"In my mind, this is a one-year [title] window for us. It's closing, there's no doubt about it." -- Doc Rivers
Not closing, Doc. It's closed.
Look, I think Doc Rivers has done great -- not good, great -- work as head coach of the Boston Celtics over the last four years. He's managed egos, stuck to a consistent philosophy (defense, defense, defense, team, team, team) and navigated the tricky reality of a team in slow decline about as well as it can be done. Wouldn't have traded Doc for any coach in the NBA over this run. I have no idea if he's the right guy for what is almost surely going to be a rebuilding job over the next half-decade -- he can win with veteran talent, that we know about Doc Rivers, and when you look at his record that's all he's really proven. But he's absolutely earned the right to be the guy with the first shot at whatever 2012, 2013 and 2014 is going to be for the Celtics.
But he's wrong about the 2011-12 Celtics. The title window simply no longer exists.
This isn't a knock on Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce or Ray Allen. This is how it goes in professional sports. We know this; we've seen it with this very franchise about 25 years ago. The 2011-12 Celtics are about where the 1987-88 Celtics were: A couple of years removed from its peak -- though still dangerous -- but featuring a very proud core that has been through a million NBA wars and awfully tough to keep down for the count in a postseason series.
Here's the question you must ask when looking at the title prospects of the Celtics this season: Are they as good as they were a year ago? Well, Garnett's a year older -- he'll turn 36 during the playoffs and has now logged 47,998 minutes (playoffs included) during his career -- and continues to battle knee problems that simply do not go away.
It's been written and said somewhere north of 3,662,886 times since he arrived in Boston, but it also has had the wonderful advantage of being true: You and I and anyone who has even kept one eye on this team since November 2, 2007 knows that the health of Kevin Garnett has been the beginning, middle and end of any discussion regarding the title chances of this team.
But Garnett isn't the player he was in 2007-08. He was a First-Team All-NBA player and finished third in the MVP voting (and yup, I agree with you -- he should have won it). Any list of the five best players in the league had to have his name on it. Now? He remains a remarkably effective player for his age -- a deserved First-Team All-Defense last year, 15 points and nine rebounds per game in 31.3 minutes, still a 52 percent shooter from the floor -- and is still capable of occasional dominance (witness his absolute humiliation of Chris Bosh in Game 3 of last year's playoff series, a 28-18 masterpiece that was the basketball equivalent of relieving himself on Bosh, who looked alternately terrified and apathetic throughout).
If he was one of the five best players in the league in 2008, and maybe one of the dozen or so best in 2009-10, he's probably somewhere in the 20-25 range now. Again, no shame in that. Most all-time greats -- and Garnett is easily one of the two dozen best players in the history of the game, no debate -- are either done or in full shell of former self stage at age 35. But in the NBA, you need a top-five kind of player to win a title. The 2011-12 Celtics need the 2007-08 Kevin Garnett. And that's not going to happen.
Also there's this: The Miami Heat beat the Celtics in five games last season. Yes, it was closer than that, and yes, if the Celtics hadn't screwed up a sideline play at the end of regulation in Game 4 of the Miami series (one they've run hundreds of times with Paul Pierce) it could have been a 2-2 series and the Heat would have been in put in a very dicey spot. But it didn't happen and the series was over in five games.
You would have to think the Heat are going to be better than last season, at least not any worse. More comfort for the three guys -- still squarely in their prime -- playing together, Shane Battier, the desire to wipe out the stench of the loss to the Mavericks, all that stuff.
And you have to think the Celtics are not going to be as good as they were when the Heat series ended last May. Garnett, Allen and Pierce (already hurt -- not a season-ender, I understand, but still) all a year older, Jeff Green out for the season, no depth at center, not much depth at all, anywhere. I don't usually try and read into what goes on in an athlete's mind: we really have no clue. But there seems to be some sensitivity issues with Rajon Rondo (some attitudinal ones as well) and it's fair to wonder if the trade talk is going to be something that lingers with him all season. Add it all up? Sorry, the case cannot be made that the Celtics are anywhere near to the Heat when you size up the two teams as title contenders.
I was for the Kendrick Perkins trade -- the Celtics were never going to pay him $10 million a year, I don't trust his body to hold up (though he dropped so much weight during the lockout that he's a dead ringer for Jimmie Walker in season two of "Good Times"), this is a guy with career averages of 6.4 points and 6.1 rebounds a game, has never averaged 30 minutes a game in any season, all the "intangibles" we're told Perkins brings to a team go flying out the window when Garnett, Allen and Pierce are gone. But I have to be fair: It has weakened this team. Overrated or not, the Celtics miss Perkins. And it's swell that Jermaine O'Neal had a terrific preseason (which was about 36 hours long), but he's going to get hurt this year. Do you know how I know? Because he gets hurt every year. He's played in at least 70 games exactly once in the last seven years, and missed 58 games last season.
If you watched that Miami series, however, it wasn't the loss of Perkins that was the difference. It was the loss of Tony Allen. The Celtics had no one -- not Ray Allen, not Paul Pierce, certainly not Jeff Green -- to slow down LeBron and Wade. Now that responsibility falls to Marquis Daniels, who has played 54, 51 and 49 games the last three seasons and is about 10 months removed from a bruised spinal cord.
The reality is that the Celtics are the fourth or fifth best team in the Eastern Conference. If everything goes right between Christmas Day and the end of the playoffs, could they win a title? Probably not. The Green/David West lousy news combo put an end to that, I think. But that doesn't matter; everything isn't going to go right. Too much age and too much injury history.
And that's OK, it really is. It's been a helluva run with Garnett, Allen and Pierce. Totally unexpected and ultimately worth not getting the first or even second pick in that draft. (I've been torn on this issue. Would I trade the 2008 title for 15 years of Kevin Durant? I probably wouldn't. Tough to punt a title.) This group has had some brutal losses and injuries and never stopped playing hard. No team in my lifetime has given you a bigger bang for the buck.
So enjoy watching Ray Allen play his position better than anyone in history for his age. Enjoy watching Paul Pierce in his ongoing attempt to bump Dave Cowens out of the fifth spot on the all-time Celtics list (Russell, Bird, Hondo and Cousy are untouchables). Enjoy watching Garnett for what will very likely be his last season in Boston -- has any borrowed athlete had more of an impact on a franchise in this city?
Enjoy it all, because this is it. Garnett and Allen are off the books after this season, and the rebuilding has to start sometime. If you detect a whiff of desperation around Danny Ainge, it's understandable. He's seen this before, and he's not interested in a decade of 34-48 and 12th picks in the drafts and losing out on franchise player after franchise player. If they aren't able to land a monster free agent -- and there is no indication they will -- the Celtics are going to need some serious luck and creativity to be relevant again. This could be the last time this team plays on Christmas for a long, long time. It's just how the NBA goes. It's hard to be really bad (especially with Rondo) and hard to be really good. The Celtics look like lock for the in-between after this year.
And that's what that this team still is. Very good but not good enough.
Sorry, Doc. For Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, the title window is closed.