As a new NBA season dawns, we’ve assembled our panel of hoops experts to break it all down. Will Doc Rivers stick around? How good will Kevin Garnett be this season? Is Rajon Rondo ready to take the reins?
We answer all the burning questions and offer fearless predictions.
1. Does the regular season matter?
Paul Flannery: It does, but not in the way you might think. It would probably be wasted energy to try and keep up with Miami and Orlando in the East, but Doc Rivers knows his team can’t go through another season like the one they had.
Ben Rohrbach: Absolutely. Eight more regular-season wins last year, and the Celtics would’ve hosted Game 7 of the finals—and be defending another NBA title right now. Homecourt means even more this year, as the C’s face potential seven-game series against Orlando, Miami and Los Angeles.
Mike Petraglia: Only to the teams that really need to make a point and need home court advantage. I present you the Oklahoma City Thunder. Outside of the trio in Miami, there will be a lot of focus on this team to see if Kevin Durant is an MVP and if the Thunder can make noise out West.
Kirk Minihane: Well, if the Celtics win 50 games and start the playoffs as the four seed we’ll all be writing how the regular season means nothing, right? And for this team it’s true. Let’s be honest: Going into Orlando or Miami and trying to win a game isn’t like trying to go into the Garden in 1986.
2. Are you optimistic about Kevin Garnett’s chances of becoming the KG of old?
Flannery: Yes, but with a note of caution. He’ll be better than last year, but expectations are already getting out of control. The 2007-08 KG is gone and not coming back.
Rohrbach: The consensus in the Celtics locker room is that KG is as healthy as he’s been since 2008, and I don’t see why they’d set those expectations if it weren’t true. The real KG will stand up, expletives and all.
Trags: Offensively, definitely. One needed only to see the playoffs last year to see what kind of force he can be. He and Durant have the best range for any big men in the game.
Minihane: Wait and see. Anything’s possible (sorry). He’ll never be the 2008 KG again, but as we saw in last year’s playoffs they don’t need that. As long as he’s healthy in May and June the Celtics don’t care what he does from November-April.
3. What can the C’s expect from the O’Neal brothers?
Flannery: If they’re lucky, 120 games combined and 15 points and 10 rebounds a night between them.
Rohrbach: About 60 games apiece, 25 minutes a night from JO and 15-20 minutes a night from The Big Shamrock until Kendrick Perkins returns. After that? A pair of first-rate bench players. After all, sixty to seventy percent of an O’Neal is still some pretty good O’Neal.
Trags: Lots of photo opps. Together, they are unbelievably accommodating to the media and accountable. On the court, if the Celtics can get a combined 15 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks per game from them, they’ll be smiling that happy ‘O’Neal’ smile.
Minihane: Lots and lots of Tweets without capitalization. Oh, and 35-40 minutes a night of perfectly serviceable play in the middle. (And yes, cherish Shaq this year if only for this: He is our last link to Greg Kite—they were teammates in Orlando in 1992.)
4. If Rajon Rondo is ready to lead, are the Celtics ready to follow?
Flannery: That is the great-unanswered mystery for the Celtics this season. Rondo is ready to be the best player on a championship team, but I’m still not sure the Celtics veterans are as ready for it as he is.
Rohrbach: On the floor, offensively, the Celtics will follow Rajon Rondo. He’s the best point guard in the East, and every member of the C’s recognizes that. Defensively, KG commands this team. Off the floor? No 24-year-old is leading a team that has five guys with at least 12 years of NBA experience.
Trags: This IS Rondo’s team. Best example of this... Rondo was teaching Jermaine O’Neal the offensive sets after practice the week before the season. He wanted to be sure that if O’Neal is on the court, he knows what to do when he gets that first bullet no-look pass. I’d say that answers that question.
Minihane: Nah. Rondo is the best player on the team, but Garnett/Pierce/Allen run the ship. It’s just the dynamic of the team.
5. Do you believe in the second unit?
Flannery: Not yet. They are still dangerously thin on the wings and if anything happens to Delonte West or Marquis Daniels that could expose Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to playing too many minutes. Again.
Rohrbach: The Celtics have the best second unit in basketball. I actually think the unit of Nate, Delonte, Marquis, Big Baby and JO could beat the Raptors. I’m not joking. All right, enough talk about units. It’s making me uncomfortable.
Trags: If Glen Davis doesn’t get into any trouble days before the season opener like last year, definitely yes. He is the key to the second unit since he provides a lot of size and energy, not to mention scoring. The other player to watch off the bench is Delonte West when he gets going and returns from 10-game suspension, it’s instant offense.
Minihane: I think that was the first tag line for “Boogie Nights.” Who knows? I do think the single most valuable off-season addition will be Delonte West, though. This is a guy who shot 40 percent from 3 and played 34 minutes a game for a 66-win Cavs team just two years ago.
6. Will this be Doc Rivers’ last season with the Celtics?
Flannery: I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to that, Doc included, but I’ll go out on a limb and say yes, this will be it, especially if there’s a lockout this summer.
Rohrbach: No. This team’s been talking about a two-year window ever since they showed up to camp. Danny Ainge will do everything in his power to convince Doc to stay through 2011-12, because these old dogs aren’t going to want to learn new tricks from another coach next season.
Trags: Yes. I think he wanted one more shot after the heartbreak of Game 7 last June. He agreed to one more year after Danny Ainge reworked the roster with veterans like Shaq and J. O’Neal. He doesn’t want to miss Austin Rivers at Duke.
Minihane: Oh good, this is starting again. I think this is a two-year title window and everyone—Doc included—will be around for the whole run.
Questions from Twitter submitted to Flannery @pflanns.
7. The Celtics have spent much of the offseason addressing their rebounding flaw. What could the their 20110-11 fatal flaw? via @WAD1980
Rohrbach: I could say age, but that’d be too easy. How about the lack of a true go-to scorer? It’s been the Magic’s Achilles heel the last few years. The Lakers have Kobe. The Heat has D-Wade and LeBron. The C’s don’t have that guy who can score when you absolutely need a bucket. Paul Pierce is no longer that guy.
Trags: Defensive speed. As much as people will point to their age, this is where losing Tony Allen hurts. Marquis Daniels will try to fill the role.
Minihane: Considering five of their top six guys played in the 2002 All-Star Game I’m going to with age.
8. What does the team’s age and addition of lumbering Shaq do to Rondo’s running game? via @Kelleratlarge
Flannery: First, I’d like to thank the dean of Boston’s political reporters for taking time from the governor’s race to ask a question. Rondo will run, it’s going to be up to the rest of them to follow. Now, tell us who’s going to win the election, Keller.
Rohrbach: Oh, Rondo will run. Actually, in the preseason, Shaq’s shown a remarkable knack to find Rondo with an outlet pass. He can start the break, perhaps better than Perkins, and he doesn’t necessarily have to finish it. KG can do that, while Ray and Pierce spread the wings. Perk wasn’t exactly Usain Bolt, either.
Trags: On the first unit, Pierce, Ray and KG can still run like the wind. No worry there. And Rondo can run with Delonte and Nate on the second unit.
Minihane: It’s not really how it works—if Rondo has the ball and the numbers he’s going to go. Shaq will be doing the rebounding and outlet anyway, it’s not like he’s going go to be James Worthy circa 1988 on the fast break.
9. Do you think the Celtics will have problems with the new rules on technical fouls? via @Producepat
Flannery: Um, yes. The NBA should have just gone ahead and changed the term from techs to Perks.
Rohrbach: That’s like asking if Woody Harrelson would have a problem with stricter marijuana regulations. The Celtics already had a problem with technical fouls. The new rules only make it a bigger problem.
Trags: No. I think that was a lesson learned from last season with so much focus on Perk. The C’s are a bunch of veterans and they’ll pick their spots.
Minihane: Nah, they’ll be even better at picking them up. Hello, NBA record!
10. Are there any signs that Kendrick Perkins feels threatened by the competition at center and the emerging popularity of Shaq in Boston? Via @efeghali
Flannery: I’m not sure that it matters at this point. But one thing that needs to be said, the Celtics have thrived off Shaq’s personality. It’s been a better fit so far than anyone could have hoped for.
Rohrbach: No. In the preseason, Perk walked to the bench, asked whoever was sitting next to Shaq to slide over and then plopped down next to him. And the two of them joked around. The center position is Perk’s if he returns healthy. If anybody should feel threatened, it’s Shaq, but he’s been saying all the right things.
Trags: No. I think by the time Perk is ready to come back, Shaq and Jermaine will need to cut back their minutes anyway. Shaq and Jermaine are aging and not a threat.
Minihane: I’d be surprised. Judging by his endless cameos on sitcoms and thousands of commercials, Perkins does seem consumed by popularity, but I think he’ll bite the bullet and take one for the team.
11. Finish the sentence: The Miami Heat will be…
Flannery: The best thing that happened to the NBA since Michael Jordan retired.
Rohrbach: On a mission—to be the Eastern Conference runners-up.
Trags: The most overexposed franchise in sports history.
Minihane: The team that Erik Spoelstra used to coach until he resigned on January 8 due to “health reasons.” Nah, I think Erik lasts the season. But nothing less than a title or it’s Reilly or Doc or whoever on the hottest of hot seats in 2011-12.
12. How much are you buying into the Kevin Durant/OKC hype?
Flannery: I’m not fully sold on the Thunder. They’re not big enough up front and I want to see how Durant and Russell Westbrook develop as a tandem. But Durant? Absolutely.
Rohrbach: I guess it depends on what the hype is. Will Kevin Durant be the MVP? How much can I buy into that for? I’ll take it. As for OKC, I’ll buy that they’ll be No. 2 in the West, but it’s still the Lakers’ conference.
Trags: A lot. Durant is legit, Jeff Green is a player no one talks about. And Russell Westbrook is an All-Star point. That is a Big 3 deserving of the hype.
Minihane: I don’t see where they’ve done enough to get past the Lakers. Durant is the best player in the world and Westbrook will improve, but they still don’t have a presence inside to deal with Gasol/Bynum.
13. Who will be more affected by injuries: The Celtics or Lakers?
Flannery: The Lakers have played a lot of basketball the last three years. It catches up with them this season, but they’ll still find a way to get to the Finals.
Rohrbach: The Lakers. Because of their depth, the Celtics can survive more injuries. Their best player (Rondo) is young and healthy. Meanwhile, Bynum and Kobe are already battling knee issues, and you kind of need knees to play basketball. Still, Pau Gasol is uninjurable (is that a word? Ed: no.) Llamas are pretty resilient.
Trags: The Celtics, because their depth is with older players.
Minihane: Lakers—pencil in at least 30 missed games for Andrew Bynum. I’m not sure any A-List Celtics player will miss that much time. Throw in the Kobe knee and the champs have some worries.
14. Is everyone sleeping on Orlando?
Flannery: Yes. Wake up over there, Vince Carter!
Rohrbach: I know I am. What did they do to make their team better? Sign Chris Duhon? The Lakers addressed their issues (point guard depth and toughness). The Celtics shored up their problems (length and rebounding). The Heat had the greatest free agency in the history of the league. Yet, the Magic did nothing.
Trags: No. I just think it’s time for Dwight Howard to find another gear.
Minihane: No, because they are what they are. Built for the regular season. I’d like to think they can challenge Boston or Miami when it counts, but the image of Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis having a Bird-Nique level duel of vomiting all over themselves during the Celtics series still lingers four months later.
15. Can the NBA survive a lockout?
Flannery: Survive, yes, but they need to be careful. The league is on a massive upswing and they don’t last forever in the NBA.
Rohrbach: Yes. The league is perhaps more popular than it’s ever been. The league’s young stars—LeBron, Durant, Wade, Howard, Rondo, Rose—will still be young whenever the NBA opens its doors again from a potential lockout. Sure, it could take a hit, but it’ll survive.
Trags: Yes. Fans come back. They always do. But when they do, the league could be 4-6 teams lighter.
Minihane: The fast answer is “no”, but come on. If you love basketball you’ll be back. It’ll hurt, but the casual NBA fan has been gone for years. And here’s a vote for contraction. Goodbye to the T’Wolves, Bobcats, Grizzlies and Hawks.
16. Who will win Rookie of the Year?
Flannery: Blake Griffin is the logical choice, but I’ve got my eyes on DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings have replaced the Warriors as my League Pass after dark favorites.
Rohrbach: Blake Griffin. The guy’s an absolute monster, and I think being around the league for a year—even though he was injured—can only help him.
Trags: John Wall in a landslide. He is a difference maker and he will get the chance to play a lot for a rebuilding team in Washington. He has not disappointed in preseason, averaging 15.7 points, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals. He is also averaging 3.9 turnovers, not great but not surprising for rookie point.
Minihane: Blake Griffin. If he stays healthy (huge if—already dinged up with an ankle thing) he’s going to be an 18-10 guy. I don’t see the Karl Malone comparisons—to me he’s more like Shawn Kemp from his Seattle days.
17. How about the MVP?
Flannery: Dwight Howard is by far the best defensive player in the league. He’s so good on that end it’s taken for granted that he gets 20 and 10 every night. That will change this year.
Rohrbach: Kevin Durant. He could average 35 points and 10 boards a game. Nobody’s done that since Wilt Chamberlain, and he was a center.
Trags: Kevin Durant. He is the go-to guy for the Thunder. He has it all, size, agility and skill. That’s a perfect formula for an NBA big man. And he knows how to use it.
Minihane: Kevin Durant. I know, I know—he’s everyone’s pick. But he’s going to average 35 points for a team that’s going to win 55 games.
18. What team will be the biggest disappointment?
Flannery: Atlanta needed to do something of note in the offseason to keep its run going, but signing Joe Johnson to a long-term max deal wasn’t it.
Rohrbach: The Nuggets. The constant ‘Melo rumors will only bolster Denver’s already existing me-first attitude.
Trags: Denver Nuggets. Melo will be off to NY for a Spike Lee joint.
Minihane: I think Year One for the Heat will be a bumpy ride—guys adjusting to new roles, every game on the road is going to be the biggest event of the year in that city, all that stuff. And Bosh and Wade have each had some injury issues the past few years, no reason to think that’ll change. I still think they’ll win 60 games and be the two seed in the East, which by almost every standard is a great season but not with this crew. Out in six to the Celts in the Eastern Conference Finals.
19. What team will be the biggest surprise?
Flannery: The Blazers have gone from team on the rise to crushing disappointment in record time. Greg Oden has to have a healthy season in him, right?
Rohrbach: The Knicks. The Raymond Felton addition is almost as big as the Amar’e Stoudemire signing, and I’ve got them as a No. 6 seed in the East.
Trags: Chicago Bulls. Former Celtics defensive guru Tom Thibodeau works his magic in the Windy City. Bulls have a big bounce-back year.
Minihane: Someone has to win the LeBron-less Central Division, and it’ll be the Bucks, who with Andrew Bogut (healthy for now), Brandon Jennings, John Salmons and Corey Maggette are going to be really tough to defend. I think they win 50 games, which they’ve done only once since Don Nelson left in 1987.
20. Finals prediction?
Flannery: I keep picking them and at some point they’ll get it done. Orlando has talent, depth and the best center in the game. I’ll take them over the Lakers.
Rohrbach: Celtics over Lakers in seven. Shaq helps his new team gets their revenge, and his too.
Trags: Celtics beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in 6 games for their 18th NBA title.
Minihane: Lakers over Celtics in seven.