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August 13, 2010
What If?
Taking the Celtics Back to Their Prime

by Marc Normandin

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If you're a pessimist, the first word that comes to mind when you look at the Boston Celtics' current roster is "old". If you're more the optimist type, maybe you think "experienced". It's the latter I want to focus on today, with a little exercise in looking backward at these experiences. While there's no denying that the best days of the Big Three are behind them, as well as those of free agent acquisitions Jermaine and Shaquille O'Neal, it's difficult to find a collection of players in today's game who have been around for this long and have been this productive throughout their storied careers. The game plan in this piece is to pluck the "old" Celtics roster out of 2010 and place it towards the beginning of the decade into a moment in time where, as a unit, they would have shaken up NBA history.

The idea stemmed from the general reaction towards Shaq's acquisition, which was in a nutshell, "It's great to have Shaq on the bench, but I wish he had been here 10 years ago." What if all of these guys were here 10 years ago? What kind of a roster would you have, and what kind of damage would they do in the Eastern Conference? In the 2001-02 season, the Eastern Conference was inferior to the West by a significant margin—there were a pair of 50-win clubs in New Jersey and Detroit, but no beast in the East. The West had the Spurs (58 wins), Mavericks (57), Kings (61), and Lakers (58) wins, along with the 50-win Timberwolves and 49-win Trail Blazers. The sixth-seeded Blazers had the same record as the #3 seed, Boston, from the East.

The Celtics weren't a bad team by any means, but they weren't a dominant force. They relied heavily on the three-pointer, with Antoine Walker finishing second in the NBA with 222 of them, and Pierce sinking 210, good for third. Pierce and Walker were both in the top five in minutes that season as well, with Walker leading the league at 3,406, the lone player to cross the 3,400 mark. Walker had the most FG attempts in the league, and Pierce led in overall points (with an assist from his Eastern Conference-leading 520 free throws).

This was also a solid defensive unit—60 percent of their 48.1 win shares came from the defensive end, and Pierce finished fourth in the NBA in defensive win shares. For all his points, Walker was ineffective offensively (an Offensive Rating of 99 confirms this, but anyone who has seen him choose his shots could have told you that without a number) but there was no one else to give the ball to and he had 5.2 defensive win shares, justifying his floor presence. Pierce was the lone impact player, with Tony Battie, Kenny Anderson and the bench doing their best to not waste a great individual season from him (Pierce finished fifth in win shares) by contributing a little on offense and a little on defense, but no one managing to put both together.

This team defeated the Allen Iverson-led 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, and then dispatched the Pistons with ease in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, four games to one. They were outplayed by Jason Kidd and the Nets in the conference finals, though, dropping the series four games to two—the Nets would go on to lose to the Los Angeles Lakers, swept by the Kobe Bryant/Shaquille O'Neal duo from the West.

Putting the present-day Celtics roster in this 2001-02 scenario would change a multitude of things—first off, O'Neal is no longer a Laker, and the chances the Lakers get through the much more difficult West are slimmer than they were. Shaq was First Team All-NBA that season, and finished second behind Brent Barry in effective field-goal percentage while also leading in Win Shares per 48 minutes. Kevin Garnett was a first-teamer on the NBA's All-Defensive squad for the season, and was a Second Team All-NBA choice. Ray Allen led the league in three-pointers and was fourth in eFG%, and shot nearly 10 percent better on threes than Antoine Walker—he sunk seven more from beyond the arc in 117 fewer attempts than 'Toine.

A few things need to be mentioned before we take a look at what this team would have done had it existed back then. First of all, the current Boston roster isn't so ancient that we get a full team of players who were around in 2001. A few liberties had to be taken—namely, Ray Allen has to play the one, because there is no one else to play it, and two 2009-10 Celtics who are now free agents are part of this club. Michael Finley and Brian Scalabrine, the latter of whom was a rookie in 2001-02, are both part of this hypothetical squad for the sake of having eight players on the roster. Let's take a look at their production from 2001-02:

Pos.  Name             ORtg  DRtg    WS   WS/48   USG
-----------------------------------------------------
PG    Ray Allen         116   109    8.9   .169  26.2%
SG    Michael Finley    110   110    6.3   .110  23.9%
SF    Paul Pierce       109    99   12.9   .187  29.3%
PF    Kevin Garnett     111   101   12.8   .194  26.0%
C     Shaquille O'Neal  116    99   13.2   .262  31.8%

F     Rasheed Wallace   110   102    9.7   .158  23.7%
C/F   Jermaine O'Neal   102   101    6.4   .113  24.9%
F     Brian Scalabrine   77   101   -0.1  -.015  15.1%

Having Rasheed Wallace and Jermaine O'Neal as bench options nearly a decade ago is nothing to scoff at. This group of eight players combines for 70.1 win shares, 22 more than the actual Celtics roster from this year. Fill out the rest of the roster with replacement level players or veterans on the league minimum, as the Heat have done, and you would be able to sustain most of that—though, just as with the Miami Heat this year, diminishing returns would play a huge factor in individual offensive performances. But when 'Sheed in his prime comes in to replace Garnett, or one O'Neal subs for another, worrying about individual accolades is a waste of time.

Just picture the options on offense each play—you have Allen or Pierce setting up the play, and either of them is a threat from range. Pierce was the best in the league at penetrating and drawing a foul, and both players are excellent free throw shooters. The 2007-08 Celtics were a force and champions with those two and Garnett shooting in close—now picture Shaq up the middle alongside Garnett, all four players younger and on fresher legs, and you wonder how anyone would have been able to defend them consistently.

They wouldn't just score either, as those Defensive Ratings can show you. Three of your starters had ratings in the 99-101 range, which would easily offset Finley and Allen, who were weaker defenders (but not awful by any means, and at least in Allen's case the O more than makes up for the D). Wallace and the lesser O'Neal had their share of defensive chops, and you wouldn't lose a ton on offense by subbing in 'Sheed either.

It's hard to say who would be "The Man" on this team as well, but given Shaq leads this group in usage and came from a Lakers' team that featured Bryant, it's safe to say it would probably be him once again. Nothing wrong with having your second most oft-used player be Pierce (unless the guy ahead of him is 'Toine, of course) especially when you have this kind of talent on hand.

If you kept a few of the Celtics from the actual 2001-02 roster on hand, the lineup is even scarier. Kenny Anderson as the backup point guard (or Finley on the bench, with Allen remaining at shooting guard), Tony Battie as your third option at the five, Tony Delk, Rodney Rogers—there were some good players on that team, but for the sake of not wondering who they could afford and couldn't afford, and trying to keep this roster as 2010-centric as possible, I chose to go with the above route instead.

The 2010 Celtics team, regrettably, does not feature a roster full of stars in their 20s. It does, however, hold a collection of talent that has dominated the NBA for a decade or longer, and many of those players can still play more than just a little. While Shaq coming off the bench may not be the stuff of dreams, having him alongside Allen, Pierce, and Garnett in any capacity is something to appreciate as a fan of the game—though dreaming a little never hurt anyone, either.

Marc Normandin is a writer for Baseball Prospectus who will be helping out on the basketball site this summer. You can contact Marc by clicking here.

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