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For the first time in the Big Three era, the Celtics have won a playoff series without Kendrick Perkins wearing their signature green. Yet, it remained challenging for fans and analysts alike to watch Boston struggle at times in their first round match-up against the long playoff-deprived Knicks and not bring up the “P” word. With a reverence usually reserved for legendary Celtics of old like Bill Russell and Robert Parrish, Celtics Nation near unanimously wonders aloud with wistful if not bitter nostalgia; “What was Danny Ainge thinking when he traded Kendrick Perkins?”
The center position has been nightmarish for the C’s since Perkins went down with a crucial ligament knee injury in last year’s deep playoff run, despite valiant efforts from players like Rasheed Wallace (last year), Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal.
The sound of those names included as the Celtics backup centers still sounds crazy. Six years ago the only way you could get them to play from your bench would have been on a fantasy team. Their names are still synonymous with some of the greatest moments in our generation of basketball.
But, it’s not 2005. And when Wallace tried to put the Celtics on his back, he fell apart. When Shaq helped the Big Four to a comfortable spot atop the Eastern Conference, he fell apart. Now J.O. has stepped in after contributing minimally all year, performed as the others did with intensity and determination while everyone watches with minimal optimism, waiting for him to fall apart. And as many have pointed out in their own best impressions of Rick Pitino; Kendrick Perkins is not walking through that door.
On paper and based on fact alone, the trade never made any sense to begin with. Perkins had become the franchise center for the C’s, and it seemed that his skill set complimented, almost perfectly, the high scoring and defensively-apt Big Three, along with Rajon Rondo’s league-topping ability to quarterback his team on the floor and distribute the ball.
With Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rondo and Coach Doc Rivers all still together, healthy and playing well, it seemed like pure disaster to mess with success and perhaps a final chance to make a run for the title in the Big Three era; not to mention that with Perkins starting with the aforementioned four, the Celtics had never lost a playoff series. Some fans never see a team like this come together in their lifetimes, let alone win an NBA Championship and go to a Game 7 in another Finals.
The shock of trading away a piece as integral and involved in those championship runs as Kendrick Perkins still seems to linger, especially considering that in return for Perkins and huge 2010 playoff contributor, Nate Robinson, the Celtics received Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green. Danny Ainge’s original explanation for the trade was that he was looking to improve the team’s offensive production by bringing in a center that has a nice jump shot in Krstic and a finesse-type forward hybrid in Green to back up Pierce.
The two newest, offensive-prone and averagely-talented Celtics joined a team whose defensive scheming and strategy have been tantamount to their success; a defense that has been consistently credited with winning them a title and nearly stealing another.
There had been murmurs for a long time that Ainge wanted a more offensive center; a guy that could contribute more points in the paint. But unfortunately what Ainge failed to understand was that his team, just like many of the other championship teams from Boston in this new millennium, was constituted by intangibles. And he took the intangibles and shredded them. He ripped the core of their identity from underneath them.
It sounds corny and a bit overstated to say that these teams won championships based on chemistry and relationships, but it’s hard not to acknowledge when you see the chemistry issues that have plagued this team since the trade deadline.
Jeff Green for Nate Robinson. Fine. It’s understandable. Nate Robinson was almost always on the trading block for the Celtics, and Green is a more talented and natural scorer. Plus with Delonte West back and healthy, the point guard bench position was better filled and Robinson was never an ideal backup for the shooting guard position either. Marquis Daniels was almost surely out for the season, and the Celtics needed a reliable backup for their team captain. The trade definitely made sense and helps the Celtics in the longer term…
On the bench.
If Ainge is looking to bring Jeff Green up as the Paul Pierce’s eventual replacement, then he’ll do a decent, acceptable, more than likely underwhelming job. He will be exactly what he was for the Oklahoma City Thunder: a guy who, as a starter, can score between 15-20 points and provide subpar defense and very little physicality.
Perhaps I’m swayed by the legend that is Paul Pierce here in Beantown. Pierce, along with Tom Brady and maybe David Ortiz, is part of the heartbeat of this generation of Boston sports. He is like the Ray Borque of our time; only better because Celtics fans were lucky enough to watch him get everything he deserved here in Boston when Ainge brilliantly gifted him with Garnett and Allen.
I wouldn’t be going out on much of a limb to say that no matter who replaces Paul Pierce, they are never going to be Paul Pierce. So maybe it is better to at least bring in someone like Green now, get the fans and the personnel used to him and comfortable with him, and therefore cushion the considerable aching blow to Celtics’ Nation’s psyche that will be Pierce’s retirement. Unless the Celtics’ can pull off some huge draft or trade at the small forward position, which is still possible with the salaries of the Big Three off the books in the coming years, this makes the most sense.
It’s acceptable. Slightly depressing to think about, but acceptable.
Ainge made a straight-up trade up front of Kendrick Perkins for Nenad Krstic, and completely upended the team’s systemic makeup.
Some groups just click. In the NBA, we’ve seen that collecting the most talented players generally pays off. It’s the just the way that the game is designed. But the Celtics didn’t get Dwight Howard. They didn’t even get an aging Tim Duncan or a sixth man Lamar Odom.
Perkins is playing in the playoffs right now for another team, and Krstic is the third ranked center on this current Celtics team behind Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal. They have openly admitted that they would rather take a 40-year-old, barely-able-to-walk Shaq over the guy that they traded away Kendrick Perkins for. There is no way to twist that into a positive. There just isn’t.
Krstic for Perkins is abominable. The Celtics still, even without Perkins, have the talent and coaching to go the NBA Finals this year. They have proven that they can beat the Heat, and the Bulls, and even Howard and the Magic, without Kendrick Perkins. Whether they will have the health, stamina or mental willpower to do so remains to be seen.
If the Celtics go all the way to the Finals this postseason, it will not be with the help of Nenad Krstic, but rather in spite of him. The Big Four and Doc will put this team on their backs, aided by a three-man bench in West, Glen Davis and Green. The glaring Kendrick Perkins-shaped hole in the paint will not go away, whether Shaq comes back or JO keeps playing like it’s five years ago, or the Celtics just decide to go without a starting center completely. And if they do pull off the miracle and win it all this year, it will be just that; a miracle.
It will be in spite of Ainge’s trade, and in spite of his mismanagement of the personnel on his bench. It will be because he has four exceptional future Hall of Famers starting for his team and one of the best coaches in the league.