Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 8, 2010

Celtics Go Backwards By Standing Still

In the immediate aftermath of the Celtics losing the NBA Finals the consensus among both pundits and fans was that Danny Ainge needed to have a busy off-season if the Celtics wanted to find their way back to the championship round in 2011. The run of the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen was thought to be over, with Allen likely to move on in free agency. Rasheed Wallace was (and is) expected to retire, and a handful of other role players were either free agents or at the end of their contracts.

The hope at the time was that Ainge would make a concerted effort to put a younger product on the parquet next season. For while Boston’s playoff run all the way to a seven game Finals was impressive, it was also entirely unexpected given their regular season performance. Over the last two-thirds of that campaign they were a decidedly mediocre .500 club, going 27-27. They went into the playoffs as just the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. And right up until the playoffs began, the Celtics more than anything just looked old.

If that was the case with the current roster this past season, time can only make matters worse when play resumes next fall. By that time the Big Three will be a combined 103 years old, with 41 seasons of NBA experience. All three will be at the stage of their careers where skills inevitably start to diminish and minor injuries can become nagging distractions.

Which is why I am disheartened by both the moves that the C’s have made so far and the satisfaction that those moves have generated among those same pundits and fans who just a short time ago recognized the need for change. For it seems that Boston has gone all sentimental. Unfortunately NBA basketball is no different from any other pro sport. When it comes to roster decisions, there is precious little room for sentiment.

First there was Doc Rivers decision to return for another year as head coach. I think Rivers does an excellent job and I’m glad he’ll be on the bench for another season. But alarm bells went off in my head when he announced his reason for returning was that he wanted to make another run at a championship “with this group.”

Then there was the Paul Pierce dance. First the Celtics’ captain opted out of the final year of his current contract and became a free agent. Some fickle fans, who apparently thought Pierce was seriously considering leaving Boston, questioned “The Truth’s” previous statements that he wanted to end his career as it started, wearing a green and white jersey. But in fact the opt-out was not really an exercise in testing the free agent market. Rather it was designed to enable Pierce to negotiate a new four-year, $61 million contract that will presumably take him into retirement.

Paul Pierce has been the face of the franchise throughout most of his career, and surely every Celtics fan was especially happy for him when he earned his championship ring in 2008. But even though he’s the youngest of the Big Three there were times last season when he looked the oldest. A four-year commitment by management is at least one year too many.

Then this morning came the news that Ray Allen had signed a new two-year deal worth $20 million. So rather than breaking up the aging Big Three, Danny Ainge has insured their continued presence at the TD Garden. With center Kendrick Perkins facing knee surgery that will keep him out of action until mid-season, the Celtics reinforced their demographic this afternoon by signing veteran center Jermaine O’Neal. The only good news in that is that it was Jermaine and not Shaquille O’Neal. Just yesterday Doc Rivers had expressed an interest in signing the 38-year-old center, who is said to want to play for another two years.

All this means that when the new season starts the only Boston first-team player under the age of 33 will be Rajon Rondo. Which is why I laughed out loud when I read the first sentence of The Boston Globe’s report on Allen’s return: “The Celtics’ off-season plans are working to perfection.” Well if the goal is to field a squad capable of a fourth place divisional finish, then I guess that’s true.

It’s understandable that many fans, with an emotional commitment to the current team, will applaud the Celtics efforts to keep last year’s starting lineup in place. But those fans might want to take a moment and look around the rest of the NBA, where other teams are definitely not standing pat. Miami, anyone?  Personally I think Chris Bosh isn’t quite the superstar he’s been made out to be the past several days, and the whole King James the Supreme Narcissist production has given me any number of reasons to despise the guy; but no one can argue that the Heat haven’t improved themselves in a big, big way.

There are of course two franchises in Boston that have reputations for dealing with personnel decisions in brutally cold-hearted fashion. The fact that catcher Jason Varitek wears a red “C” on his jersey indicating his role as captain of the Red Sox didn’t prevent the Sox from waiting him out with a low-ball offer when he was a free agent a year ago. Nor did it prevent them from relegating the captain to a bench role when they traded for Victor Martinez at the deadline last July. And no team in sports is less sentimental than the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick has traded or released any number of fan favorites whom he believes have outlived their usefulness. Those two teams have of course won five championships in the past decade, and every year are on the short list of favorites in their respective sports to win another.

Meanwhile the Celtics have decided to go “with this group.” A group that didn’t get it done last season, in a league of teams that aren’t standing still in preparation for next. Fans seem pleased. I just have no idea why.

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