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The Celtics just finished their second run to the finals in three seasons, coming up just short of Banner 18, what would have been the second title over that short span. The Celtics recent playoff success of course comes on the heels of the worst period of C’s basketball in their history. The previous 14 seasons produced one division title, a mere three teams above .500, six playoff appearances, three total playoff series victories (including one Eastern Conference Championship Series appearance), and twice putting up the second worst record in the sport. The span also saw six coaches at the helm: Chris Ford (1990-1995), M. L. Carr (1995-1997), Rick Pitino (1997-2001), Jim O’Brien (2001-2004), John Carroll (2004), Doc Rivers (2004-present).
Now that the series is over and the draft and free agency is looming, what is to become of the team as it currently stands? Is Ray Allen back? Is Kevin Garnett an expensive 15 (point) and 8 (rebound) guy or is he the more elite player the Celtics acquired (after a recuperative offseason)? Is Doc staying or going? Will Paul Pierce opt out? How far will the team regress? Are they still an elite team, even as an Eastern power? More importantly, how far does the team drop after next year, when KG’s contract expires? Were the big acquisitions worth a short run of success?
Ironically, the impetus for the recent Celtics surge was their 24-58 finish to the 2006-2007 season, the second worst in the league. The Green had the second most ping pong balls in the lottery and figured to get one of the top two picks in what looked like a two man draft. In one corner, there was Ohio State’s one-and-done freshman center, Greg Oden. NBA talent evaluators love size and many swooned over the prospect that appeared to be a franchise center, despite injuries in his single season at OSU, which forced him to miss a good portion of the season. In the other corner was Kevin Durant of Texas, who led the Longhorn hoops resurgence. The swingman could score, rebound, and find teammates. He seemed to have a lot of the intangibles as well, but seemed to be the second pick to most insiders. (Personally, I preferred Durant; I never trust players who seem so fragile, especially at such a young age.)
However, just like the 1997 draft (again the second best chance to win), which starred Tim Duncan as the number one selection, the lottery was unkind to the C’s, who “won” the third selection. With the Celtics not going to get one of the top two talents, as they certainly did not have enough to move up one or two spots, General Manager Danny Ainge took a different track.
Ainge first tried to work with former Celtic teammate Kevin McHale, now GM of the Timberwolves, to acquire Kevin Garnett. Garnett was disenchanted with Minnesota as they were about to go through another rebuilding after he had spent most of his career mired on a losing team there (one Western Conference Finals appearance), of which he did not want to be a part and he wanted to play for a serious contender. The Celtics overtures were failing because KG did not see the Celtics as having the pieces to contend in the short term, even with his addition, in the weak East (and he was right). He also wanted a warm weather setting, all things being equal. The Wolves were loathe to unload him to a fellow Western team, but the rumors of KG to the Lakers and Suns persisted and the talks of Garnett in Green dwindled.
On draft night, the Celtics made a curious move: they drafted Jeff Green and traded him in a deal to the Seattle SuperSonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) for Ray Allen. Allen, the former UConn star, was an aging veteran coming off double ankle surgery. He would fit the mold of a player to put a contender over the top. The Celtics had nothing to put over the top, heck, this might not even make them a playoff team. Celtic Nation seemed to know that this must be a precursor to something else. Were the Celtics going to acquire another player to fill out the roster, or was Allen simply on a layover to some other team? The answer came soon and very suddenly.
With the Allen acquisition, and Pierce already in the fold, McHale was able to convince KG that the Celtics could win now and Ainge dispatched the up-and-coming Al Jefferson and Ryan Gomes to Minnesota for the Big Ticket. The rest is history, or as KG would say, ‘Anything’s possible!’
The Celtics vaulted to the top of the Eastern Conference, won the 2008 NBA Title, remained in contention in 2009 despite some injuries, and made it to Game Seven of the 2010 Finals, just minutes short of their second title with this roster. Celtics fans can thank the ping pong balls for screwing the organization and forcing their hand.
What if the ping pong balls had fallen right and the C’s drafted one or two? Conventional wisdom says that they add Oden or Durant (who would have fit a bigger need for the Celtics) to Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Jefferson, Gomes, Kendrick Perkins, and the rest of the roster. The East was weak, and history has proven kind to Durant specifically, so would the Celtics have been able to build a contending team? Would they have acquired players like Eddie House, who were key to the Championship run, but short term answers? A team that young, save Pierce, likely would have been competitive, again given the Eastern landscape, and may have had title runs and possibly a title as well. Most importantly, their window would have been longer than the three to four years that the Pierce-Allen-Garnett-Rondo regime would have had. Might the Celtics even be in play for one of this offseason’s free agents to further complement the makeup they otherwise would have had?
Given the choice of one title in three years or the chance for a longer lasting run of success, which may or may not have produced banners, I think most people, myself included, would have taken the Championship regardless of the cost. If you can win now, I think most try it. Ticket sales, marketability of the team, and relevance dictate that in today’s money driven sports world.
Would you have rolled the dice with a young talented nucleus capable of keeping the Celtics in contention for years and possibly producing Championship fruit or would you take the guaranteed title and whatever comes of that era?
Another factor to note is that the Celtics fell to fourth among the big four professional teams in Boston over the stretch prior to 2008. The Patriots had turned the franchise around completely to a dynasty and perennial NFL power. The Red Sox reversed the curse and won two titles and even the Bruins saw some regular season success and some modest playoff success, though no championships. So, the Celtics’ success was more than just the one ring, it made basketball relevant in Boston again. How many green and white No. 5 jerseys do you see around town now? Would Kevin Durant have gotten Boston buzzing with excitement?
Was losing the lottery the best thing that happened to the Celtics since drafting Larry Bird?