By: Tommy Beer
With so many NBA franchises currently consumed with clearing out cap space in order to make a mad dash toward the summer of 2010 free-agent pool, the Celtics are the seemingly rare team that is focused solely on the here-and-now…Boston, with their famed 'Big 3' all having already turned the Big Three-O, is well aware that their window of opportunity to win another championship won't be open forever. Kevin Garnett, who was once affectionately referred to as the "The Kid," will turn 33 next season. Ray Allen is a year older than KG. And Paul Pierce, at 32, is no spring chicken either. Thus, these three warriors are as determined as ever to reclaim the championship belt this upcoming season. And this is why the Big 3 three flew to Michigan this July in order to convince 35-year old free agent Rasheed Wallace to join them in their quest for an 18th Boston banner.
The recruiting visit worked, and 'Sheed agreed to three-year contract with the Celtics for the full mid-level exception. Despite his relatively-advanced age, Wallace was a great get for the C's. As an experienced and grizzled veteran, he'll add to their solid core of established playoff performers. And while not quite as agile as he once was, Wallace can still perform at a high level. Although he played just 32 minutes a night last season with the Pistons, he averaged 7.4 rebounds per contest, which were the most boards he had pulled down since 2004-2005. And he averaged his customary 12 PPG – the 13th straight season he has posted a double-figure scoring average. Rasheed also drained over 100 three-pointers again last year and it's this ability to stretch out the floor from the forward/center spot that really causes fits for opposing coaches. If you suit up for these Celtics, you are going to need to be able to defend – which is another one of 'Sheed's strengths. Wallace has always been able to use his length and shot-blocking ability to protect the paint and disrupt offensive sets. The one negative that has followed Wallace throughout his career has been the extra-curricular activities and temper tantrums that have resulted in countless techinicals. However, 'Sheed has always developed great relationships with his teammates and Garnett and company should be able to rein Wallace in more often than not. Other than adding Rasheed, the Celtics have been relatively quiet this offseason. They didn't have a first-round pick in June's draft, and used their second–round pick (58th overall) on Lester Hudson, who broke his finger in Las Vegas Summer League action and may spend next season overseas. Their other addition was Shelden Williams. After being selected fifth overall in the 2006 NBA draft (one spot ahead of Brandon Roy), Williams has been a major disappointment in the pros. The Celtics got him cheap, and are hoping he can salvage his career in Beantown. However, the Celtics still have some unfinished business on the free-agent front. Glen "Big Baby" Davis remains in 'restricted free-agent limbo.' Davis has received plenty of interest from clubs across the country, but no one has tendered and offer sheet as of yet – most likely because other teams believe GM Danny Ainge and the Celtics would match any reasonable offer (i.e. anything south of $4 million.) Thus, Big Baby has grown frustrated as the summer has dragged on and he is still without a long-term contract. The Celtics other free agent of note is Leon Powe. Powe, who is unrestricted, tore his left ACL last year and won't be ready until well the middle of the 2009-2010 season (he also had a minor microfracture procedure done). His future remains cloudy. The C's have also been in hot pursuit of Marquis Daniels, who spent last season with the Pacers. Boston has been trying for some time now to work out a sign-and-trade with Indiana, but an agreement has not yet been reached.
While rounding out the roster is obviously important, the Celtics future lies primarily in the hands of their superstars. The biggest question that needs to be answered early this fall is the status of Kevin Garnett. KG suffered a mysterious knee injury last season and, early on, the Celtics (borrowing a page out of the Patriots / Bill Belichick playbook) refused to comment and/or downplayed the extent of Garnett's knee problems. The company line out of Boston was that Garnett's right knee was steadily improving and that Garnett's return was forthcoming. But the timeline kept getting pushed back. Then Doc Rivers stated that KG would return for only few regular season games in order to get ready for the playoffs. Then, news finally broke that Kevin was done for the season – playoffs included. KG had surgery on his right knee in the offseason, but is now said to be ahead of schedule in his rehab. Ainge has stated that he believes Garnett will be "100% healthy" by the start of training camp. Another interesting subplot to keep an eye on in Boston this season is the Rajon Rondo situation. On the floor, Rondo has developed into one of the league's premier playmakers. But there are some off-the-court issues that have apparently rubbed Danny Ainge and Celtic management the wrong way. Earlier this summer, there was buzz circulating that the C's were considering trading Rondo (one prominent rumor had Rondo and Ray Allen being shipped off to Detroit for a haul that included Rodney Stuckey and Tayshaun Prince). When asked to comment on the gossip, Danny Ainge's response was a surprisingly strong censure of Rondo. "We expect him to play by the rules and be a leader as a point guard. We need him to be more of a leader. There were just a couple situations where he was late this year, I don't know if he was sitting in his car, but showed up late and the rest of the team was there. We have team rules and you have to be on time… He's got to grow up in some cases… We really need him as our point guard to be a leader than someone who thinks more of himself at times," said Ainge in an interview with WEEI in Boston. Commenting on Rondo's playoff performance, Ainge said: "As we saw in the Orlando series, they left him wide open. His presence hurt us in winning right now because his man went and doubled onto Ray (Allen) and Paul (Pierce) and made it difficult for us." While none of us were in the locker room, and thus would be strictly speculating on Rondo's maturity level and/or his punctuality – we all we witnessed Rajon's performance on the court during the playoffs, and that display was simply incredible. Rondo helped lead the undermanned Celtics past the Bulls in an epic seven-game series, and then extending the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic to a seventh and deciding game in the semi-finals. The C's, who were forced to play without Garnett and Powe, and very little depth in the backcourt (the Celtics signed the artist formerly known as 'Starbury,' as a backup PG), exceeded expectations and Rondo was a major reason why.The Celtics played 14 games last postseason, and in those contests Rondo averaged 16.9 points, 9.8 assists (versus just 2.7 turnovers), 9.7 rebounds, and 2.5 steals. Those are mind-boggling numbers for any point guard, let alone one who won't turn 24 until next February. Yes, there are certainly flaws in his game - Rondo win never win any "prettiest jump shot" awards - but he still has managed to shot over 50% from the floor last season and, most importantly, his playoff production speaks for itself; as does the championship ring on his finger. Well, the day after Ainge made his comments, Rondo's agent fired back, supporting Rajon and calling out Ainge for airing dirty laundry in a public forum. While Ainge has since backtracked from some of the disparaging comments, it was certainly strange to hear a GM criticize one of his key players. It is safe to assume that this will all be buried under the rug and rarely discussed once the season tips off, but the more interesting question is whether Rondo will have a long memory once next summer rolls around. He will be a restricted free agent and, as we all know, the majority of the teams in the league will have plenty of cash to throw around next July. And if some of the big-spenders don't get the marquee free agents they are currently targeting, they may be willing to offer Rondo a huge contract. Interestingly, as talent-rich and deep as the 2010 free agent class is, there will actually be very few quality point guards on the market (especially with Steve Nash agreeing to an extension with the Suns) which only increases Rondo's value and prospective earnings.
Future drama aside, Boston is very excited about their 2009-2010 Celtics, as well they should be. Although the rest East's powerhouses have all improved (Orlando and Cleveland in particular have made major changes and shaken up their already talented rosters), the C's have plenty of reason to be confident. Critics tend to forget just how dominant the Celts were over the first half of last season, when they had a full complement of healthy players. With KG blocking shots, knocking down jumpers, and screaming obscenities while sweating thru his green #5 jersey, the Celtics were champions of the basketball world in 2008; and then began last season by winning 27 of their first 29 contests – including an NBA-best 19-game winning streak. But with KG clapping and cheering and screaming obscenities from the sidelines nattily dressed in an expensive suit, the Celtics were simply a good – but not great – team. It is impossible to understate the impact of Garnett on the C's. He is the heart and soul of his team. As the former Defensive Player of the Year, he is the engine that drives their world-class defensive machine. With him in the lineup, the Celtics are as good as any team on the planet. And adding the versatile Rasheed Wallace to the squad will only enhances their considerable strengths. Can the Celtics run the gauntlet of the new and improved Eastern Conference and return to the NBA Finals and eventually capture another championship before their window slams shut? We shall see - stay tuned…
I know it seems pretty obvious, but they're really getting up there in age. I give them this year and next year as their last chances to win another championship.