The Celtics were supposed to be a team on the way out last season. Injuries had derailed their bid to repeat as Champions in 2008-2009, and so the 2009-2010 campaign was to become little more than another step towards retirement for much of the roster, especially with the likes of Cleveland and Orlando having eclipsed them the season before.
Of course, what actually happened was Boston leaned heavily on their defence, their chemistry and on Rajon Rondo to knock both Cleveland AND Orlando out of the Playoffs, and finished one win (or some would say one Kendrick Perkins injury) away from winning their second title in three years. Last year Boston proved, just like the Spurs spent the better part of the last decade proving, that age is just an overvalued number in the NBA.
Going into this season, it's basically more of the same, only with the added benefit of having proven so many people wrong last spring. The club was still the fifth-best defensive team last season (based on their defensive efficiency) and they retained all of the key players from a season ago, save for the now-retired Rasheed Wallace. In his place slides Jermaine and Shaquille O'Neal, two former All-Star big men in the twilight of their careers looking for a shot at a ring (in Jermaine's case his first, and in Shaq's his Kobe-tying fifth).
Both will be called into action primarily in one key area: rebounding. During the regular season the Celtics were a surprisingly woeful rebounding outfit, ranking 29th in rebounds per-game (38.6) and ranking 25th in rebounding differential (-1.5 per-game). While they managed to up their output in the Playoffs marginally (39.1 per-game, -0.6 differential), they are going to be going up against some improved rebounding clubs en route to their coveted Finals destination. Unlike last season in their first-round matchup, Miami is a much stronger rebounding club today, with LeBron and Chris Bosh both ranking in the top-ten in rebound-rate at their positions last season. Orlando is routinely amongst the best rebounding teams in the NBA, and their pledge to get more minutes for Brandon Bass this year (while potentially slotting Rashard Lewis more at the three) should only bolster that ranking.
Then there are the Lakers, the second-best rebounding club in the NBA last season and a team that picked up Matt Barnes in the off-season, and his 5.5 rebounds-per-game (albeit as a sometimes starter for the Magic). If Boston wants to repeat last spring's success, they are going to need to prove they can clean up this area of their game. You can slide by once with that kind of limitation, but it's hard to see teams not work harder to exploit their lack of rebounding two years in a row.
Of course, for Boston it may all come down to how their seeding breaks down in the post-season. Unlike their relatively young Heat and Magic counterparts, the Celtics are a more aged bunch, and the injury bug has already affected their bid to repeat as East Champs. Perkins, who went down in the Finals with a sprained knee and ligament damage, will not be returning to action until at least January or February, and he's one of the few young guys in their rotation! There is no telling how durable Paul Pierce, Ray Allen or Kevin Garnett is going to be (let along the two O'Neal's) over the course of an 82-game schedule, and if they stumble in the regular season it could impact their post-season run, especially if they are forced to face Orlando or Miami in the first round.
For now, though, the Celtics are relatively healthy and coming off of a thoroughly impressive post-season run. They are undoubtedly one of the few legit powers in the NBA and they, as much as anyone, have to be looked at early as a serious threat to go all the way this season. Their path may not be as glamorous as that of Miami or L.A., but it stands to reason that that's just the way they'd like it.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – RAJON RONDO
It's funny to even think that a year ago the Celtics were waffling about whether or not to commit long-term dollars to Rondo with an extension. He's emerged as one of the pre-eminent players at his position in the league, and one of the most unique, too. He's a dominant rebounder for a guard, and tenacious defender and despite having no jumper to speak of he's a deadly offensive weapon. His $55-million extension now looks like one of the greatest bargains in the NBA, especially considering that he makes only $2 million more per year than Raymond Felton. He's the future of one of the most storied franchises in professional sports and at this time last year the club wasn't even sure that they should extend him. Amazing.
SG – RAY ALLEN
Allen was the sixth-best shooting guard in the NBA last season in True Shooting Percentage at 60.1%. He was 16th at his position in PER. His willingness to sacrifice was the key to making the Big Three work three years ago. As time winds on and as he plays more and more seasons with the Celtics, Allen's legacy is going to be remembered almost exclusively for his years as a support player in Boston rather than as a star in Milwaukee or Seattle. He's made the kind of transition from star to support piece that very few players have the character and discipline to make. Going from being the star on a team to just another role player (as good as he is at that role) is one of the most difficult switches to make, as Allen Iverson, Shaquille O'Neal and Tracy McGrady can attest. When people wonder why the Celtics committed $20 million this summer to more years of an aging guard's career, it's because replacing him is a lot more difficult than swapping names on a roster sheet.
SF – PAUL PIERCE
Pierce, like Allen, inked a generous extension this summer (Pierce's was of course longer and richer), but he is going to have to be the key ambassador that turns the Big Three's team over to Rondo over the next few years. While most generally accept that Rondo is the team's best player out on the court, he is by no means the team's leader in the locker room. He has yet to experience what it is like to have all eyes looking to him for leadership, and his failed bid to make Team USA this summer might have rocked his confidence a bit. Pierce is the face of this generation of Celtics basketball, and he probably has another year or so in that role, but if he wants the club to continue to prosper after his retirement, it would behoove him to take Rondo under his wing and show him all of the sides of stardom in the NBA that have nothing to do with on-the-court basketball.
PF – KEVIN GARNETT
This year, Garnett is the third highest-paid player in the NBA. He was a 14-and-7 power forward last season and he recorded his lowest PER in thirteen years. Despite his salary, he is a player in decline and he simply cannot will his body to do the things he wants it to do anymore. That means, then, that his basketball brain has to become that much more effective a weapon this season. Garnett's brain is one of the sharpest in the NBA, he sees angles and rotations intuitively that players spend entire careers trying to pick up. He's got to use that intelligence to put himself in better positions for rebounds. He needs to use his smarts to adjust his offensive game to not having his trademark explosiveness to rely on. He's in decline but if he wants it he still has several more years ahead of him as a wily NBA vet. But, he's got to start relying more on his mind than on his body from here on out.
C – JERMAINE O'NEAL
While Perkins is out, one of the O'Neal's is going to have to start for this team. While most figure that Shaq is the more logical choice, it says here that Jermaine eases into the spot a lot smoother. Shaq requires a lot more adjusting from everybody else than Jermaine does because he's bigger, slower and has more offensive talent left in the tank (with an outsized ego to match). If Perkins was going to be out for the whole season, then perhaps making all of those adjustments would be worth it, but seeing as how this is just a two-to-three month temp job, Jermaine is a smarter fit. Plus, playing against reserve bigs might just allow Shaq to look dominant again for stretches, and this bench could use that kind of offensive firepower from the reserve unit. When the time comes, though, Perkins will return as one of the most underrated centres in all of basketball.