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Larry H. Russell

Larry H. Russell

Larry H. Russell is the Executive Producer of CLNS Radio.  Most noted as the Voice of Celtics Beat and Celtics Pre-Game, LHR has served many roles within CLNS since joining the network in 2011. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed Fall of the Boston Celtics: How Bad Luck, Bad Decisions Brought the Mighty Celtics Empire to Its Knees and Ushered in the Dark Ages which was released in 2014 as well as the director of the film Paul Pierce: The Best Pure Scorer in Celtics History.

LHR is a graduate of Emerson College and currently resides in Brookline.  He can be reached by e-mail at LHRussell@clnsradio.com or on Twitter @CLNS_LHR

Boston Still Won't Bring Home #18 This Year, But Team Needs to Play Deep into the Month of May

 

It’s hard not to feel good about the 2012 Boston Celtics as of now. They were left for dead even before the season began. By the media, by opposing teams, and worse by their own fans – as scores empty seats have been the norm at the Garden this year despite the ‘sellouts.’

They were too old. They had no center. They had no bench. They had a point guard who was probably going to quit on the team at any moment after management tried trading him. Blow it up, they said. Get anything you can for these bums.

And then, the Celtics slowly started to put it together. After entering the All-Star break with a miserable 15-17 record, the Celtics came out of the All-Star break winning six of their first seven. Then splitting a murderous eight-game-all-over-the-country road trip. And now ripping off eight of their last ten entering Wednesday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks.

In the last month and a half, Boston has road wins in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Indiana, and Miami. While notching quality home wins over New York, Houston, Utah, Miami, and Philadelphia.

The Celtics are back. They’re contenders. No one wants to play this team.

That alone should make people feel pretty good about this team, considering the circumstances – the injuries, the aging roster, the irrelevance of the team in the NBA landscape.

Most importantly, these Celtics are showing what the Celtics franchise has always been about. Respect the uniform, respect the history, play as a team, and never quit.

***

As fans, Celtics fans should feel great right now. But guess what? The season is not over yet. As enjoyable as this run is, there’s still plenty of time before the playoffs begin. And this season would still be a colossal disappointment if they bow out in the first round.

This season is not to be referred as ‘championship or bust.’ Certainly it would be nice to win another title. But no matter how wide open the league may seem this year, it would still take be arguably the greatest upset champion since at least the 1975 Golden State Warriors for this Celtics team to win the title, or even reach the Finals.

I have always been a firm believer, and have stated many times, that to win a championship you need to do three things very well. Defend, rebound, and execute when it counts. Simple.

Boston is an elite defensive team, as always. But the rebounding is deplorable, as the Celtics are 28th in the league in rebounding differential. As Pat Riley always said, “no rebounds, no rings.”

And while the end of game execution has been better this year (a +4.9 point differential on an average of 48 minutes in ‘clutch’ situations), the Celtics are still not a team one can trust that can execute in crucial situations at the end of games. See: how the season ended for the Celtics the last two seasons.

To top it off, there have only been two NBA champions the last 30 years that have won the title with a point differential under five (the ‘95 Rockets and the ‘06 Heat.) No NBA champion has won the championship with a point differential under three the last 17 years. The Celtics’ point differential is still a mediocre +2.3.

Odds of number 18 are still slim to none.

***

But how about a run to the Conference Finals? Or even winning just one round in the post-season?

On the face value, the Celtics should at least do that. Providing Boston wins the Atlantic Division, they will face either Indiana, Atlanta, Orlando, or Philadelphia in the first round. Home court, or no home court – they should win all of those series in no more than five or six games. They could even have an injury to one of the Big Three and they should still advance. Winning a playoff series is a must for this organization (more on this later), and even a run to the Conference Finals has a sliver of imperativeness as well.

However, here’s a concerning question that should be asked. Are the Celtics peaking too soon? Last year, the Lakers looked like a foregone conclusion to win the championship at this time. Starting at the end of February (just like this Celtics run started), the Lakers ripped off 17/18 into the beginning of April. They began resting their starters and went into the playoffs as the odds on favorite to three-peat.

And then you know the rest of the story. They were spent. They looked ordinary in their series victory over a mediocre Hornets team, and then were humiliated in a four game sweep by Dallas.

The last few years the Spurs have generally gotten hot at this time, (this year is no exception as they just have won 11 of their last 12), but then proceeded to bow out fairly quick.

This has happened with the Celtics too. Back in 1990, a season eerily similar to this, an aging Celtics team struggled throughout the season, routinely maintaining a record a few games above .500. Boston was done. Chicago, Detroit, and even New York had certainly passed them. Blow up the Celtics. Trade those old guys while they still had value.

Then those Celtics made a lineup change, putting Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson back in the starting lineup. To finish out the season, Boston went 18-4, and were the classic ‘no one wants to play those guys’ team. They then took a 2-0 series lead over their hated rivals from New York in the first round; absolutely pounding them in the process, including dropping 157 in regulation in Game 2.

Then the ’90 Celtics hit a wall. They played lousy in a close loss in Game 3, with Bird badly missing a potential game-tying three pointer. Got absolutely smoked in Game 4. And then were as flat as Paris Hilton’s chest in Game 5. Series over. One of the most excruciating losses in Celtics history. That game officially closed the books on the Celtics contending with that group.

This year’s Celtics should be concerned with that possibility. While it may be good to be playing well entering the post-season – the playoffs are still two and a half weeks away. Which is an eternity in an NBA season. This year’s Celtics team has been playing playoff intensity basketball in the fifth gear since the beginning of March. There should be reason for concern with that.

While the minutes for the starters has only increased minimally, (although Garnett has jumped nearly three full minutes per game the last month), the amount of games played has increased dramatically. The Celtics will play 34 games in the final 64 days of the season, with 12 back to backs, and 20 road games.

Here’s hoping the Celtics will win the division sooner rather than later so the Celtics can begin resting those old legs. But therein lies a possible conundrum in itself, as this is what happened to the Lakers last year. Los Angeles was clicking on all cylinders, stopped, and then couldn’t get the excellence back when they started up again.

However, I am afraid the Celtics do not have a choice. Back in 2009, Doc Rivers had his Celtics go balls-out for the second seed and home court in the second round over Orlando. With the Celtics’ furious finish, and then having to play an extensive seven-game classic against Chicago in the first round – the Celtics had nothing left for a seventh game in Boston against the Magic and were subsequently blown out on their home floor in a deciding game. That team was gassed. And this scenario will likely happen again with this team going at this pace.

***

So it’s a shame, because the Celtics are not a true contender. They’re still fatally flawed, and they most likely won’t have the stamina to last another two months.

But the real shame is that this team may have been Jeff Green away from truly being back in the mix. Jeff Green, you say? Yes, Jeff Green.

Now while Jeff Green may be grossly overrated by some Celtics fans, (he has always been just an average role player folks, with a career 12.8 PER) – his addition to the bench would have been more than welcomed. While Green is an average role player, he’s not Sasha Pavlovic, you know. That’s big. Green can score in the post (scoring on 56% of his shots inside 12 feet last season with the Celtics) as he has a decent back-to-the-basket game. And he’s an athletic wing that can effectively run the floor.

But more importantly, it changed the complexion of this whole season. Had the Celtics had Green, maybe Celtics’ GM Danny Ainge would not have been so blasé about this team’s chances. If Green was here, and the bench was a little stronger, and the team was a little better – is Ainge more aggressive in his pursuit of Chris Kaman? Does he then part with one of the team’s first round picks in this year’s draft to immediately upgrade this year’s roster?

Had that been the case, the Celtics would have Kaman starting at center, and then a bench that would possibly consist of Ray Allen, Jeff Green, and Brandon Bass. The Celtics would have been able to become a better rebounding team, hopefully no longer one of the worst in the league. And then would have a second unit that could not only do serious damage to opponents – but would be able to provide valuable rest to the starters and aging legs. They’d be a far superior, and far fresher team going into the 2012 post-season and would have as good of a chance as anyone.

Now the Celtics’ are relying on Mickael Pietrus to come back and give needed minutes at the back up wing. Ladies and gentlemen, Mickael Pietrus is coming off a Grade III concussion. Repeat: a Grade III concussion. The worst possible concussion one can get which brings about consequences down the line in his life. Let’s not count on him for anything at this point.

***

But guess what? The Celtics have to go with the team they have. And go with it I believe they will. But this Celtics team needs a sustained playoff run.

Because Ainge did not ‘blow the team up’ at the trade deadline – this team needs to validate that decision. They don’t have to win the championship, and they most certainly won’t. But they need to stay relevant on the NBA map. The coming rebuilding, or retooling plan, has free agency and major trades as the way to get the franchise contending for championships immediately rather than going through another long-term process.

Talented NBA players around the league need to see Boston as a quick fix rather than a process.

The whole basketball world needs to see that the Celtics’ tradition is still running strong.

The Celtics need the post-season to showcase some of their younger players with trade value. Avery Bradley maybe? Or how about a Glenn McDonald type game for JaJuan Johnson? And yes, even Rajon Rondo.

Most importantly, the Celtics need to make a run to keep Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen happy. As both players have been acting a little bit funny this season – with Allen not talking to the media recently, and with Kevin Garnett openly talking about leaving Boston because of lack of loyalty to certain players and having to play the center position (which is due to a lack of loyalty to certain players.)

These Celtics may not bring back another trophy, but hopefully these next few months (plural) help lay the groundwork for Banner 18.

Statistics provided by 82games.com    

Another Stellar Performance on National TV Epitomizes Rondo's Career

 

Sometimes when your favorite team does not meet the expectations you set for them, you always find someone, or something to blame. You try to keep it simple for yourself because that’s what we Americans are nowadays: simpletons. No sense hurting your head and investing legitimate critical thinking and analysis into anything in life, let alone other people playing some sport you happen to like watching. Just keep it simple and blame one thing. Most of the time, this is unfair. There are a lot more variables in sports, and in life, which contribute towards producing end-results.

So it’s no surprise during this 2012 season, as the Boston Celtics have shown spurts of greatness (including this current run) and spurts of ineptitude – the Celts have fallen back to the middle of the NBA pack and won’t win the championship this year. A lot of fans cannot quite come to grips with this occurrence. So typically, there are those that are going to find that someone or something. Usually a coach finds himself in the vortex of the blame storm. But the Celtics have a highly regarded head coach who the players still play hard for. That disqualifies Doc Rivers from being apart of the grand competition of being blamed by Celtics fans. Sometimes the star players can’t escape the shooting gallery. But three of the four Celtics’ stars could very well be collecting social security checks for all we know. One of them can’t even walk now for all we know. And hey, they’re giving it all they can! They should be commended for their efforts.

That leaves two things: the general manager, and the ‘other star.’ There’s a good portion of fans that have directed their anger at General Manager Danny Ainge. If only the Celtics had Kendrick Perkins and his 8 PER. But this piece is not about Danny Ainge; it’s about Rajon Rondo, who just so happens to be that ‘other star.’

That ‘other star’ is arguably the team’s best player. In fact, his maximum capabilities far exceed those to anyone else on the current roster. Just in this season alone, in a nationally televised home game on February 12th against Chicago, Rondo had a line of 32 points, 10 rebounds, and 15 assists. His counterpart, C.J. Watson, was 8-23 from the field on the other end. In another nationally televised home game, this time against New York, Rondo’s line was 18-17-20, while his counterpart (Jeremy Lin) shot 6-16 from the field. On Sunday, he had yet another national television triple double – this time posting 16-11-14, while holding his counterpart Marion Chalmers to two points, and two assists on 1-5 shooting. All three of these were wins. The Celtics go where Rondo takes them.

But therein lies the problem. While no one expects Rondo to have games like those every night, there are too many times when Rondo actually grossly underachieves. Because his lackluster games are largely due to his effort and his focus, this is what angers that core of his detractors. For all of his pantheon performances, Rondo is just as likely, if not more likely to have borderline no-show outings. In a Celtics blowout loss to Toronto in early February, Rondo was 2-10 from the field with 5 turnovers. His counterpart on the other end, Jose Calderon, had 17 points and 14 assists. Against Cleveland, on a Tuesday night the first game back from the All Star break, Rondo had a big fat goose egg while Kyrie Irving torched him for 24 points. Couple that with “he can’t shoot” and, well you get: “he sucks! And we need to trade him for someone(s) better!” It angers fans even more when they see him have games like yesterdays where he clearly demonstrates his capabilities when he’s focused.

With the Celtics now scrapping for a playoff spot, and not truly contending for a championship for the first time in five years – Rondo has gone from an “extraordinarily athletic, pass-first-and-second point guard, who can also get to the rim at will” to “a guy who can’t shoot and doesn’t bring it every night.” While not all of Rondo’s detractors consider his warts and his lackluster performances as the primary reason for the Celtics struggles this season, there are many that have the urge to place their blame on Rondo.

The Celtics are struggling this season, and there are many reasons for this. First off, management decided long ago that this season was to be a semi-bridge year. If this team were contending, fine. But management was not going to put any long-term commitments unto this roster. Thus the 5-12 players on the team aren’t exactly K.C. Jones and John Havlicek off the bench. In terms of their best players, most of them are not just on the wrong side of 30, but the wrong side of 35 for goodness sake (Pierce is turning 35 in October.) If they were playing golf, I’d feel better about their age, but they are playing the young man’s game of young man’s games.

Because of their age, while they are still capable of dialing back the clock, Allen, Pierce, and Garnett are not capable of playing at an elite level on a night in and night out basis. All one has to do is look at Garnett’s Game 3 performance last year against Miami (28 points and 18 rebounds while his counterpart, Chris Bosh, had six points and five rebounds on 1-6 shooting in a win) and his Game 4 performance (seven points on 1-10 shooting while Bosh had 20-12 and the game winning tip-in.) They also cannot finish around the rim like they used to. While the Celtics are still a very good defensive team, they are no longer the historic defensive team they once were. Boston has also become one of the worst rebounding teams in the league. And as Pat Riley once told his Lakers back in the 1980s (and Jeff Van Gundy pointed out in yesterday’s broadcast on ABC,) “no rebounds, no rings.”

While Rondo is not reason number one for the struggles of the 2012 Celtics, he is certainly not free of criticism. His poor shooting and his lackluster efforts have cost the Celtics quite a few games now. And if Rondo were to consider himself one of the elite players in the game, as the team leader, he would have this team in a better situation than it is. Almost assuredly, if the Celtics swapped Rondo with Chris Paul, Boston might not be the odds on favorites to win it all (due to the fact that teams that cannot rebound almost never win the championship), but they most certainly would be back ‘in the mix.’ Paul does everything Rondo does but covers the major deficiencies that Rondo has always had.

While Rondo is not paid to be one of the elite players in the game – regardless, in his own mind, he is. The Celtics have, by default, become his team. If he gets a good amount of credit for big games in wins (like yesterday’s,) then it is certainly fair that if his deficiencies are costing the team games, then he is up there with the rest of the reasons of why the 2012 Celtics won’t win the franchise’s 18th championship.

The strange thing is, for all of what Rondo’s detractors say, there are plenty of other problems with Rondo that they are missing. If they were not looking at Rondo in such a simple manner, only focusing on one thing, what is happening right this very second – they would take a step back and analyze this situation in a whole. To this writer, this season has raised a lot of red flags with Rondo, and it begs the question: can the Celtics really win a championship with Rajon Rondo being a team’s first or second best player?

***

When the Celtics captured the championship in 2008, Rondo was just a piece to the puzzle. The Celtics won the championship backed with arguably the best defense of all time and three Hall of Famers still playing at a Hall of Fame level. Let’s not completely discredit what Rondo did for that team. He certainly had his moments, punctuated with his first true breakout game in the Celtics’ championship clincher in Game 6 against the Lakers (21 points, 7 rebounds, 8 assists, 6 steals.) And he was a necessary cog to the team, especially considering it lacked any type of true point guard throughout the rest of the roster. In a game on December 19th of that season against Detroit, Boston was sporting a decent lead all game. But when Rondo exited the game at the beginning of the quarter, Boston could not even get the ball up the half court line. The Celtics would go on to lose that game. That game alone showed Rondo’s importance to the team.

However, Rondo was still, at best, a distant fourth best player on that team. The talent level on the 2008 team, (and not just at the top, but all the way around the roster as that team went nearly 12 deep), was able to cover up the warts that agitate Rondo’s biggest critics. Sure he couldn’t hit an outside shot, but fans have a tendency to forget those misses when that team was routinely sporting 20+ point leads in the fourth quarter. If the games were close in 2008, Rondo sometimes would not even be on the floor at the end of games. Rondo in 2008 was barely a tier above ‘replaceable role player.’

If one were to make an argument in Rondo’s case about being a focal point on a team that could and would win the championship – then one would likely point to the 2010 season. That was the season in which the Celtics made it all the way to Game 7 of the NBA Finals with Rondo being arguably the team’s best player. But more importantly, the Celtics ran the offense through him, whereas the offense in 2008 was ran out of the post through Garnett.

This was done a bit by default. While Rondo was improving as a professional, the Celtics’ Hall of Fame trio that carried them to the 2008 title, was declining. 2010 was the first season where Pierce, Allen, and Garnett started to become more prone to moments of ordinary-ness, as due to their advancing age, they became less capable of day-in-and-day-out greatness.

No one was more susceptible to this than Kevin Garnett, who was an MVP candidate and top five player in the league in 2008. Garnett declined drastically following a severe knee injury that remains a mystery to this day, and summer knee surgery that left him limping in training camp and the first few weeks of the season. Garnett had a far less impact on the game than he did during his memorable 2008 campaign. His PER, which was a great 25.3 in ‘08, was just an above average 19.4 in 2010. His defense, which earned him the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year, dropped dramatically as well. His defensive rating in 2008 was a spectacular 94. But in 2010, his defensive rating climbed over the 100 point mark for the only time in his Boston career. His win shares went from 12.9 in 2008 all the way down to 7.3 in 2010, which clearly shows how less of an impact Garnett had that year. Garnett’s injury also limited his minutes greatly as well as in 2008 he played in 59% of the possible minutes he could play in, compared to 52% in 2010.

Rondo on the other hand was acclimating his talents to the NBA level more and more. While he never really added any new facet to his game, he was able to hone his skills to which it made him quite the effective point guard. None of this was more evident than when Rondo saw a spike in his assist totals going from 5.1 in ‘08 to just under 10 in 2010. When Rondo was just a role player in 2008, he only played 58% possible minutes. In 2010, he was playing 75% of the minutes. With the offense being run through him, his improved play, and the declining abilities of the superstars that used to be in front of him – the Boston Celtics were now Rajon Rondo’s team.

Unfortunately, the ship with Rondo as captain did not sail too smoothly that year. Following a rough West Coast road trip after Christmas where the team did not win a game; Bill Simmons reported that there was a rift in the Celtics locker room between the ‘young guys’ and the ‘old guys.’ In the 2011 ESPN documentary “The Association,” Danny Ainge told Rondo back in 2010 that “there are 10 characteristics of a leader, and [Rondo does not] possess any of them.” Rondo’s leadership that season was poor at best.

With Rondo at the helm, the Celtics began a sudden and extraordinarily concerning trend of struggling to close out games. In 2008, they were the best. As all that season they blew one 15+ point second half lead (an 18 point lead to Philadelphia in March of that season.) In 2010, they blew over ten 15+ point second half leads. With chemistry issues on the team and the sudden inability to close out games, the Celtics finished the 2010 season 27-27 and entered the post-season as the four seed.

Into the post-season, Rondo and the rest of the team got things straightened out between them. Rondo continued his great play into the post-season, the chemistry issues were gone, the bench rounded into shape, and usually at least two of Pierce, Garnett, and Allen would provide elite play. Rondo had a fine post-season, including many moments of phenomenal play including an iconic 29 point, 18 rebound, and 13 assist performance in Game 4 of the East Semi-Finals against Cleveland.

While the chemistry issues were gone, the poor play at the end of games was not. The Celtics could not close out close games that would have ended two different series in sweeps (Game 4 v. Miami, and Game 4 v. Orlando.) They blew a 10 point second half lead in Game 1 v. Cleveland. In many of their wins, they sported double digit leads down the stretch, some as late as three minutes left in the game, and then barely hung on for their lives to win, (Game 5 v Miami, Game 2 and 6 v Cleveland, Game 1 v Orlando, Game 5 v LA.) All of this pathetic fourth quarter play in close games prompted Lakers coach Phil Jackson to tell his team while being mic’d up to a worldwide audience during the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the NBA Finals that, “this team loses more games in the fourth quarter than any team in the league. They know how to lose games, and they're showing us that now.'' As hard as that diss was to take for any Celtics player or fan, the second greatest coach in NBA history was spot on.

The Celtics did not win the title in 2010. They lost in the seventh game after blowing a thirteen point third quarter lead. They could not execute down the stretch, and they got absolutely obliterated on the glass. The Lakers outrebounded the Celtics by 13, grabbed (Good Lord!) 15 more offensive rebounds. And worst of all, a one-legged Garnett was outrebounded 18-to-freakin’-3 by his counterpart Pau Gasol.

So on the face value, one can look at all this and say, “Hey, after all that, with Rondo running the show, managing three (aging) Hall of Famers, his team was still inches from the championship. They were up 13 late, and if they grabbed a few more early rebounds it would have been 20+. They should have won that game and the title!” Unfortunately, that is all it is, a face value and a ‘simpleton’ viewpoint. Generally, a championship team needs to do three things very well: defend, rebound, and execute when it counts. If they were only to do two of those things, they would have to do those two at an absolute elite level. The 2010 Celtics only did one of these (defend), as they were an atrocious rebounding team (ranked 26th in rebounding differential compared to third in 2008) and a very poor team at executing when it counted. It was impressive that the Celtics got as close as they did, but the team was deeply flawed and took advantage of a down year for the league. That is not the formula to win a championship.

***

Keep in mind what I just said about Rondo and the 2010 Celtics. We will discuss this later as it is important. But now we can fast-forward two years. What have we learned about Rondo these last two years? Well, nothing. And that should be cause for concern in its own. Rondo still has the same flaws that his detractors have always talked about. Worse, this season and the last few years have shown that Rondo possesses flaws that the average fan does not see.

Let’s touch upon with what everyone knows. Rondo was, and still is, a bad shooter. On shots 12 feet or more from the basket, his eFG% is 33.1% -- and in 2010 it was 37.4%. He is still a horrible free throw shooter (62%, 57%, 60% the last three years.) And he does not draw many shooting fouls either. Rondo himself shoots less than four free throws a game. His turnovers have gone up every year as well (from 2.6 in 2009, to 3.0 in 2010, to 3.4 in ’11, and to 3.6 per game this year.) And we all know about the nights where he just does not check in mentally. Rarely attacking the basket, playing “matador defense” (to quote Tommy Heinsohn analysis this year) against the Torontos of the world on Wednesday nights. That we know of Rondo.

Now, let’s start to discuss major issues with Rondo that are issues that are not heard too often regarding him. After what we have seen the last few years, and especially now in 2012 – there are still too many questions regarding Rondo, rather than answers. Why hasn’t Rondo substantially improved any facet of his game throughout his career? Or even add something new to his game? There should be answers to these questions, but there are not. As I have stated above, Rondo’s outside shot has technically never improved since coming into the league, routinely having eFG% that hovers around 36-37%, (and even this year down at 33%.) Contrast this with Derrick Rose who to his 2011 MVP season averaged nearly twice as many points from outside baskets as he did his rookie year. Rose’s three-point percentage alone has gone up a full ten points while being in the league. Clearly coming into the league, shooting was a weakness of Rondo. To this writer, it is of great, great concern that Rondo has never improved his biggest weakness and the biggest knock his detractors use against him. One would think Rondo would have the drive to silence his critics.

Where else has Rondo ‘added’ anything? Overall, Rondo has ‘improved’ per se, but it is more of a case of acclimating and honing talents he already possessed to his play with experience. Just like getting a new job, it takes a little bit of time to get comfortable and fit in. But it’s those that find new and different ways to truly excel. Rondo’s ‘stats’ where they have increased, have only increased incrementally throughout his career – and it is more of a case where it coincides with his increased minutes and usage rate, (16.5% in his rookie season, and 21.3% for 2012.) Rondo has not substantially improved any facet of his game, nor has he added anything new to his repertoire.

Here’s where the trouble lies ahead. A player’s athletic prime is usually his early to mid 20s. Once he gets to his late 20s, even past the age of 26-27, their athletic capabilities begin to decline. You hear a lot how “Rondo is a 26 year old point guard who is just coming into his prime.” But I am a firm believer that Rondo is in his prime now and has been for quite some time. Why? Because much of what Rondo does is highly attributed to his athleticism – getting to the basket, running fast breaks, finishing around the rim, playing defense (when he wants to.) When some of that athleticism starts to go, and it will likely go soon, Rondo’s ability to blow by his defender off the dribble or outrun everyone down the court dwindles. And there are serious questions of how effective Rondo would be with diminished athleticism. There'd be fewer questions had he been able to add to his game over the years more. Had he done so – had he added that jump shot, he’d be able to keep defenses honest as he approaches his thirties. But he hasn’t, and this is great cause for concern as more and more time goes by.

The eye test alone this season has made me question whether Rondo may already be playing at his absolute peak as a player. Just on his finishing ability alone, I started to begin wondering – you know, what happened to it? Rondo can still finish around the rim. He hasn’t gone Antoine Walker on us, yet. But this used to be a great strength for Rondo, as most Celtics fans remember those spin shots Rondo used to put high off the backboard whenever he got into the lane during the 2010 playoffs that used to go in with regularity (I saw one of these on Sunday as a matter of fact.) Sure enough, the statistics show it as well. His FG% around from shots around the basket has dropped from 64.4% to 57.4%. That’s seven full points. Rondo also has not had one ‘dunk’ all season. In 2010, 2% of his shot attempts were dunks, and he never missed one. Now he hasn’t even attempted a dunk all season. It really does make you think.

But let’s get to the big issue. It’s the best-kept secret in Boston. Rajon Rondo is a horrendous clutch player. As bad of a shooter Rondo is, he shoots (gasp!) 26% when games are within five points with five minutes left. In a game that sums up this deficiency of Rondo the best, one can look at the February 15th home loss to Detroit. Rondo entered the fourth quarter with 31 points and the Celtics trailing the Pistons by three, scoring at absolute will either on drives or posting up in the blocks. He finished the game with 35 points, and those four fourth quarter points were in garbage time in the waning moments of what became a double-digit loss to a horrible team.

Because of this, meanwhile the Celtics as a team struggle to execute themselves down the stretch. Obviously, we know all about 2010 now. In 2011, the Celtics bowed out of the post-season largely because they could not execute when it mattered. The Miami Heat finished Game 2 on a 14-0 run. Boston blew an 87-81 lead with just about two minutes and a half minutes left in Game 4. And of course, Miami finished Game 5 on an absolutely ridiculous 16-0 run to close the series out.

When the game is on line the line, Rondo gets the ball up half court, and gives it to Paul Pierce and lets Pierce do his thing. As pointed out, the Celtics were a great closeout team in 2008 and 2009. When it became “Rondo’s Team” in 2010, the Celtics have become a horrible closeout team. And this is a surprise? The Celtics play one way for the first 40-42 minutes of a game. Rondo is in charge, he runs the show – fast breaks, nifty passes, getting to the hoop, etc. Then, when the game is on the line – the Celtics play an entirely different way. Talk about getting a bit out of rhythm. Not only that, that ‘way’ includes playing four on five most of the time.

This is where there are serious doubts with Rondo moving forward. It cannot be pointed out enough, but a team needs to do three things well to win a title: defend, rebound, and execute when it matters. Rondo can defend, but playing championship defense is attributed more to a team and coaching. Rondo is a good rebounder for a guard (repeat: for a guard), but you can’t expect him to be winning battles in the blocks with the giants every game. So that leaves executing at the end of games. Not only can Rondo not do that at a superstar rate, but we now know he is actually a liability out there when it counts. If Rondo were a star and a guy to move forward with and build around – then he’d need to cover as much of these three imperative facets as he can. And from what we’ve learned these last few years, and especially this year – is he cannot.

Therefore, it is doubtful Rajon Rondo can be a top two player on a championship team. There are the obvious flaws with Rondo: he can’t shoot, he can’t make his free throws, and he mentally checks out far too often for teammates, coaches, and fans’ liking. But 2012 has now revealed a lot about Rondo. He may have very well peaked as a player, and there are some aspects of him that might be declining. He has never improved his game. He’s never added anything to his game. And he’s an absolutely dreadful player when you need him most. Sure the Celtics nearly won it all with him in 2010, but we now know that Rondo’s inabilities led to that team not being able to close the deal.

The Celtics and their fans may be feeling good about themselves, and even about Rondo during this current stretch. But everyone knows all too well this won’t last, and the questions will be raised once again regarding Rondo once the team bows out in the post-season. But now we know there are even more questions regarding Rondo. And we also know that time may be running out when it comes to making an important decision for the franchise.

All statistical information provided by basketballreference.com and 82games.com

 

In a recent Sports Illustrated feature story by Chris Ballard, the whole world got to read about the sad and sorry story of former Celtic Antoine Walker. Many are ‘shocked’ and even saddened by the fall of a former All Star, champion, and multi-millionaire. To many, a story like this seems so unlikely for someone who nearly had it all. However, for those who truly understood what Antoine Walker was all about during his time in Boston, his fall from grace was all too predictable. Walker made nearly 110 million dollars as a pro just on NBA contracts alone. He received many other large endorsements off the court as well (remember that NBA Live cover? The Employee #8 commercials?) In the piece, Ballard mentions many things about Walker; that he is ‘overweight’ (really?!) and making ‘poor decisions’ (you’re kidding me!). To be honest, I tried reading as much of the Ballard piece as I could, but I could not bring myself to read the whole thing. For there was no need to, I already had Antoine Walker pegged well over a decade ago.

The situation Walker is currently in is no surprise to myself at all. The word overrated gets thrown around so much that it is the most overrated adjective to apply to anyone or anything. However, there truly is no better word to describe Walker. In Boston, a large portion of a supposedly knowledgeable fan base, an incompetent and gutless front office, and a media that glorified him due to his friendliness with its members – they all did not just overrate Walker; worst of all, Antoine overrated himself. Antoine overrated his own abilities on the court, and had, and still has an over inflated view of himself off of it. Because of this, the Celtics and their fans were treated to a poor product on the court for so many years. And for Antoine, it’s the predominant reason he’s in the situation he is in today.

It is very important to understand Walker’s Boston years if one were to ask why he is in the precarious position he is in today. When Antoine Walker came to Boston in the summer of 1996, he was the team’s highest draft selection that played for the Celtics since Kevin McHale way back in 1980. Instantly, Walker received hype as this great hybrid, do-it-all type of player. He was a good-sized power forward who could do everything a power forward was supposed to do, but also had ball handling and passing skills that were comparable to point guards. While Boston struggled (tanked) its way to a 15 win campaign in 1997, there was at least some hope for the Celtics with its coming high lottery pick, and the possibilities of Antoine Walker. Walker already had a decent post-game, was a good rebounder, had an at-the-time below average outside shot (but hopefully with the possibilities for improvement where it could eventually be used as a weapon), and possessed very good passing and ball handling skills particularly for a forward. Assumingly, Walker already had a good base and hopefully, he would have the mindset and work ethic to harness his skills and add to his repertoire, and become a positive player on a winning basketball team.

Then things changed, although nothing changed with Walker. When he returned to the court the following season, Walker was a carbon copy of himself the year before. He was still the same guy on the court: decent post game, good rebounder, below average shooter, and a good passer and ball handler for a forward. There was no noticeable improvement in Walker’s game at all. Boston fans were desperate for a post presence, and Walker being the team’s lottery pick power forward was supposed to be just that. Coming into the league, he had a right-handed jump hook on the left block as his go-to, and really only move. In ’98 it was no different. Same Antoine in the post, same little jump hook. Worst off, Walker ‘added’ a three point shot attempt. I say ‘attempt’ because that’s what it was. It was not an effective offensive weapon. In the ’98 season, Walker shot nearly 300 three pointers at a 31% clip. By contrast, the most threes Larry Bird ever shot in a season was 194. Walker’s decision-making skills saw no improvement, as Walker also led the NBA in turnovers in ’98. Something that is utterly absurd for a power forward. Many in Boston were hoping that the season was a bit of a sophomore slump and that Walker would eventually ‘get it.’ However, Walker’s ’98 season should have been the first red flag to where he was going as a basketball player, and an individual.

In the summer of 1998, the Boston Globe ran a piece that was featured on the front page of its sports section titled “Antoine Walker Is a Punk.” The piece was written by arguably the most highly regarded basketball writer of all time in Bob Ryan. It was a brilliant exposé, and should have been the death knell to the Antoine Walker era in Boston right then and there. The piece wasn’t just written out of the blue. At this point, there were more than enough things that had transpired with Antoine that suggested that not only was he not a player whom the Celtics should have moved forward with, but he was clearly a misguided human being. In a prior interview with the Globe’s Michael Holley, Walker exposed himself as clearly an arrogant and misguided slug; one who had a laughably inflated view of himself. He referred to himself as “a veteran All-Star” despite being in the league all of two years and sporting one borderline All-Star appearance in an Eastern Conference barren of talented forwards. He blamed his coach for his no-show at the team’s off-season workouts, and referred to appearing at the team’s summer facilities as a “sacrifice.” He called himself the leader of the team, all while openly opining towards exploring his options of playing for another team. In something that is funny to read right now, but really sad to read back then, Walker said of the Paul Pierce selection/heist in the ’98 draft, “Pierce is a good player... He's a guy who can come off the bench and give scoring to our second unit ... But I know our team needs. We need big people.” It’s funny to read now because everyone even back then knew that as soon as Pierce fell on the Celtics’ laps at number 10, that he immediately became the Celtics’ best player. Yes, better than you, Antoine. Not someone who’d “give scoring to our second unit.” But it’s sad to read now because in this case, Walker was implying that he should have had an unprecedented say in personnel decisions. It just shows how bigheaded Antoine really was; and how much he was coddled and spoiled by all those with authority around him. To that point of his career, Walker had done nothing but pad his stats on two horrible Celtics teams that won a grand total of 50 games his first two years in the league. Yet, he already had inane views of himself as one of the game’s elite players and the face of the NBA’s most treasured franchise.

Worst yet, Ryan’s column spawned two camps in Celtics Nation. There was the anti-Antoine camp, which I was firmly apart of. Later, a pro-Antoine camp would eventually develop. I say ‘later’ because after the Ryan column, Antoine and his own personal team (not the Celtics) went on complete damage control. Ryan’s opinions had so much influence over the minds of Boston basketball fans. Rather than Antoine possibly using this column to sit back, reflect, and ask himself “what am I doing wrong?” Antoine would just repackage himself. All of a sudden, Walker started palling around with the media. Particularly, Celtics’ beat writer Shira Springer, Celtics play-by-play man Mike Gorman, and some WEEI talk show hosts, as Walker all of a sudden became a go to interview. He even became golf buddies with Greg Dickerson. Sure enough, Shira Springer began flooding the Globe’s sports section with Antoine Walker puff pieces. Gorman started defending Walker’s pathetic play and childish actions on live broadcasts of Celtics games. The Pete Sheppards and Glenn Ordways of the world began praising Walker any chance they could get. All of a sudden, Celtics fans were beaten over the head by their own media with how great of a ‘leader’ Antoine was. They’d say how he was a deadly player; too big for small players on the perimeter to guard him, and too agile for big players in the post to handle him. Nothing was further from the truth but that did not matter.

Worst of all, Antoine became a reviled figure around the league. He was a technical foul machine (racking up 30 in his first two years alone.) He was a childish bore who began shaming the Celtics’ proud uniform with his antics. There was one game when he shimmied after a three pointer down 20. He’d constantly taunt superior and far more established opponents while his team was floundering in the abyss. The final straw for me was in a game against Miami during the 1999* season. Walker hit a go-ahead basket with eight tenths of a second left over P.J. Brown. He then hopped on the tables behind the basket and began fist pumping to a half-capacitated Fleet Center. On the way back to the huddle, he began staring down 4-time NBA Champion coach Pat Riley and the rest of the Miami bench. All over some worthless regular season game winner no one in the world was going to remember. Everyone in the league hated Antoine. For a lot of Celtics fans it was impossible to defend him because we could not stand what he was doing just as much as the rest of the league. A lot of the old school fans were driven away from the team largely due to this. To make matters worse, for the fans that were manipulated by the Walker-love media storm, it became a badge of honor to defend and appreciate Antoine amidst universal revile from the rest of the NBA. It became a sad “us against them” affair. After a lot of the old school fans were driven away, these were the only people the Celtics’ brass had to answer too. This only made the Celtics’ chances of winning the championship in the coming years even worse, and it inflated Walker’s already disproportionately bloated ego even more.

While this was all going on, Walker’s game was clearly beginning to regress in only his third year in the league. His field goal percentage dropped every season, and at this point was barely above 40%. His rebounding, which when he first came into the league was actually pretty good, was now declining. In his rookie season, Walker posted a 10.4 offensive rebounding percentage. That was not bad for a rookie, and hopefully was something he’d improve upon. Instead, it went all the way down to a 7.5 by ’99*, a number average for a power forward.

All of a sudden, that good base Antoine had when he first came into the league (solid post game, below average outside shot, good passing and ball handling skills for a forward) wasn’t so good anymore. Pete Newell used to run a camp for big men. Nearly all skilled big men in the league used to attend this camp in hopes to further enhance their game. Instead of developing any sort of inside game, or honing other skills to become a productive big man, Walker, of course, avoided this camp like it was East Berlin.

Because Antoine added nothing to his game over the years, his game became predictable, so he was even easier to contain for opponents. Everyone knew how to play him at that point. Add to the fact that he was becoming increasingly out of shape, one can only imagine how bad it was becoming.

Before the 2000 season, the Celts went out and acquired Danny Fortson and moved Walker to small forward. The fans were sold that this was a move to make Boston an elite rebounding team, having two good rebounders at the two forward spots; all while playing the supposed ‘match-up nightmare’ Walker at the quick forward. This however, was nothing more than a white flag on the plan that Walker would be one of the team’s building blocks at the power forward spot for years to come. In reality, Fortson was acquired in hopes that he’d be the player that could compete with the rest of 4s and 5s in the league, and at least rebound at an acceptable rate for a big man. Walker’s move to small forward was met with predictable results. Walker did not have the quickness to get to the basket against wing players who were defending him, nor could he defend an opposing small forward to save his life on the other end.

Despite this, Walker still was not shipped out of Boston. Every Celtics fan imaginable at this point detested then-Celtics President and coach Rick Pitino. So Pitino did not have the guts to finally cut the cord on the Antoine Walker era, as it would have opened the floodgates to even more vitriol directed towards him by the fans and media (the same media that almost assuredly pumped out Walker propaganda.) In turn, that would have infuriated the Walker-camp of the Celtics fan base, who were the only Celtics fans left by then. So Pitino and the rest of the Celtics brass took the easy way out and continued their coddling of Walker, and sold the phony goods that he was still the man to build the team around.

In his final two years in Boston, Antoine had just about bottomed out. While he was being paid as one of the elite players in the game, he was nothing more than an average player at this point, (a 14.6 PER his last year in Boston, 2003, which was actually below league average.) His rebounding at this stage was downright deplorable. The offensive rebounding percentage (as discussed above) was now down to back-up point-like levels with a 4.7% in 2002, and a historically bad 3.4% in 2003. He was also a sub 40% shooter from the field. I think Walker has got to be the only starting power forward the last 40 years who played 35+ minutes a night and shot below 40% for a season. And he did it twice, in back-to-back seasons no less. I was going to do some research to find out if he was the only one, but I was not willing to do it. Had I done so, I probably would have just thrown-up all over my keyboard, breaking my laptop in the process.

You’d even hear how Walker was an ‘enigma.’ Calling him an ‘enigma’ at that point was giving him too much credit. An enigma is defined by dictionary.com as: “a puzzling or inexplicable occurrence or situation.” To sensible basketball fans, and the 30 other NBA general managers besides Boston’s at the time, Walker was not an ‘enigma.’ He was quite simply a bad basketball player. He could do a few things, but he never mastered any facet of his game that he could use on a night in and night out basis. Sure, he was a good passer and ball handler – for a forward. But it wasn’t good enough where he could actually use it to be an effective playmaker virtually every game. As already documented, he was now a horrible rebounder. He was a terrible shooter, and had absolutely no mid-range game to speak of. His free throw percentage plummeted to Shaq-levels. He had a predictable, and easily defendable post game, with the same moves he had as a rookie. Everyone knew what was coming with him. He was also a horrific finisher around the basket, as at ages 25 and 26 he had next-to-no athleticism due to never keeping himself in shape during the off-season. Walker shot a ton of threes (no joke: 1,830 three point attempts in his final three years in Boston) because he was lazy and I’m sure because he liked doing so. But he also shot those threes because he couldn’t get his shot off around the basket anymore without humiliating himself. In a nationally televised broadcast on TNT in Washington on Halloween of 2002, Walker had his shot attempts blocked around the basket six freakin’ times by Kwame Brown of all people. The Celtics would go on to lose that game by 45, (yes, 45 on national TV.) Does the fact that a man’s basketball skills actually DECLINED every year since he came into the league not show that he never worked on his game simply because he was a lazy, big headed, arrogant human being?

However, in those final two years, the Celtics finally started winning more games than they lost for the first time since B.A. (Before Antoine.) Predictably, all the credit in Boston came from all angles and was directed at Walker. The media that praised him on his behalf, the front office that never had the guts to trade him fearing the fallout from his fans, and the Walker/Celtics fan base told everyone: “we told you so.” So the fans that came back to the team, came back to THAT. Some in the Boston media actually stated that Antoine took all of those threes because the coaching staff told him to do so, as it would ‘allow him to conserve energy on the defensive end.’ I am not making that up.

To an extent, there was semi-truth to this claim although it was a claim that twisted the truth a great amount in an effort to praise Walker. The media was trying to spin it as Antoine was just following the coach’s orders. Please. However, the Celtics’ coaching staff during this time did not care about the offensive end of the floor – as long as they committed to the game plan on defense. In reality, this was more coddling and spoiling of Walker. More people of supposed authority not telling this guy “no.” The only way they could get Walker to commit to any type of defensive game plan was to let him do whatever the heck he wanted on the offensive end. So naturally, this poisoned the whole team and the development of other players. Particularly one Paul Pierce, who after exploding in 2001 and 2002, regressed offensively (41% and 40% from the field in 2003 and 2004) due to the Mickey-mouse style offense Pierce played in; never getting back to legitimate All-Star levels until Antoine was gone and a real coaching staff was brought in. But no one talked about that specific type of ‘leadership’ with Walker at this time now did they?

In Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals against New Jersey, the Celtics had the greatest fourth quarter comeback in the history of the post-season play. The Celtics scored 41 points in the 4th quarter, and Antoine Walker had a grand total of three of those 41 points. Yet all of his backers in the Boston media could talk about was a pep talk Walker had in the huddle before the quarter. To them this set it in stone what they rammed down everyone’s throats for years: that Walker was this irreplaceable leader to the Celtics. Everything wrong with Antoine was swept under the rug.

The Celtics would go on to lose that series. After the season, then-Celtics GM Chris Wallace and the Celtics’ brass thought that the current team was ‘close.’ So they foolishly (really?!) decided to build around the core. After all, they had two ‘stars.’ So the Celtics, being the clowns they were during those days, pulled off the most egregious trade in their franchise’s history by trading for the remnants of Vin Baker. Because Walker couldn’t score inside or rebound well enough, the Celtics took a wild gamble on a drunk and strangled the franchise for four more years. As if they weren’t strangled enough already. Yeah, you could actually partially blame Walker for the infamous Baker deal.

Besides saddling the Celtics with an albatross contract for the next four years, the C’s were also left without a point guard due to trading Kenny Anderson to get Baker. But how much help could they get? To build around Walker, a team needed a good creating point guard to create shots for him, an elite wing scorer to take pressure off him, an elite shooter to spread the floor for him, and a dominant inside presence who could score, and defend and rebound on the other end for him. There were only a few people left in Boston, and unfortunately none of them were in the Celtics’ front office at the time, that asked themselves “Hey, if Walker can’t do any one of those things, what the hell is this guy?! And we’re paying him max freakin’ money?!” It was the Drew Bledsoe argument from ironically the same time frame (99-2000ish.) Defenders of Bledsoe would say “Hey you got to draft David Terrell and get this guy a playmaking receiver. Then you have to give him an o-line to block and give him time. Plus he needs other receivers to get open. He also needs that safety valve tight end to check down to when everything isn’t there. The Patriots also got to get him a 1,200+ yard rusher as well.” You’re supposed to pay the Bledsoes (who got a record breaking contract of his own) and the Walkers of the world the big bucks in hopes that they will provide as much as they can to contribute to a winning team, as well as masking as many deficiencies a team could have as possible.

By then though with Walker, it was like the only way he could succeed on the basketball court was to petition the league that he could play as a sixth man on the court. Doing nothing but ‘providing leadership’ to the five other guys who actually tried playing constructive basketball. He could not do anything else. But hey, at least the Celts were ‘winning’ right? Thanks to years of Antoine Walker-led mediocre Celtics teams, the bar dramatically dropped far below what most Celtics fans were accustomed to. So now, to the greatest franchise in the sport, advancing in the playoffs was enough reasons for happiness, flowers, and rainbows.

Of course, the last of the sensible fans in Boston knew, (and everyone outside of Boston knew) Antoine had little to do with the ‘success’ in 2002 and 2003. There were a few key, and infinitely more important factors for this: 1.) The very same player who Walker said would “hopefully add scoring to our second unit” blossomed into one of the elite players in the league (and being arguably the game’s best closer, leading the league in 4th quarter points in 2001 and finishing second in 2002 behind Kobe Bryant.) 2.) Jim O’Brien and Dick Harter’s defensive schemes established the Celtics as one of the best defensive teams in the league. And most importantly 3.) The Eastern Conference utterly stunk at this time. The New Jersey Nets were a 52-win #1 seed in 2002, (the following year was even worse as the Pistons were a 50 win #1 seed.) By contrast, in Walker’s rookie season, that would have been good for a seven seed in the East. The Celtics were merely a mediocre-to-good team that took advantage of a wretched conference.

However, on both occasions the season was ended by New Jersey. In both series Walker was abused by Kenyon Martin. Take away Martin’s ability to catch Jason Kidd alley-oops; K-Mart had as much offensive game as I did. Yet in Game 3 of the 2003 series in Boston, Kenyon Martin hung 25 points on Antoine on 10 of 12 shooting. Walker on the other end was 6 of 17 against Kenyon and the Nets, and the C's were blown out by 18 on their home floor in a must-win situation down 0-2 in the series coming into the game.

When Walker was sitting on the bench during the waning moments of the Game 3 blowout, a fan behind the bench started heckling Walker saying “Kenyon Martin ate you for lunch tonight.” In an embarrassing and disgusting scene, Walker went after the heckler before being held back by his teammates. Walker then sent his posse behind the bench to get the heckler. But it wasn’t done there. In front of a national audience in a playoff game, Walker cried on the bench while his mother (yes, you are reading this right) massaged his shoulders. Crying on the bench. Mommy massaging shoulders. So much for the guy that matured all those years, huh Shira Springer/Glenn Ordway/Pete Sheppard/Greg Dickerson? In Game 4, Walker fouled out and the Nets swept the Celtics. At this point, I had vowed never to watch the Celtics again until Walker was out of uniform. Enough was enough.

Mercifully, Danny Ainge was brought on board in the spring of 2003. I say mercifully because it was inevitable that the Antoine Walker era was coming to a close. On TNT broadcasts with Kevin Harlan and John Thompson, Ainge was routinely critical of Walker’s game, constantly pointing out his countless flaws as a player that a lot of Celtics fans refused to acknowledge. Ainge also went after Walker’s childish, classless, and boorish antics. Ainge lambasted Walker live on air, “You’d think Antoine Walker would have a little more RESPECT for the great Larry Brown.” A remark made after Walker stared down Larry Brown and picked up a technical foul because he hit a lucky, bank-shot, garbage time three pointer in a game that was well out of hand. On a broadcast late in the 2003 season when a mediocre Sixers team secured an easy win in Boston, Ainge referred to that particular Celtics team as “the worst fast break team I have ever seen.” In his introductory press conference, Ainge talked about how the team was a flawed, and already a salary crap strapped team. Ainge said it was going to take five years to get the Celtics to truly contend again. There would be no ‘adding to the core’ as the previous regime had just done a year earlier. Walker was on his way out the door, it was only a matter of time.

Despite this, at this time Walker was not only looking for another max contract extension at seven(!) years when he wasn’t even a free agent until another two years down the line. He was also openly talking about his jersey being in the rafters alongside the Celtics greats. You know, all that stat padding on horrible Celtics teams was enough reason to have his number up there with Bird, Cousy, Havlicek, Jones, and Russell. Don’t think too much of yourself, Antoine.

Walker was finally shipped out just before the 2004 season started to Dallas for Raef LaFrentz, and what eventually became three first round draft picks. After Walker was traded, he admitted, “I figured I had too much power for them. I think I had too many friendships off the court.” There you have it ladies and gentlemen – his relationships off the court, and all the power he had over them. Who could that have been? Duh. The media and the Walker-base blackmailed Ainge immediately. Ainge had just made his first major move and was given no chance despite calling the Celtics a five-year project. Shira Springer did a complete 180 and then proceeded to bombard the Globe with hatchet pieces on the Celtics’ organization and Ainge in particular. Pete Sheppard, Glenn Ordway, and many others lambasted the organization on radio airwaves throughout New England. Ainge was so viciously booed on Cedric Maxwell Night in December of 2003 that it made what happened to Joe Lacob a few days ago seem like nothing.

Fortunately, Ainge was able to make the move due to the fact that he had an ownership that backed him. Had Chris Wallace traded Walker, the fans would have directed that same venom they had towards Ainge at him, and it would have been doubtful Wallace would have kept his job. Due to Walker’s mouthpieces in the media, and the fans that defended him at any turn, Walker was a curse on the organization. Ainge was well aware of this when he told the Boston Globe after the trade, “Antoine had a grasp on our franchise…If Antoine is Michael Jordan, it's OK to have a grasp. If Antoine is Larry Bird, it's OK to have a grasp, or Bill Russell…But I didn't perceive Antoine's grasp on us as a positive thing." Ainge knew the fall out would be severe, but it had to be done.

Quick caveat: Walker was such a curse that ownership was all but forced to bring him back for one final run in 2005. The legions of his fans (and there were a lot of them) had all but boycotted the team, and the media trashed the Celts any chance they got as the team’s predictable struggles to them was vindication for the years of all but serving Walker. The 2005 Celtics, despite actually being a decent team (over .500 and leading the Atlantic Division at the trade deadline) were utterly irrelevant in Boston, logging QVC-like television ratings for live primetime basketball games. Walker was reacquired to get people in New England interested in the team again. When the C’s let him go at the end of the season it was at least easier for the fans and media to handle because this time ‘Walker left on his own terms.’

The original Walker trade however, was unfortunately a failure. Not because the Celtics rid themselves of Walker (because that part was great) but only because Raef LaFrentz was damaged goods and was making near max money until 2009. That should have been all that needed to be said about what the rest of the world besides people in Boston, as well as Walker himself, thought of Antoine. He wasn’t that good. When Ainge originally tried trading Walker in the summer of 2003, all he could really get was Latrell Sprewell from Isiah Thomas. Check that: all Ainge could get was, to go Bill Simmons on everyone, LSEC, Latrell Sprewell’s Expiring Contract. And the only one who was really interested was Isiah Thomas, which should say it all right there. That should have been the trade Ainge made, but he didn’t (of course, we all know what would been the line from the media: “Ainge and the new owners are cheap! Trying to cut salary and giving away the ‘team leader’ for nothing!”) But because Baker’s contract was on the books (along with a few other bad deals on the Celtics) until 2006, the Celtics were not going to have cap relief until at least ‘06 anyways. So Ainge decided to roll the dice on someone grossly overpaid and lost. Whatever, Antoine was gone.

After Antoine was dealt, he continued his decline as a player and individual. He first went to Dallas and never fit in there, helping contribute to that team actually regressing from the season before (best record in the league and a WCF appearance to a five seed and a first round exit.) It was during his year-stay in Dallas where he infamously told the world that he was a ‘volume shooter’ and that he was not getting a chance to effectively contribute. I don’t know what’s sadder. The fact that by then Antoine’s ego was as big as it was despite being utterly exposed as a player, or the fact that he used ‘volume shooter’ to positively describe himself. Hey Antoine, the term ‘volume shooter’ is a negative connotation. It is generally directed at the Todd Days of the world; those who can only get their points when it’s entirely out of the flow of the offense. They do nothing but chuck enough shots at the basket hoping that a few would go in to add to their point totals.

Walker finished his career by being on six teams in his final six years. And, he did not even get to play for his sixth team, as Walker could not even make the 2009 Memphis Grizzlies roster. The end included such lowlights as: in 2007, Miami suspended Walker on numerous occasions for being well overweight; in 2008, Minnesota actually paid Walker to not even play basketball and stay as far away from the team as possible; and as we know, being cut by the flippin’ Grizzlies a few months later. By 2010, less than a year after his last NBA contract, which paid him nine million dollars in a season, Walker had amassed the 12.7 million dollar debt that Chris Ballard featured his whole special report around. The debt was of course due to horrible personal decisions, stupid friendships, and gambling most of the fortunes he had away over the course playing years. This was all at the time when he was one who thought far, far too highly of himself and what he could do. Walker is currently working for minor league checks in Boise, Idaho trying to pay whatever he bills and debts he can.

So, who’s to blame here? I think it’s safe to say nearly all of it lies at the feet of Antoine Walker. It’s hard for me to feel any sympathy towards someone who’s likely made north of 150 million dollars in his life, plus the fame and power that came with it. Walker got as big of a chance as anyone in this world could get. He blew it all and now he’s likely in a worse predicament than you or I right now.

This situation he is in now is not something I would have guaranteed during Antoine’s personal ‘heyday’ but his fall from grace was all too predictable. Everything mentioned in this column (and there sure was A LOT up there, huh?) points to a man with a massive ego; an ego so large its measurements are not calculable. And Walker and his ego was given whatever it wanted for over twenty years. Doing so created an ‘Antoine bubble’ which much like his body only got bigger and bigger as the years went on and nothing was done about it. When it burst, and burst it did, the results were catastrophic to Antoine and his family. To Antoine, it was like the American real estate bubble bursting.

In Bob Ryan’s infamous 1998 piece, the claims he made about Walker back then ended up being frighteningly prophetic. That of course was not Ryan’s intention when he wrote that column. But consider what Ryan wrote on that summer day way back nearly 15 years ago now:

1.) “Antoine Walker is one of those great jokes of nature, for atop a body capable of wondrous feats on the basketball floor sits the head of a fool. It is a supremely cruel and dangerous mix.” (Oh yes, it sure was a dangerous mix. That ‘mix’ made up the ‘Antoine bubble.’)

2.) “Antoine Walker is such an arrogant, misguided, yes, punk, that there is nothing either M.L. Carr, Rick Pitino, or The Pope could do with this kid.” (In a good 20+ years of Walker’s life, Antoine did not meet anyone who could do anything about him, and thus we see the results.)

3.) “There is nothing left to teach him because it is quite obvious he is of the firm opinion that, 25 days before his 22d birthday, he knows all he will ever need to know about what it takes to be a true success in the NBA.” (I’d say we have enough documented information, evidence and events that transpired during Walker’s NBA career that that certainly was, and ended up being the case.)

4.) “It is clear that anyone giving Antoine Walker $70 million, $80 million, $90 million, or $100 million dollars, guaranteed, must understand that he will immediately take it as a validation of his greatness. He feels no need for improvement. He is, after all, a veteran All-Star.” (“Validation of his greatness.” EXACTLY what ended up happening and something discussed ad nauseam above.)

5.) “He is a classic product of the modern basketball system. He is an AAU baby who has never worked at anything other than basketball in his life, and who has only met one coach - Rick Pitino - who has ever told him ''no'' about anything. He is arrogant and clueless about his profession.” (We have bingo ladies and gentlemen.)

The tragedy of Antoine Walker is a sad tale on so many levels. To a lesser extent, it’s a story of a once-gifted basketball player who not nearly met his potential. However, it is much more extensive than that. It’s a story of a man who was given far too much in life. Had some people told him ‘no’ on just a few occasions, it might have offered a different course for Walker to take. What would have happened had the Celtics traded him early in his career? Would he have then finally realized his wrongdoings, at a point when there was at least some hope for him? What if basketball ‘moneyball’ was around 10 years earlier, and such stats would have exposed Walker as a player? That would have meant no mass endorsements, no large guaranteed contracts, and none of the fame and power that comes with it. Would that have been the much-needed humbling experience for him?

It’s a story of the worst times in Celtics history, the only time in their proud history where the idiots ran the asylum for a lengthy period of time. The Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe era was a blink of an eye compared to this. It’s a sad story of a clueless, but worse, gutless and cowardly front office that was more concerned with what the fans thought of the franchise than what was actually BEST for the franchise. One of the reasons this piece is as lengthy as it is, is because it contains just about every excuse made over the years in regards to the beyond-the-realms-of-absurdity coddling of Walker. So I’d say that things definitely went a little overboard all those years. What if the Celtics weren’t the cookie-cutter organization they were during the Gaston years? Would the Celtics organization have been freed from everything that was to come? Could Antoine have been saved then?

It’s a story of an all too complicit sports media in a historic, proud, and extraordinarily sophisticated city. Was possibly compromising material on Walker’s behalf really worth those golf rounds with Antoine? Or the interviews, and other access he could provide? And if those particular media members ‘liked’ Antoine as much as they did, why did they continue to feed this beast that desperately was at a point where it needed to be starved? What if THEY were the ones who told Antoine ‘no?’ Could that have kept this man from the plummet to rock bottom he would eventually take?

It’s a story of an intelligent and educated fan base being fooled and manipulated. It is a shame that people in a city known for its intelligence were fooled by one Antoine Walker. But, worse, it’s a travesty that these fans were manipulated by a complicit media corps and the rest of Walker’s PR run. At times during the ‘99* season, Walker was booed every time he touched the ball. Then, the booing stopped. Why? Because those fans were so sick of Walker’s game and shenanigans that they eventually stopped caring and bailed on the Celtics in droves. All that was left was the Walker base who took great pride in defending Walker to his detractors in Boston, and the rest of the country that so despised him and his actions. It was a pitiful 'us-against-the-world' play. What if those fans were still left around, and Walker was booed out of town the same way Rick Pitino was those final days in 2001? Would that have served as Antoine’s wake-up call? Instead, for five more years, Walker was showered with unnecessary, unwarranted, and undeserved love and grace, which inflated his view of himself more and more.

But worst off, it’s a story where there were and are no winners. Not even those who are now clearly vindicated. Not myself, not Bob Ryan, not Danny Ainge. Those who had Walker pegged over a decade ago, but were washed away amongst a sea of fools. All we have for ourselves is a “we told you so” but to most of us, what good is that? The damage was done. Antoine Walker is struggling for his life in Boise. And the Celtics were utterly pitiful for over a decade because of everyone’s permissiveness to, as Bob Ryan put it, “merely a punk who could play a little basketball.” Antoine was not the first bigheaded, big ego, overpaid athlete who screwed it all up for himself, and sadly he will not be the last. However, out of this tragedy should serve a lesson to all those involved – to not repeat the same mistakes that everyone involved made for all those years. Doing so could result in another tale as sad as this one.    

Part Deux: What Went Wrong Back Then & Why It Doesn’t Matter This Time Around

 

As I have stated a few times now: the notion that a 20+ year title drought ensued due to the fact that THE Big Three was kept together for too long is an inaccurate assertion to make. If this happened again today with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and PaulPierce, another 20+ year title drought might ensue but it won’t be because the team was kept together too long. There were many other things that happened to the Celtics of 89-93, which contributed to that team’s decay, both in and out of the Celtics’ control.

Celtics GM Danny Ainge would know too well of what really contributed to the downfall of THE Big Three. It was the trade of him to Sacramento that ended up putting far too much pressure on the aging frontline of Bird, McHale, and Parish. Ainge was a borderline All-Star in his prime (just coming off a career high 45 point game as well) and playing a position of dire need. Ainge was both a shooting guard, and someone who could effectively run the point. Even with Dennis Johnson rapidly declining, and no one outside of rookie Brian Shaw, to assume any ball handling abilities, Ainge was shipped out for a nice-hustle guy but average role player in EddyPinckney, and a complete stiff in Joe Kleine. The idea was that would have bolstered the front line. Ainge would have been able to handle some point duties and help out mightily with scoring on the perimeter. Ainge, Brian Shaw, and Reggie Lewis wouldhave been an acceptable backcourt, which ended up being Boston’s achilles’ heel during that time frame. Also, Ainge, along with Shaw and Lewis, would have been fine players to bridge to the next generation of Celtics. The Celtics clearly blew this one.

Speaking of Brian Shaw, following a contract dispute in the 1989 off-season, Shaw went over to Italy to play the 1990 season there. This was, of course, an important loss because the Celtics went into the ‘90 season with no legitimate point guard which in turn forced Bird into a “point forward” role (and as I mentioned earlier, added unwarranted and unneeded pressure to THE Big Three.) Shaw returned the following season, but he was never happy with the front office and the Celtics were eventually all but forced to ship the young and talented point guard away. It was a shame because between Shaw and Reggie Lewis, they represented the first pair of decent draft picks the Celtics had since they came away with/ stole Kevin McHale in 1981. Here were the Celtics’ first-rounders from 1982-1985: Charles Bradley, Darren Dillis, Greg Kite, Michael Young, and Sam Vincent. Yikes. I’d say that’s a pretty bad sign when Greg Kite was the best pro of all of them. I’d actually say that’s a HORRIBLE sign. When the Celtics finally had a hit with Shaw, they ended being picked off at first base.

What certainly ranks as the most unforgivable miss in Celtics recent draft history was the largest controllable error that contributed to the team’s downfall. Of course, in every draft any team can always look back and say “if we drafted this guy here, and that guy there etc, we’d be great.” But how about when by far the best player on the board was available? At a dire position of need? A player whom every expert and draft analyst had as a lock going to Boston? And when that particular player was dying to be a Celtic, and spoke openly about wanting to play in Boston (despite the city’s treatment of black players compared to white players at the time) and be apart of the Celtic tradition? Well, that was the case in the 1989 Draft. Due to Bird missing virtually the entire season due to foot injuries, the Celtics were in the fortuitous position of picking just out of the lottery at 13, as opposed to their usual spot as one of the final picks in the first round. A great opportunity to add a quality player to a declining, yet still very talented team (especially with Reggie Lewis’ emergence in ’89 and Bird’s return in ’90.)

The Celtics ended up passing on Tim Hardaway (who, as we all know, went on to have a borderline Hall of Fame career) and selected Michael Smith from BYU, who couldn’t play a lick. Of course, as soon as the pick was made, TBS cameras cut to a steaming mad Hardaway. (Hardaway would carry his anger against Boston onto the court. His point and assist totals his first four years in games against the Celtics: 25-10, 22-7, 37-10, 18-12, 43-7, 12-6, 20-10.) This decision was so egregious that it spawned a book titled “The Selling of the Green” which implicated that the Celts were a racist franchise, trying to field a team with as many good white players as possible to appease its equally racist fan base. Obviously, that was not the case, but when the front office blew that selection in the ’89 draft as badly they did, it invited the crap that ensued. But more importantly, it was a critical blow to the state of the team. The Celtics had two very solid point guards in Ainge and Shaw, and a great one in Tim Hardaway in their grasp, and the Celts let them all get away from them. Not only did the Celtics not have alegitimate point guard for the final years of THE Big Three, to ease their increasing burden of having to carry the team; the Celtics wouldn’t even have another capable point guard until Rajon Rondo nearly 20 years later.

The biggest impact of all, as Celtics fans know, was of course the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis. In this case it was a situation far out of the Celtics control. Not only were the Celtics robbed of two cornerstones to build around throughout the 1990s, but the opportunities itwould have presented the team and its management would have masked a lot errors the front office had made, or eventually were going to make, as well as offer flexibility and ease to build a team. For example, if Bias had lived, the Celtics almost assuredly would not have made the ill-fated Ainge trade as they would have had all the frontcourt help they needed. The Celts, when the time was right, probably would have broken up THE Big Three. Likely, they would have dealt Kevin McHale to help balance out the team. The deal that Auerbach was rumored to pull the trigger on was to send McHale to Dallas during the ’89 season for Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins (more on this later, by the way.) Larry Bird would have then slid over to the 4, which ended up happening anyways as an aging Bird coming offdouble-heel surgery was too slow to play the quick forward spot anymore. (During the ’91 season, Bird played the 4 spot next to a very effective quick forward in Kevin Gamble. Bird, while not playing at the level that made him one of the greatest players ever, was still an elite, All-NBA-typeplayer. Before he went down with the back injury that pretty much ended his career in the middle of the ’91 campaign, the Celts started a dominant 29-5 and were at best the favorites to win it all, and worst, a top three favorite.) It really does get tough thinking about it doesn’t it? What could have been? Anyways, after further examining the evidence your honor, there were other major instances during the late 80s and early 90s that had a much bigger impact on the decline of that particular team.

Now, it is necessary to point out and explain why the situation from yesteryear does not compare to today. THE Big Three actually had legitimate trade value (well, just Bird and McHale, as Parish was in his late 30s and was making large money. Hmmmmm…similar to what Ainge has on his hands today.) McHale, and especially Bird, were not just talented Hall of Fame caliber players still playing at a high level, but they were big draws as well. They sold tickets for teams. As especially was the case for Bird, any team that traded for Larry Legend would have had a sold out venue until the day he hung ‘em up. All one has to do is look at the return the Celtics would have gotten for McHale. There were also rumors that the Celtics were willing to ship McHale to Seattle in 1989 for a future draft pick, which would have been #2 in 1990, aka the Gary Payton pick. So that means it’s pretty clear that members of THE Big Three could have fetched exponentially superior value than what any of today’s Celtics, excluding Rondo, could. In the case of the McHale-to-Dallas trade, Sam Perkins was already avery solid, borderline All-Star big man. He was even a better rebounder at the time than McHale was. Later in his career Perkins would then go on to add a (freakin’ legendary) outside (set) shot to his game and become an entirely different, but still very effective player. His versatility alone allowed him to have an 18-year career. Perkins was one of the elite bench players in the 1990s on year-in-and-year-out championship contending teams in Los Angeles and Seattle. Even at the time of the possible deal, Perkins was a comparable player to McHale. However, he was far younger, far more agile, and far, far, far, far, far, far healthier than McHale (screw in-foot and all.) Detlef Schrempf meanwhile was a very talented, but at the time, underachieving player. A change of scenery was ideal for Schrempf. Whether he’d work out was another question, as opposed to Perkins who was already more than established. He could never fit in with Dallas due to the fact that the Dallas fans and media never forgave the Mavericks for picking him over Karl Malone. (Rumor has it that Dallas backed out on a guarantee of selecting Malone in the slot that they then picked Schrempf in.) He would have been a great player to take a gamble on. Lo and behold, Schrempf would go on to have a very productive career in the 1990s on other teams (winning multiple Sixth Man of the Year awards, and become athree-time All Star.) Now consider, has Ainge received anywhere near that kind of value for any of his current aging core? I think it’s necessary to pound this point home; Ainge could not, and cannot get, one established player for Allen, Pierce, or Garnett, (unless the Celts were willing to include other variables into the equation. Such as, sending out other assets, or taking back some bad salary from another team, which as weknow, is fortunately not in the game plan.) Heck, Ainge could not even get a player that had a strong possibility of being very good. The best Ainge could get was Eric Bledsoe, who is a coin flip at best of either developing or fizzling.

In the case of Pierce, the word was that all that was attainable was an expiring contract and a draft pick in return for his services. Ask yourself this: what’s more valuable? Keeping Boston relevant in the immediate months, or an extra latefirst round draft pick? As noted earlier, Ainge has decided to sacrifice a few possible assets (two late first rounders at the very most) in keeping Boston as a relevant destination on the NBA map. Maybe if Ainge had gotten more assets for his stars, he would have surrendered Boston’s current position in free agency, and gotten a head start on a possible rebuild ala 2004-2007. If the Celtics were to be players in free agency this summer, much of the core has to be here (Rondo and Pierce, with the possibility of Garnett and Allen coming back on cheap deals.) If Pierce were to be traded for an expiring contract and a draft pick, Boston immediately becomes a basketball Siberia; no different than a Charlotte, Minnesota, or Sacramento; places where no talented player wants anything to do with unless they are forced to play there. The Celtics HAVE to have a good current situation for players to succeed in. Rivers and Ainge understand this too, as evidenced by their quotes that I mentioned in Part 1.

Also, I think it’s necessary to point something else out. The cap relief by getting rid of Pierce’s deal immediately becomes worthless UNLESS it is used to free up money to sign a major free agent. If they don’t get a major free agent (or two, or three), then the Celtics will be under the salary floor and would be forced to overpay for some schmuck free agent to meet the requirements. Think Golden State giving Kwame Brown eight million for a year, or whatever disgusting number it was for that iconic draft bust. Besides, Boston also has the ability to (God forbid) use the amnestyclause on Pierce if necessary. Which means, worst-case scenario, Ainge has only relinquished a mid-first round pick (which was what could have been acquired for Pierce during last week’s trade deadline.) I’d say, of all things considered, that’s a fair trade off when it allows the current Celtics brass the flexibility and the ability to make important decisions over key players at the time they feel most comfortable to make them.

So now, there you have it. It is pretty explanatory and straightforward what led to the decline of THE Big Three, and the years of mediocrity that ensued. And it is pretty clear that today’s situationis not comparable to what we saw back then. Ainge, considering some circumstances, has left this team in decent enough shape. The key now will be to intelligently and effectively manage the coming cap flexibility. Whether it would be the ideal scenario of signing one, two, or three game changing free agents. Whether it would be by trade to acquire an impact player. Or whether it would be used to acquire valuable assets like a high draft pick or two (similar to what Cleveland did in March of 2011 by taking back Baron Davis’ large deal along with an unprotected Clippers pick which turned out to be #1 overall Kyrie Irving.) By contrast, the Celtics of the early 90s used their cap space on Xavier McDaniel, Pervis Ellison, Dominique Wilkins, and then re-signed Dino Radja and Dee Brown to rather large deals which was alldone over a three-year period. That as Celtics fans know, led to more miserable, and forgettable years in Celtics history.

Could it have been better over the last few years for Ainge? Sure. But how much better? Could we have gotten a little more value for Kendrick Perkins and selected DeAndre Jordan in 2008? Perhaps, but at that point it’s nitpicking, as even the best GMs have errors along the way (I could write another column on this alone if I felt like it.) Celtics fans just need to hope that none of any possible future mistakes will be anything major that has the potential to cripple the franchise for a few years. The Celtics of the late 80s and early 90s made these kinds of mistakes, as I pointed out over the last two pieces.

Regardless, even if the Celtics were to ride out today’s Big Three till the bitter end. And the Celtics were left with an-approaching-30 Rondo and no more than a few othersmall pieces, the worst-case scenario will be that Ainge will have to rekindle the Five-Year-Plan again. Five years is what it should take towards building a contending team as long as there is an expansive, and an extensive plan achieving this goal, and commitment from ownership. We already know the Celtics have a committed ownership when it comes to doing what it takes to field a winning product (something that the Celtics of the 90s did not have following Paul “Thanksdad” Gaston’s ascension in ’93.) The question now is does Ainge and management have a good enough plan (which includes a Plan A, B, and C)? I’m fairly confident they do.

Part I: An Introduction & What in the World Is Going On Right Now?

 

As the clocked ticked past 3:00 PM EST on Thursday March 15th, 2012, the basketball world saw 30+ year olds Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce remain Boston Celtics for at least the rest of the season. Most in the Boston media, and wanna-be Boston media, have used any forms of modern communication necessary over the last few days to tell anyone they could that Celtics GM Danny Ainge “has made the same mistake Red made.” That ‘mistake’ being that Red Auerbach and the Celtics of yesteryear held onto THE Big Three (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish to refresh your memory) for too long which was the primary reason for the 22-year title drought that ensued. In this two-part piece, whoever reads this will see three things: 1.) There is plenty of reasoning to Ainge’s most recent, and notable decision. 2.) The notion that Bird and McHale finishing their careers in Boston was the root cause of a 22-year drought is one big fallacy. 3.) The situation now and what transpired back in the early 90s is not a comparable one anyways.

First off, let’s be perfectly clear here. Ainge has tried to ‘blow-up’ this current edition of great Celtics as far back as February of 2010. Ainge has never been one not to explore all options. During the winter months of the 2010 season, many feared that today’s Big Three were over-the-hill THEN, as the team was mired in a stretch in which they’d finish the season 27-27 after Christmas Day. Ainge looked at many deals with Ray Allen that would have gotten the Celtics younger instantly. First, he offered Allen to Golden State for Monta Ellis. Then there were rumors of Ray to Chicago for Kirk Hinrich, Tyrus Thomas, and a draft pick (yuck!). Golden State refused, and Chicago was willing to make the deal without the draft pick, which proved to be a breaking point according to ‘those in the know.’ Fortunately for the Celtics, Allen remained in Boston and the team went on a magical run toGame 7 of the NBA Finals that year. After being a few rebounds shy of that particular group of Celtics’ second NBA championship in three seasons, no one in the world called for the dismantling of the Celtics.

Ainge of course brought most of the gang back together; including pieces that he felt would help the team capture the franchise’s 18th championship (Shaq, Jermaine O’Neal, as well as the re-signing of Nate Robinson who emerged late in that post-season.) Outside of the Pierce re-signing, none of those deals went past 2012(also known as the year Kevin Garnett’s monster 20+M salary comes off the books). Kevin Garnett’s contract forced Ainge’s hand a bit, and had that contract not been on the books, who knows what path Ainge would have taken during the summer of ‘10. Legitimately, Ainge was going to give that particular group one last shot in 2011. There were no arguments then, as everyone agreed with that decision. Certainly no one was saying the Celtics should have been thinking about rebuilding when they were the favorites to win the championship as late as the middle of March last season, as well. 2012 was to be a bridge year, as once again, Ainge never gave out a long term contract to any of the new faces that werebrought in to fill out this year’s team. Ainge, of course, knew this when he tried trading for Chris Paul last December, believing he very well could be a domino that would result in a Paul and Dwight Howard duo (plus the aging three Hall of Famers.) That didn’t work out, so the team went into 2012 with an attitude that if the team was competing, great. If not, Ainge had the flexibility to make the necessary moves that would help the team in the near future, or aide a larger rebuilding project further down the line. Notice how Ainge did not surrender a shred of any future assets to pad this year’s product.

Ainge of course decided to stand pat last Thursday. Although, it wasn’t for lack of trying. As reported, the team explored many deals to blow up the team, despite the team’s hot start after the All Star break. Yet Ainge could not even muster a mid-level prospect (Eric Bledsoe) and a late first rounder two years down the line from the Clippers for Ray Allen. They were only willing to offer one or the other, not both. The Clippers instead went cheap (the Clippers went cheap? No way!) and acquired Nick Young from Washington (good luck with that, Lob City. Ray Allen in a close playoff game or Nick Young? Please.)

With Pierce, it was even worse. As reported by many, all the Celtics were willing to get for Pierce was an expiring contract, and a mid first round pick. Now, while there were many that clamored that this team will not win the title anyways, so Ainge was best suited to get whatever he could have gotten for any of the ‘old guys.’ One can understand the face value of this particular argument. Almost assuredly, if the Celtics did not run off an 8-2 stretch following the All-Star break, I think most Celtics fans would have seen a firesale on Causeway Street that would have made the ’97 White Sox blush. Just about anyone on the roster would have been sold to the highest bidder. However, the reason that was not done was simple – Ainge decided to roll the dice a bit, and play some faint percentages. To him, the value of the return for Allen and/or Pierce was not worth the extra percentage points he’d sacrifice towards a miraculous acquisition of Dwight Howard via trade (and/or Deron Williams via free agency) this summer.

As Doc Rivers told Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald a few weeks ago, “"You sell [to free agents] what you have on your team.” Ainge reiterated the same when he said: “The [most important] thing is the quality of your team and the opportunity [a free agent] may have to win.” After the team kept the Pierce-Allen-Garnett trio intact for the time being, Ainge is now hoping that the team at the very least makes ‘a run’ this post-season. Hopefully, that would create the possibility of making Boston a somewhat more suitable place to play for potential free agents or major trade acquisitions this summer.

Now of course, any mention of big name free agents coming to Boston to play basketball irritates some Celtics fan. “They’d never come here! It’s too cold and we’re taxed too much,” so they say. But really, how is making a long shot run at a game-changing free agent any worse than the odds of “blow the team up, suck for years, and hope and pray that we win a lottery with a Duncan-type at the top, and then hope he pans out?” There is clearly a method to this madness, ladies and gentlemen. As already pointed, if Ainge had gotten a decent return for Pierce or Allen, he would have sacrificed the small amount of percentage points of acquiring a free agent or two, and eradicating any chance of a possibly lengthy rebuild. Ainge was, and is right. The utter worst-case scenario in all of this is the team will lose out on two late first round draft choices. By the way, who’s to say Ainge cannot revisit this kind of situation again next year with Pierce, and possibly even a re-signed Allen? Which then would mean the team lost out on nothing.

Ainge has a few plans, and is choosing to remain flexible. That’s good. That is imperative when building a legitimate team in the NBA. Ainge not acting on Deadline Day will not cripple the franchise for years to come. Just because Ainge held onto his three agingHall of Famers does not mean he ‘made the same mistake’ Red did. In Part 2, I will show that not only is today’s situation not a comparable one; which is due to the value for Ray and Pierce not being remotely in the same ballpark to what the Celtics could have gotten for THE Big Three. But also, that there were other much greater factors than that of riding out THE Big Threetill the end, that led to the decline of that team and the ensuing struggles for the franchise that followed.

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A Note from CLNS Radio:

After a trade deadline day, filled with no moves for the Boston Celtics, we thought it only makes sense to reach back into the time vault and offer you a breakdown of this gem. 20 years ago today, Larry Bird showed the basketball world what it was to be a legend (one last time). CLNS Radio welcomes, guest blogger, Larry Russell to provide his detailed memories of one of those "where were you when Larry....?" moments. Enjoy!

By guest blogger: Larry Russell

20 years ago today, March 15th 1992: Celtics 152 Blazers 148 in double overtime. Larry Legend 49-14-12 including an insane three pointer to force the first overtime that needs to be seen to be believed. Of course, if you’re a Celtics fan you don’t need to see it to believe it. Every Celtic fan of all ages will tell you exactly where they were on that gorgeous Sunday afternoon in mid March when that game happened.

Yes, even 15 year olds who weren’t even born yet will tell you they jumped a mob pile at their friends’ house after Gamble hit a baseline buzzer beater to force a second overtime. That game was literally that epic and is cherished by almost every Celtic fan as much as any game the last 20 years save for 131-92.

Read that last sentence again: “That game was literally that epic and is cherished by almost every Celtic fan as much as any game the last 20 years save for 131-92.”

And you know what? It’s true, which makes it that much more amazing. The Boston Celtics are the greatest franchise in the history of professional basketball (sorry LA fans, but the scoreboard still reads 17-11.) Not only have they had the most championship success but also no franchise has been involved in more memorable games.

From the first true NBA classic, Game 7 of the 1957 Finals, to “Havlicek stole the ball!” to the ‘Greatest Game Ever Played’ (that’s the 3OT thriller vs. Phoenix in Game 5 1976 Finals, and you’re not much of a Celtics fan, let alone NBA fan if you don’t know that), to “And there’s a steal by Bird….” and right down the rest of the laundry list of NBA classics the Celtics were involved in.

For a franchise so rich in success, usually Celtics fans don’t cherish many moments that did not happen in the post-season. After all, that’s usually reserved for fans of lesser franchises to harp on regular season buzzer beaters, and to hang division banners. But not only was it the greatest regular season game in basketball history, but it was the final legendary performance submitted by a mortally wounded warrior/legend/basketball god.

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For those that need their mind refreshed a bit, or for those who (gasp) don’t know much of this momentous occasion, well, I guess it’s necessary for a rundown. 20 years ago today, March 15th 1992 the 35-29 Celtics took on the first place 46-18 Portland Trail Blazers on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in mid-March in Boston in a nationally televised broadcast on NBC. Following the Celtics’ 1991 playoff loss to Detroit, (the third time they lost to their rivals from the Motor City in the last four years), it was clear that the Celtics of Bird-Parish-McHale were no longer true contenders. The Blazers came into the Garden smoking-hot, and even worse, steaming mad. They had just gotten humiliated in the marquee match-up of the year on national television against Chicago two weeks to the day prior.

The Blazers were clearly the cream of the Western Conference, winning the conference two seasons prior, and choking it away to Magic's Lakers in ‘91. Magic Johnson retired right before the season, which left absolutely no legitimate threat to the Blazers to regain the Western Conference throne.

The Blazers had two all-stars (one Hall of Famer) in the absolute peak of their careers (Drexler and Porter), and a stocked supporting cast full of future or former all stars (Cliff Robinson, Danny Ainge, Kevin Duckworth, Buck Williams) who all played at high levels. They had one of the best coaches in the game in Rick Adelman.

Following the beat-down in Chitown, the Blazers ripped off seven in a row, firmly established their position as the clear cut favorites in the West, and went into their nationally televised broadcast against the Celtics to make a serious statement to the whole league.

The Celtics on the other hand, limped around the ’92 season as a team that struggled to stay above .500. To put it bluntly, Boston was just about dead meat for this match-up.

Celtics Hall of Famer Larry Bird, in the summer of 91, got off-season back surgery to remove a disc. Following games in the ‘92 season, Bird was virtually paralyzed. Bird said that he played in “total agony.” Bird was in the twilight of twilights of his career.

Here’s how bad it was for Bird: he could never have his back in any other position but vertical. He either had to be standing up straight or lying down. He could never sit on the bench on the sideline (or anywhere); he could only lie down stomach-first. Following games, he had to spend hours upon hours in a full-body brace to recover, either at home or in a hospital bed.

It was utterly excruciating for Celtics fans to not only know they would probably never see their legend perform like, well, a legend again. But it was equally excruciating to watch Bird go to war for the Celtics franchise and Celtics fans with six bullet wounds to his body. Heck, there were even debates during that season that the Celtics may have been better without Bird even PLAYING.

While NBC certainly advertised the game as a marquee match-up between two of the top teams in their respective conferences, the game had little hype in Boston as many Celtics fans expected the Blazers to come into the Garden and take care of business and dispatch the Celtics. However, fortunately for Celtics fans and anyone who appreciates the game of basketball in general (and ESPECIALLY executives at NBC), the game went a little differently than expected.

***

For the first 47 minutes, the Blazers clearly proved their point to the league. Boston came out of the gates hot and took an early lead, but from the middle of the second quarter on, Portland was working with a comfortable lead all game.

Bird grinded and battled through the unimaginable back pain and was dialing up a virtuoso 1985-like performance, hitting fadeaways in the block, making three pointers, finding the open man, and getting rebounds on the defensive end firing a quick outlet.

However, even that was not looking like it would be enough. But Bird’s performance alone, by far his best of the season, actually kept the Celtics within striking distance of the far superior, far more talented, and far more athletic Portland Trail Blazer team.

Clyde Drexler (tallying 34 points in regulation) was stellar himself, and the Blazers were well on their way to that statement victory on national television they talked about. Portland was sporting a five-point lead with 20 seconds to go after Drexler was 1 of 2 at the line. The Celtics faithful began heading for the exits, Marv Albert began reading off the credits of those who at NBC who helped bring the game to a national audience and thanked them for their efforts, and the tens of millions of figure skating fans around the country (uh, yeah I exaggerated that a bit) were anxiously awaiting the conclusion of the game to watch NBC’s coverage of the World Figure Skating Championship.

Bird and the Celtics kept battling, scoring on a reverse layup, but Portland tacked on two more free throws, so it was back to a five-point lead with 14 seconds left and Boston didn’t have any timeouts. But Bird scored again, and the game kept going on, much to the chagrin of all eight of the American figure skating fans. With seven seconds left, Jerome Kersey was fouled and only needed one to ice the game. After missing the first, all of a sudden, 47 minutes of soundly dominating the Celtics very well was about to come down to one free throw.

Marv Albert and Mike Fratello felt it, and so did the fans, who let out a “holy crap, if he misses this, we get the ball down three and Larry’s cooking today” type of cheer.

As soon as Kersey released it, he knew it wasn’t good. Worst of all, what he did was the worst of scenarios that could happen for Portland: Kersey was called for a lane violation for stepping into the paint before the ball hit the rim. It stopped the clock (again Boston had no timeouts), and the Celtics got it side-out in Portland’s backcourt (rather than having to grab a rebound in traffic with a running clock AND go the length of the floor.)

Immediately, what was left of the Garden crowd let out a deafening, and familiar “Larr-y! Larr-y!” cry, hoping for one more miracle moment to improbably send the game to overtime. The moment had the perfect build-up. All of a sudden, the fans that left the game frantically returned to their seats. After finally getting it across the frontcourt, the ball got to Bird and the Garden faithful gasped as soon as he got near the three-point line. The Blazers had him covered like a blanket as they had Bird looking like he was playing on roller skates. There was nothing left but an absolute desperation, one-handed shot-put heave at the rim – a ball that had utterly no arc and went towards the basket like a screaming line drive off the bat of Wade Boggs.

The ball barely cleared the rim, then all of a sudden, rattled around, and in. The Garden was set off like the Celtics just won the championship, and the Blazers were absolutely stunned. Overtime was a formality.

***

Throughout the overtime, the Blazers seemed to restore order. The Celtics rode the adrenaline of the home crowd to stay close with the Blazers, but Portland seemed to gain control. Incredibly into the overtime, Bird was still dealing, hitting a tough fadeaway to tie the game early in the session, and then using one of his trademark moves that only he could do. While being doubled posting up at the elbow, he took a fadeaway and drew two Blazers in the air. Then, incredibly, at the last second he changed his mind and fired a no-look bullet strike to a cutting John Bagley for a layup which was his 10th assist of the afternoon, and secured the improbable triple-double by a player who was virtually flippin’ handicapped.

After Bird missed a potential go-ahead three pointer that would have very well brought the Garden to the ground had it gone in, Portland had the ball up two with under 30 seconds. Once they secured an offensive rebound with four seconds, all they needed were two free throws to ice it once again.

However, IT happened again. What has always plagued Rick Adelman teams. Buck Williams at the line missed the first one horribly, and the Garden crowd once again sensed it with an “uh oh, here we go again” cheer. He missed the second, and Bird secured the rebound and Boston had life.

Once again, the crowd began calling for another vintage Bird moment, and the millions of people who tuned into NBC expected it as well, (except for those figure skating fans who at this point were tweezing their scalp hair out.)

But this time Bird was a decoy as Chris Ford drew up a perfectly executed play (hey, imagine that, a Celtics coach who draws up a play at the end of games rather than giving the ball to their best player 40 feet from the hoop and let him do some work while four other guys do nothing.)

Kevin Gamble inbounded the ball to John Bagley, who penetrated, drew the Blazer defense and then kicked it back out to Gamble who at this point slid uncovered over to the baseline 15 foot from the hoop. Gamble nailed it. At this point the Garden was absolute bedlam. Celtics fans around Boston and the rest of the world were delirious watching this final curtain call for their aging team and their crippled star.

The NBA world and the rest of the national audience could not believe what they were seeing. Bird and his Celtics may have been fading from the basketball picture, but they sure as hell weren’t going down without a fight. At this point, there was a good chance that the dozens of figure skating fans began patting oil on their bodies to potentially light themselves on fire.

***

When the game was headed for a second overtime, Bob Costas was back in the NBC studios. He apologized that the game had cut into the World Figure Skating Championship coverage, but then saying that it was very well worth it as we were watching possibly the final masterpiece of a legend. Marv Albert echoed similar tones, telling his NBC audience that we were witnessing a “regular-season classic.”

This time in overtime, the Celtics were just too much for Portland. The Blazers were self-destructing and Boston and Bird had their adrenaline going roughly a zillion miles an hour. Bird (again) pulled off his trademark move on the elbow. Faking the shot on the fallaway and then hitting Eddy Pinckney under the hoop for a reverse jam.

Quick tangent: Here’s the list for those in the debate for the title of greatest passer of all time: Magic Johnson, Pete Marvich, and Larry Bird. That’s it. That’s the list. Don’t let anyone try to argue someone like John Stockton, Jason Kidd, or even Rajon Rondo being the best passer ever. It’s one of those three, period.

But Portland wouldn’t go away themselves. After Bird hit a home run pass to Rick Fox for a dunk, Danny Ainge (who scored 19 off the bench for Portland) hit a 38 footer to keep the Blazers’ faint hopes alive. Five points in about two and a half seconds, just another wrinkle to this gem of an NBA game.

Portland was forced to foul down two with just 15 seconds left, and Clyde Drexler gave the foul, his sixth. He fouled out with the line of 41-8-11. And in something you’ll never see in an NBA game again, the fans at the Garden universally got on their feet and gave Drexler a rousing ovation for his valiant performance. No knock against the fans who go to the New Garden today, but the patrons at the old Garden were some of the most highly educated fans in any venue in any sport.

What made Drexler’s foul-out even more remarkable was that he was the sixth, yes SIXTH player to foul out. Each team had three aside, and every one of them were All-Stars or former All-Stars (Portland: Drexler, Buck Williams, and Kevin Duckworth. Boston: Reggie Lewis, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale.) The chance of that happening today? Somewhere between 0 and 0%.

By contrast, after Dwayne Wade fouled out of the Heat-Lakers game played on March 4th 2012 that was the first Heat player to foul out in 88 games. Yes, you read that right. The Blazers-Celtics classic fouled out three Hall of Famers and three All-Stars. The present-day Heat haven’t had one guy foul out since the Renaissance, or something like that.

After Eddy Pinckney made one of two free throws to make the score Celtics 152 Blazers 148, the final buzzer sounded just a few seconds later. And it was over. Amidst an exuberant crowd, the whole basketball world saw one of the greatest basketball games ever played. And after 58 minutes of basketball, it was over just like that.

The 49-14-12 line from the borderline-paralyzed Bird, who played 54 of the 58 minutes, with the worst back anyone since the death of Christ has played basketball with. Drexler with 41-8-11. Nine players with 15+ points. Six foul outs. Two buzzer beaters. An 18-14 score in the 2nd OT (that’s usually a score for most quarters in NBA games these days.) But it was all worth it. In my mind, and many others, we just saw the something we’d never see again.

***

The victory turned the Celtics season around. Following the miraculous victory, the Celtics would only lose three games the rest of the year and would crawl all the way back to steal the Atlantic Division title from the Knicks. The game ended up truly being Bird’s final curtain call as he was not much apart of the Celtics’ furious finish to the '92 season, missing all but a few games.

He never even played a playoff game until Game 4 of the East semi-finals against Cleveland. But while the 1992 campaign surprisingly ended up being an enjoyable one after months of frustration, we all look back on that Sunday in March.

***

I remember exactly where I was for that game, and all the memorable moments that transpired during that game. Almost every Sunday, my family and I ate at the Union Oyster House. The Celtics almost always played on Sundays back then, and a good portion of the time, they played in the afternoon on NBC. That was no different on that day. When the Celtics had the ball down three with seven seconds left in regulation, everyone there was glued to the small television that was over the bar. Even the grannies who were eating in the restaurant with the rest of their family, just enjoying a Sunday in downtown Boston were reacting to every play as diehard fans, and soaking in every last final great moment of Larry Bird’s masterpiece.

For years, this game used to be replayed on the old Classic Sports station (and later ESPN Classic), and every time it did, I always called any friends that I had and demanded that they stopped whatever they were doing and turn on some obscure channel to watch an NBA game played in 1992. Whenever someone argued with me what Bird’s position was amongst the all time greats, (when I was a younger, more irrational fan, I always argued to anyone that Bird was the greatest player ever, which as I know right now, he’s not… I think.) This was the game I’d show them. “Watch Bird’s passing, look at his will to win, watch his smooth as silk setshot, and do you know he’s doing this with his body as stiff as a board?” And now, 20 full years has passed.

As the old, and lame saying goes, time sure flies by when you’re having fun. Too bad, we could go another 50 years without ever seeing what we saw on March 15th, 1992.

***

Excerpt from the Legendary Performance:

When you have the time, I suggest watching the whole game from start to finish. Here’s the game:

http://www.veoh.com/watch/v875533S8mCMPgQ

(One final and totally unrelated point: How can you watch that and not see how horrific ABCs coverage of the NBA. Hopefully the folks at ABC watch that. Look at NBCs lead-in. THAT’s a lead-in, folks. You get the entire feel for the game, and NBC makes it feel like something epic is going to happen, which ended up being the case. ABC does none of this, usually using some lame music video to open their games that has no relation to the game or basketball in general. Heck, the music that NBC uses for the starting freakin’ lineups in this Celts-Blazers game is actually superior to whatever Pussy Cat Dolls, or horrible Led Zeppelin covers of classic songs that ABC uses to lead-in to games. When does the contract for the NBA on ABC end again?)  

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