the basketball gods who, evidently, don’t want LeBron to singlehandedly run the league for the next…however long he wants. KD is the type of player who, in Boston, would be mentioned in the sentence with Russell and Bird. No hyperbole. He’s a terror. When he guarded Kobe Bryant in Game 3, No. 24 went 0-6 with a turnover. That suggests a) Kevin Durant has learned how to play defense and b) he realizes that there is an extra gear necessary for the playoffs. Both prospects should be equally terrifying for NBA fans outside of Oklahoma City. If I were a Lakers fan (and I thank all the gods I can think of, every morning, that I’m not), I’d still be squirming about how close that first-round series was. In Game 3, KD bared his teeth, and the Lakers didn’t recover until they stepped back onto the Staples Center court. In Game 4, Kobe was a zombie, playing with the sort of disinterest we haven’t seen since his name was mentioned, every other day, in the same sentence as “demanding a trade.” The Lakers won the series; they were the better team. But you can’t tell me that teams in the West aren’t whispering to each other about finding some way, any way to slow down Durant.
If, as Vegas and most pundits have predicted, the current team falls valiantly to LeBron and Co., then the era of the Big Three is almost certainly over. Both Allen and Garnett have seemed out of sync or tired for vast parts of the season, never more so than during Game 1’s collapse against Cleveland. Paul Pierce looks like a boxer going into the final round, down by an unsurmountable amount on the scorecards and in need of a knockout punch. And in fairness, in Game 3 against Miami, Pierce showed that, at times, he can still throw a knockout punch. But it’s not enough in the East anymore, and it’s certainly not enough to win another championship, unless the Celtics can stay 100% healthy for three more rounds. Unless Rajon Rondo plays out of his skull (so far, so good, even if Carlos Arroyo and Mo Williams couldn’t guard most of Boston’s assistant coaches), the Celtics are headed for a long offseason, full of questions about who stays and who goes (and maybe, as this article suggests, a few “what if”s).
Would the future be brighter with Kevin Durant? Sure. Would having a player of that caliber in Boston long-term, be an absolute jackpot as a fan? Absolutely. Do I have nightmares about that 2007 lottery? Yes, although my psychiatrist tells me someday they’ll go away. But would I trade that beautiful green and white 17th banner for any single player? Not a chance in hell. This is the NBA in the 21st century, where the salary cap and the insane level of talent have become powerful anti-dynasty forces, where winning one championship is often the result of years and years of work. And, even more than that, we’re talking about the Boston Celtics. There is a certain smugness in the way we talk about the Celtics, something that it takes a Canadien, Steeler, or, yes, Yankee fan to understand. Championships are the only currency we understand, and we don’t give any of them back.
So, for now, Oklahoma City can take the dynamo in the white, teal, and red. We’ll keep watching him with dopey eyes, much like we watched Tim Duncan after he eluded us in the 1997 Lottery. We’ll play it close to the chest just how badly we’d love to root for a player like that. And if he ends up winning multiple championship rings, we’ll all curse under our breaths about the one that got away. But we’re not giving back our title.