On the eve of another NBA season, we convened our expert panel to talk about the Celtics, their quest for Banner No. 18 and the league at large. Our panel agreed on some things (LeBron for MVP) and disagreed on others (just what position does Marquis Daniels play, anyway?) and one of us thinks the Magic and Nuggets are on a collision course for the NBA Finals.
A DOZEN FOR THE DOZEN
1. How many games will Kevin Garnett play?
Paul Flannery: Anything more than 70 would have to be considered gravy. Anything less could be trouble.
Jessica Camerato: 71. Doc Rivers will look to conserve the starters' playing time down the stretch, not to mention that the Celtics can't afford to take chances this season if Garnett feels any pain.
Mike Petraglia: 73, one game for every win the Celtics could have this season.
Kirk Minihane: 68. But anything will be possible in only 64 of those games.
Dan Guttenplan: 80. In an otherwise boring Celtics preseason, Garnett's health was the one pleasant surprise.
2. At the end of the season, how will Rajon Rondo be perceived?
Flannery: As the best point guard in the East, an All-Star and the future of the franchise.
Camerato: Rondo will be perceived as a hard-nosed point guard who matured to learn his role on the team.
Trags: The same as the beginning. A top-10 point guard whom the Celts need to win a title.
Minihane: Just about how he is now. A guy that can put up a 12-16-16 line but somehow drive you nuts while doing it.
Guttenplan: However Danny Ainge tells us to perceive him.
3. Will this be Ray Allen’s last season in Boston?
Flannery: Could go either way. It depends on how this team holds up and how amenable Allen is to staying for something less than prime wages.
Camerato: Yes, the Celtics may not be able to afford the type of contract Allen could receive from another team.
Trags: Yes, and it will end with bookend championships, cementing his Hall Of Fame career.
Minihane: Yes. But Tony Allen will sign a 25-year extension in March.
Guttenplan: Yes. For some strange reason, Ainge seems convinced he can use Ray's money to acquire someone in the LeBron, D-Wade, Chris Bosh free agent class.
4. What are your expectations for Paul Pierce?
Flannery: The one player I don’t worry about it in the slightest. Paul will be Paul, which is to say 18-20 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and whatever needs to be done when it needs to be done.
Camerato: Pierce understands the Celtics' window of opportunity and will have one of the best seasons of his career surrounded by talented veterans both in the starting unit and on the bench.
Trags: A no-nonsense season that will go under the radar and conclude with 19.0 ppg/6 rpg and, most importantly, its peak in the spring. And no regrettable tweets.
Minihane: Same as always. He’s the one guy I really don’t worry about.
Guttenplan: He'll be poorly shaven, play 82 games and lead this team in every possible way.
5. What does Kendrick Perkins have to do to get respect around the league? (No, seriously. What specifically does he have to do?)
Flannery: Perk learned something in the playoffs last season, which is that if he keeps his emotions in check and just plays he’ll get rewarded. I don’t really care about players getting technicals but he can’t try and keep pace with KG and Sheed.
Camerato: Perkins had respect last season after he made efforts to control his emotions on the court. He received more All-Defensive team votes than several notable players, including James Posey, Deron Williams and Jason Kidd, in the process showing his standing in the eyes of the league.
Trags: Hold his own with Shaq and Dwight Howard in the East and keep his technical fouls under eight before Christmas. That would be impressive in itself.
Minihane: I don’t know or really care. If he puts up 10 and 10 and stays healthy does it really matter if he’s on the cover of ESPN The Magazine?
Guttenplan: Start a media tiff with one of the big boys of the East to draw some attention to himself. And, no, Zydrunas Ilgauskas doesn't count.
6. Who will be the Celtics' best player off the bench?
Flannery: Rasheed Wallace will be the most important, especially if one of the starting big men gets hurt.
Camerato: The Celtics got burned by perimeter players during the playoffs last season. The addition of Marquis Daniels gives them the defensive stopper they have been searching for since James Posey left.
Trags: Sheed, because the C’s need him the most.
Guttenplan: Big Baby. If he could dish out more hard fouls and fewer tears, he'll take a giant step this season.
7. Can Marquis Daniels and Eddie House handle the backup point guard duties or will Danny Ainge be looking to bring someone in at the trade deadline again?
Flannery: I want to believe they have the problem solved, but I frankly have my doubts. Ty Lue is already in the house, however.
Camerato: The combination of the two should be sufficient.
Trags: Marquis will be the man to fill that role. Though Tyronn Lue is waiting.
Minihane: I think they’ll be OK, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see a veteran in here at the end of the season.
Guttenplan: If we learned anything from last year's Stephon Marbury acquisition, it's that Ainge will do everything in his power to add a mentally unstable, shoot-first, defensive liability to spell House.
8. Speaking of Daniels, what is his best position going to be?
Flannery: He’ll be asked to play point probably more than he should, but Daniels' best position is, somewhat ironically, no position. Make other teams match up with him, not the other way around.
Camerato: Daniels will be most valuable at the three spot where he can give Paul Pierce room to breathe while serving as a perimeter defender.
Trags: Back-up point guard. Doc loves to create mismatches and Quisy’s length at point will be just what Rivers will order up. Though he may get more time at the No. 3 early in season.
Minihane: I still think he’s a small forward.
Guttenplan: On the bench, standing up, waving a towel.
9. What’s the most important tangible benefit that Rasheed Wallace will bring to the Celtics?
Flannery: Wallace will be the defensive difference-maker that the second unit lacked last season. And he’ll be able to out-talk Garnett, which isn’t really a benefit but it will make things more interesting.
Camerato: Wallace understands what it takes to win. He may be in the second unit this season but he will give the same energy as he did as a starter.
Trags: Intensity and toughness. All due respect to Scal, when KG took a seat in the past, there would be a drop-off in the "talk" factor. That certainly is NOT the case now.
Minihane: Is “KG insurance” tangible?
Guttenplan: He'll take pressure off of Garnett by leading the team in stats like technical fouls, F-bombs and number of fans he's offended in the front row.
10. Can Glen Davis continue to add to his game or is this as good as it gets?
Flannery: I’d like to see him rebound more effectively and also understand that his role isn’t to score in bunches, but to make that jumper consistently.
Camerato: It's not what Davis adds to his game that will help the Celtics, but rather how he adapts his game to perform off the bench.
Trags: Yes, as long as he doesn’t turn into a jump shooter. He is massive under the boards and a hard guy to stop less than seven feet from the basket.
Minihane: I’ve been wrong about Davis since Day 1 (did not think he was an NBA player at LSU) so I’m done putting limits on him. Maybe the guy you saw in the playoffs last year is what you’ll see all year in 2009-10.
Guttenplan: He started to show some signs of becoming a physical big man in last year's playoffs. I could see him continuing to mature physically and emotionally.
11. Which one of the young Celtics — Bill Walker, J.R. Giddens or Lester Hudson – is more likely to emerge and find a role?
Flannery: My heart says Bill Walker, but my head says Lester Hudson if only because there’s an obvious need for what he does. Much like Gabe Pruitt, he’ll get his chances here and there. The rest is up to him.
Camerato: Considering how deep the bench is this season, none of them may find a significant role on the team.
Trags: Extremely tough call. But I will go with Lester Hudson since Walker is coming off surgery and Giddens is still raw.
Minihane: And that would be a tie. No chance for any of the three this year.
Guttenplan: It seems like the Celtics like what they've seen of Hudson. Giddens seems likely to take Tony Allen's minutes. But Walker proved last season that he can play if needed. I'll say Walker.
12. Who will wind up having the bigger impact: Brian Scalabrine or Shelden Williams?
Flannery: Scal. Every time he gets written out of the rotation he finds a way to do something useful.
Camerato: Scalabrine already has the chemistry and understanding of the Celtics system, making him more reliable than Williams.
Trags: Poor Scal. He's starting the season banged up again — this time with a sore right ankle — so Shelden Williams will provide some defensive depth.
Minihane: Scal, I guess.
Guttenplan: For the fans watching at home, Shelden Williams will have a greater impact because we'll see gratuitous shots of his wife, Candace Parker, in the stands. For those attending the game, we all know any Brian Scalabrine appearance nearly incites a riot at the Garden.
SIX MORE FOR BANNER 18
13. What’s your biggest reason for concern?
Flannery: Age and injury. The only two things that have held them back.
Camerato: Health — this team is dangerous when everyone is able to contribute. There is a lot riding on KG's knee this season.
Trags: Teams attack Rajon Rondo and he tries too hard to show the rest of the league he belongs among the elite NBA point guards. Rondo should remember that he has extraordinary talent around him and he’s doesn’t need to overdo it on the court.
Minihane: Garnett’s health. Is there really anything else even close? If he’s healthy they have a coin flip chance to win the title. If he’s not they have a coin flip chance to be a pesky spoiler in the playoffs.
Guttenplan: I'm younger than four of the top five Celtics, and I can barely make it to the refrigerator without spraining my ankle.
14. The C's team defense in 2007-08 was historically good. While still among the best in the league in 2008-09, it wasn’t quite that good last season. How will it stack up in 2009-10?
Flannery: Depending on health, their defense can be as good, if not better then the 2007-08 team. If nothing else it should be more disruptive (steals, blocks) than last season.
Camerato: The combination of defensive-savvy vets and the development of players like Rondo, Perkins, and Davis make the 2010 Celtics a better defensive team than the 2008 squad.
Trags: Better than 2008 because they have more defensive depth and athleticism than any team in the league. They will make a run at the all-time single season record for fewest points per game allowed.
Minihane: I’ll assume Garnett is healthy. Somewhere in the top three or four.
Guttenplan: I’ll predict continued regression. Rasheed Wallace won't make them any better on defense, and everyone is two years older than in their historic season.
15. According to our crack research department, the over/under for wins this year is 57.5. You want the under or the over?
Flannery: The over. Barely.
Camerato: Over. The Celtics won more games than that last season with injuries and a weaker bench.
Trags: Easily the over. Not even close.
Minihane: Over. 62-20.
Guttenplan: I predict they’ll push.
16. Will anyone in the Atlantic Division challenge the Celtics?
Flannery: Short answer: No. Long answer: Toronto will give the C’s a run when they play.
Camerato: There may be the occasional upset throughout the regular season, but none of the other teams in the Atlantic Division can challenge the Celtics for 82 games.
Trags: New Jersey and New York are pretty miserable but Philly is the only hope with a healthy Elton Brand. But the loss of Andre Miller to Portland hurts.
Minihane: Nyet. (Ed. note: Kirk is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Russian billionaire to New Jersey.)
Guttenplan: Nope. Not unless Elton Brand morphs into Amare Stoudemire.
17. Which Eastern Conference team is a tougher matchup for the Celtics: Cavs or Magic?
Flannery: Orlando. The Magic’s combination of youth, size and skill makes them the toughest matchup in the league, which is different then saying they’re the best team.
Camerato: The outside games of Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis make the Magic the tougher matchup during a playoff series.
Trags: Magic. As long as the Magic keep Rashard Lewis on the straight and narrow, they have the edge on Cleveland. Add in Vinsanity with Superman and they become the only Kryptonite to the Celtics.
Minihane: Cavs. I actually don't think either team presents any nightmare matchup scenarios, so I'll just pick the team with the best player in the league.
Guttenplan: The Cavs. They're the best team in the East; they just have matchup issues against Orlando. If healthy, the Celtics can match up with both teams, position by position. LeBron's going to be the difference.
18. Beyond the Cavs and Magic, which Eastern Conference team will you be keeping an eye on this season as a possible sleeper team?
Flannery: All summer long I was going to say Washington, but now I’m thinking Atlanta has a chance to take that proverbial next step. It’s all on you, Marvin Williams and Josh Smith.
Camerato: The Washington Wizards are intriguing if they can stay healthy.
Trags: Philly. Marreese Speights, Thadeus Young and Elton Brand to go with Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams make the 76ers arguably the most athletic young team on the rise.
Minihane: Does Atlanta qualify? I think they can win 50 games or so.
Guttenplan: The New Jersey Nets, thanks to addition by subtraction when they allowed Vince Carter to walk. Devin Harris will be second-team All-NBA.
NBA BONUS QUESTIONS
19. What offseason move will have the biggest impact?
Flannery: The Magic essentially swapping Hedo Turkoglu for Vince Carter will either make them tougher in the halfcourt or way more predictable. It’s the classic second-guess move.
Camerato: The Cavaliers acquired Shaquille O'Neal to give LeBron James a better shot at the title. If that move turns into another failed experiment, it could be enough for James to leave Cleveland in 2010.
Trags: The combo of Daniels and Wallace gives the Celtics the most depth, the lack of which was the only thing missing last season.
Minihane: Richard Jefferson to the Spurs.
Guttenplan: The Magic's acquisition of Vince Carter. The Celtics needed the Magic to take a step back, and Vince certainly has had that effect on teams.
20. What offseason move will teams regret by January?
Flannery: The Lakers getting Ron Artest. When Mitch Kupchak calls up Daryl Morey and asks for a do-over, you’ll know. (Allen Iverson in Memphis also won’t work, but everyone already knows that.)
Camerato: The combination of missing out on Hedo Turkoglu and signing an unhappy Andre Miller does not bode well for the Portland Trial Blazers.
Trags: The Magic trading away Hedo Turkoglu, the man who won Game 7 in Boston last May.
Minihane: Artest. He's actually one of my favorite players, but I just think it's a toxic mix.
Guttenplan: They’ll regret allowing the first-string referees to return from the lockout.
21. What was the best under-the-radar offseason move?
Flannery: The Cavs getting Anthony Parker helps them in ways they probably didn’t even consider at the time.
Camerato: Marquis Daniels to Celtics (see above).
Trags: Richard Jefferson to San Antonio. Gives the Spurs a valuable weapon to pull people off Duncan and spread the court.
Minihane: I think Charlie Villanueva will help the Pistons.
Guttenplan: When the Cleveland Browns traded away Braylon Edwards to keep LeBron happy.
22. What team is the most overrated?
Flannery: Chicago. We’ve been down this road with the Bulls before. They exist to disappoint.
Camerato: Cleveland Cavaliers — There are too many question marks surrounding LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal's compatibility on the court.
Guttenplan: The Dallas Mavericks are going to need Mark Cuban to supply steroids to remain competitive.
23. What team is the most underrated?
Flannery: For a team that made the Western Conference finals last season, no one is really talking about Denver. That will change.
Camerato: Oklahoma City Thunder — They aren't title contenders just yet, but this isn't the same team that moved to OKC in 2008. Watch for Kevin Durant to have a breakout season surrounded by talented young players.
Minihane: I'm not hearing a lot of love for New Orleans. This is a team just two seasons removed from 56 wins with a top-five player in the league. (Ed. note: No, Bradford, he doesn’t mean Posey).
Guttenplan: The Nets. They're this year's Chicago Bulls — a team no one wants to see in the playoffs.
24. Who are your top three MVP candidates?
Flannery: LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard.
Camerato: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade.
Trags: LeBron, Kobe and Superman (i.e., James, Bryant and Howard).
Minihane: LeBron, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant.
Guttenplan: LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe.
25. What is your Finals prediction?
Flannery: Magic over Nuggets in seven. A brilliant series that no one will watch.
Camerato: Barring injuries, Celtics vs. Lakers. Depth/urgency give the Celtics the edge.
Trags: Celtics over Lakers in six. Just not by 39 this time in the finale.
Minihane: Celtics vs. Spurs.
Guttenplan: Spurs over the Cavs in 6. And WE FORGOT ABOUT TIM DUNCAN!