The NBA Draft Lottery was just five months ago, but it must feel much more distant for Boston Celtics fans. The lasting image of their devastation that evening was a fan at the team's lottery party, mouth agape, wondering how the Celtics had not only failed to earn the right to draft Kevin Durant or Greg Oden, but slipped all the way to the fifth pick, the worst possible scenario.
Celtics fans are no longer lamenting the lottery. Instead, they are contemplating the possibilities for the most anticipated season in Boston since Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish did, in fact, walk through those doors.
By trading for Ray Allen on draft night and then Kevin Garnett a month later, Danny Ainge restored hope to Celtics fans and built one of the NBA's top trios, rounded out by holdover Paul Pierce. Last year, despite injuries that cost Pierce 35 games and Allen 27, the three players combined for 33.9 Wins Above Replacement Player by my rating system. Only three sets of teammates topped that mark last season, and they played in Phoenix (Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion), San Antonio (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker) and Denver (Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Carmelo Anthony).
Healthy in 2005-06, Allen, Garnett and Pierce were much more impressive. That season, they combined for 48.1 WARP, putting them in very elite company. Here are the NBA teams that had a trio combine for 40+ WARP over the last five seasons:
Team Yr WARP W
Phoenix 07 50.0 61
Phoenix 05 47.5 62
Cleveland 05 45.3 42
Phoenix 06 44.7 54
Minnesota 04 43.3 58
San Antonio 07 42.9 58
L.A. Lakers 03 42.4 50
Dallas 03 41.9 60
A repeat of 2005-06 might be difficult for the Celtics' trio, now two years older (Allen is now 32, Garnett 31 and Pierce 30), but a combined total north of 40 WARP seems like a reasonable expectation. Naturally, most of the teams who have cleared that mark have been very successful, including five teams that made their conference finals, and last year's champions.
The 2004-05 Cavaliers, however, provide a more cautionary tale on the limitations of a top-heavy roster. Cleveland missed out on the playoffs that season, winning just 42 games despite All-Star performances from LeBron James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. James, Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Jeff McInnis were the only four players on that paper-thin Cavaliers team to average more than six points per game.
That's where the questions about the Celtics begin. Does this team have enough depth to be competitive after trading six regulars in the deals for Allen and Garnett?
The good news is Ainge did hold on to two of his team's top young players, and they just happen to play the other two positions in the starting lineup: point guard (Rajon Rondo) and center (Kendrick Perkins). Even more fortuitously, both Rondo and Perkins are players who can be valuable without shooting the basketball, making them solid pieces to put alongside three players who averaged 20-plus points per game last season.
Rondo is a gifted defender who ranked in the NBA's top 10 in steals per game last year while playing fewer than 24 minutes a night. Rondo's 2.8 steals/40 minutes mark led the league. Steals certainly don't always correlate to good defense, but Rondo has great lateral movement and the potential to become a perennial All-Defensive Team pick. He is also an excellent distributor, but will have to improve his shooting (41.8% from the field, 20.7% from three-point range) lest he become too much of a liability to leave on the court.
Perkins is a near-complete non-scorer, averaging 8.2 points per 40 minutes last season, but he's a good shot blocker who has been a force on the glass at times. Perkins averaged 12.1 rebounds per 40 minutes during his third, and best, NBA season before mysteriously dipping to 9.4 boards per 40 minutes last season. On offense, it would help if the Celtics had a center who could hit the baseline jumper often left open when teams double-team the post, but at least Perkins should be able to finish open looks and second chances when defenses crowd the Celtics' stars.
The Boston bench was largely remade after the Garnett deal, with the Celtics signing three veteran free agents: guard Eddie House, swingman James Posey and center Scot Pollard. All are limited. House is a streaky volume scorer whose outbursts won several games for Phoenix in 2005-06, but his defensive limitations relegated him to the Suns bench by the postseason. Posey is the best of the bunch, a capable wing defender who can knock down open three-pointers at a reasonable clip. Pollard has gotten more attention for his hairstyles than his play in recent seasons; he played just 108 minutes last year for Cleveland and hasn't topped 1,000 minutes since he was in Sacramento six years ago.
The Celtics have some in-house options in reserve. Tony Allen is the best of the bunch; the fourth-year swingman was taking full advantage of the extra playing time afforded by the team's injury woes last season before tearing his own ACL in January. Barring injuries, there isn't much playing time available for both Posey and Allen. Up front, a pair of undersized power forwards drafted in the second round--2006 pick Leon Powe and rookie Glen "Big Baby" Davis--can be contributors, and the Celtics also have veteran Brian Scalabrine.
The bench is better than typically given credit, though there is a glaring weakness in the middle. That's especially problematic because Perkins has never averaged more than 22 minutes per game. Garnett can help by playing some of his minutes at center, but the Celtics need another contributor, and all signs are that they are still looking for that player, leaving a spot on the roster open for a free-agent addition.
Beyond the supporting cast, the three star players will have to make adjustments. Collecting them makes sense because Allen, the shooter; Pierce, the driver; and Garnett, the versatile post player, have complementary games. But combined, they used nearly 90% of their teams' possessions while on the floor last season, a number that will come way down even playing with non-scorers like Perkins and Rondo. Garnett's excitement about being in Boston and his willingness to rebound, pass the ball and defend should prove invaluable for the Celtics in terms of making it work.
Is this group good enough? If everything breaks right, there is enough talent for the Celtics to win the East and contend with the best the Western Conference has to offer. A more realistic scenario, however, has a key injury or two exposing Boston's lack of depth. A lengthy playoff series could give a quality coach on the other sideline the chance to expose the weaknesses of the role players. I ultimately see the 2007-08 Celtics as similar to the 2004-05 Miami Heat, who had just paired Shaquille O'Neal with Dwyane Wade. That team did come within a win of the NBA Finals, but the Heat was more complete after another off-season of tweaking the roster, and the result was the 2006 NBA championship. This Celtics team should be very competitive and fun to watch, but the best may be yet to come.
Eastern Conference Prediction
7. New Jersey
12. New York
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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