(Editor’s note: Merry Christmas, everyone. Or happy holidays, whatever have you. Thanks for reading.)
It seemed like this day would never come. Not Christmas, but the beginning of the NBA season, the very season that once was in jeopardy because hard-line owners met a players union that didn’t want to lose everything it had fought for in the previous six and a half decades. After billions of dollars worth of concessions, threats of a hard cap that never came to fruition and a ridiculously rushed preseason, training camp and free agency period, Christmas Day brings us a bundle of five NBA games, featuring nine of the NBA’s best, most watchable and most exciting teams… and also the Golden St. Warriors. Hand down, man down. Momma, there goes that halfway decent NBA team that just threw $7 million at Kwame Brown.
The Celtics –- who officially signed Mickael Pietrus last night while I was enjoying Christmas Eve dinner with my family –- enter today’s 12 p.m. tilt in Madison Square Garden as five-point underdogs. Agree with the point spread or not, it symbolizes the new expectations in Bean Town. It’s still possible for the Celtics to win an NBA championship, but they no longer rest at or even very near the top of preseason predictions. It’s at least as easy (and probably easier) to envision an injury-riddled season followed by a first-round exit than it is to picture Kevin Garnett clenching his second championship hat and telling the entire world that anything is possible.
Boston still features three definitive Hall of Famers in its starting lineup, and it remains fact that none of those Hall of Famers are Boston’s best player –- that would be Rajon Rondo, the temperamental point guard with a broken down jump shot who nonetheless manages to impact every aspect of a game. Boston’s bench has been almost entirely rebuilt — only two substitutes return from last season, Avery Bradley and Sasha Pavlovic, and neither is expected to play much of a role. Doc Rivers is ecstatic by the lack of boneheads playing behind the Celtics starters. It’s safe to say we’ll see fewer tears shed on the bench, fewer 27-foot pull-up jumpers shot in transition, fewer games when we wonder whether Boston’s reserves have any idea whatsoever what Rivers wants them to accomplish.
What’s unclear at this point is whether that bench has enough playmaking and firepower to overcome the inevitable nights when Paul Pierce won’t fly so high, Kevin Garnett won’t move as swiftly and Ray Allen’s trifectas simply won’t fall. The NBA’s new compressed schedule means old legs will be forced into playing more games in a shorter timeframe; while it’s unclear exactly how that will affect teams, it seems safe to say benches this season will have a more prominent role. Boston’s bench should be reliable — Danny Ainge has assembled a crew of defensive-minded veterans who are okay with playing smaller roles, a crew that was fortified by the Pietrus signing, which pushes Bradley, E’Twaun Moore and Sasha Pavlovic further into the background while providing Boston with a reliable defender who can hit open shots (and sometimes falls in love with contested ones). While adding Pietrus will undoubtedly help, it did nothing to address Boston’s startling lack of playmakers in the second unit. With the exception of Brandon Bass, a natural-born buckets-getter, Boston’s bench is bereft of players who can create open looks for themselves or others, and will need to rely heavily on running the offense well to manufacture shots.
It’s become clear that Boston is never meant to face an easy path. The Celtics are all too familiar with the roads less traveled, roads that have in the past three seasons caused Garnett to miss the entire postseason, Kendrick Perkins to miss Game 7 of the NBA Finals and Rajon Rondo to fall victim to a cringe-worthy elbow injury that left the Celtics’ biggest threat essentially one-handed. That is not to make excuses or to claim that the Celtics would be four-time defending champions without their rash of ill-timed injuries – it’s unclear how Boston would have fared while fully healthy in 2009 and 2010, and last year it was quite clear that Boston lost to a better Miami Heat team. But the Celtics have had unreasonably bad luck during the past three seasons, from Garnett’s knee to Perkins’ knee to Rondo’s elbow to the O’Neal brothers’ entire bodies. And by “unreasonably bad luck,” I mean the Celtics are fighting age and bodies that don’t work quite like they used to, and will likely need to fight the same issues this season. Really, it doesn’t have much to do with luck, but with the wear and tear that’s accumulated during long careers. Considering that the Celtics’ starting five now includes players who are 33, 34, 35 and 36 years old (and the 33-year old is Jermaine O’Neal), expect numerous nights when you look in the box score and more than one player is marked by the term “DNP-[body part]”. Injuries to any of those starters could destroy Boston’s already tenuous title hopes.
The key will be entering the playoffs healthy, a goal that is quite ambitious, and even perfect health might not be enough. The Miami Heat are one year more cohesive and just added Shane Battier to solidify their bench. The Chicago Bulls have had more time to become acclimated with Tom Thibodeau’s system and Derrick Rose certainly shouldn’t take a step back in his development. The Los Angeles Clippers added Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, and Blake Griffin might leap through the rafters (both literally and figuratively) during his second year. The Lakers still have Kobe, the Mavericks still have Dirk (not to mention a supporting cast that’s probably even more talented than last year’s, if not as cohesive) and Oklahoma City might have the world’s most talented basketball team.
And then there’s New York, today’s opponent. It’s unclear whether Mike D’Antoni can instill a defensive system to stop anybody. It’s unclear to what extent Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire can peacefully co-exist while also lifting their teammates to another level. It’s unclear whether the Knicks will need to sign the hot dog vendor to a ten-day contract to play point guard. But the Knicks have two of the NBA’s most talented scorers, one of the NBA’s best defensive centers (Tyson Chandler) and – for the first time in a decade or more – real hopes of advancing deep into the playoffs. One gets the feeling the Knicks are a defensive mentality (or a defensive system, if you want to put some blame on the coach) away from becoming true contenders. Even with Anthony and Stoudemire, the Knicks might find it hard to win shootouts every night because the rest of their roster simply isn’t very talented.
The Celtics ousted the Knicks from the playoffs last year in four straight games. But it’s a new year and two new teams. Both are fringe title contenders. Neither is expected to be the elite of the elite, but if everything goes right, both of the squads who meet at noon today have a chance at holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy when everything’s said and done.
It’s Christmas Day and we have 66 Celtics games ahead of us in the next 120 days. Although Boston’s no longer a prohibitive favorite, the same championship aspirations exist, although this year a ring seems considerably more improbable.
Even if the Celtics don’t raise another banner, even if Boston flames out in a first- or second-round exit, we get the chance to watch the Big Three era continue this season. When the court rooms threatened to ruin the entire NBA season, that opportunity wasn’t always promised.
Enjoy today. Enjoy this season. We don’t know how much longer this will last.