Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Polish sausage. Ditka. Da Bulls

There they go again. A young team playing tough, hard nosed basketball. The Bulls are on a six game winning streak and have overtaken the Cavs in their division. They remain 4.5 games back of Detroit and a potential 2 seed. This most recent win streak has been manufactured with Kirk Hinrich missing all the games and Luol Deng popping in and out of them with injuries. Stepping up big time have been Pargo, Duhon, and Noccioni. Tyson Chandler continues to excel in his defensive stopper/rebounding role and Eddie Curry is still providing the low post punch in the offensive sets. This team plays so well together and plays such nice offensive sets that losing Hinrich hasn't killed them. It can only make them stronger for the playoffs. Damn their winning though, I was really hoping to go see them match up with the Celtics in person for the first round of the playoffs. It's hard to imagine this young group going far in the playoffs, but with the state of things in the Eastern conference I don't think getting by the first round is out of the question.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Number 17?

The interest in the Celtics in and around New England has returned to a fever pitch. The return of Antoine and their subsequent winning streak put the Celtics back on the talk radio landscape which in turn has resulted in casual fans tuning their tubes to the Celtics. It's also a good time in local sports for the Celtics to get hot with the Pats being a long way off from training camp and the Sox just diddling around in Florida. Into the void the Celtics have stepped. So the trade for Antoine has been hugely successful from the standpoint of fan interest and in terms of winning. There is no question about this. The Celtics now hold the number three seed for the playoffs and perhaps could even dream of catching Detroit for the two seed. Thus we're going to see at least one home playoff series.

The more important question is have these moves brought the Celtics any closer to title number 17? I think the answer is no. Back when Ainge traded Antoine away it had to be done because he and Pierce needed some help on the floor and Antoine clearly was not a guy who was going to get the Celtics over the hump against bigger more agile power forwards such as Kenyon Martin. Additionally, it looked like nobody in the East had a shot at capturing a title against the Western behemoths who awaited their Eastern prey in the finals.

Under that set of circumstances Danny Ainge began rebuilding his team in the vision of 80s basketball. Fast breaking, uptempo, and good defense (not great defense). The kind of basketball that is enjoyable to watch and can be successful, just witness the rebirth of Phoenix this year. Along the way Ainge cemented Detroit as an Eastern power for years to come by helping them acquire Rasheed Wallace. No worries, our title hopes were at least three years away. Ainge bungled a few things, but got this years crop of rookies who show a lot of promise, most especially Al Jefferson. He also took the risk on Ricky Davis (a move I was not a big advocate of) and that has payed huge dividends. Ricky seems to love his sixth man role and I would be shocked if he did not win it this year. So the future was looking brighter. And of course this year Miami got Shaq teamed up with Dywane Wade creating another Eastern power. All the more reason for the Celtics to stay the course and lay low. So what if they didn't make the playoffs this year or struggled to do it? That might mean a higher draft pick or even a lotto pick. Trades or drafts could only improve the Celtics stock. Clearly the new owners were a bit impatient and Danny took the one year no risk flier on bringing Antoine back thus setting back his title plans.

What can Antoine do? He plays hard every game and brings an infectious enthusiasm to a team that was sorely lacking it. Even Mark Blount has responded and is now playing the type of ball that brought him his riches this offseason. Pierce is encouraged and playing better and the young rookies have a positive voice to respect instead of the gruff and self-interested barking of Gary Payton. The Celtics again have a great leader on the floor. And one who has reshaped his game a little bit since we last saw him in Boston. Better yet, he's a guy who really and truly wants to be in Boston and that's saying a lot in the post-Pitino years.

What can't Antoine do? Anything against Rasheed or Ben Wallace. There is no question about this. If the C's draw the Bulls in the first round, Tyson Chandler will eat him alive on the defensive end forcing Antoine to drift out to his old mistress, the three point line. I'm not so sure Antoine can do much against the unheralded but defensively sound Udonis Haslem of Miami. He'll still get his minutes and his shots, but what will happen to his confidence when matched up against a superior opponent? I thought Kenyon's beat down of Antoine a few years ago really taught him something which is why he lost the weight before being traded. So Antoine's not getting us to the finals, probably not even the Eastern conference finals.

He's also not letting some of the young guns off the bench. Perkins is hurting the most for minutes and he showed a nasty streak that every NBA team needs. Just look at Seattle's improvement with Fortson and Evans patrolling the paint and tangling with opponents. Perkins is still raw but was showing improvement. Most importantly, Al Jefferson is not getting the minutes he should. This kid is the future and needs to play. If he keeps improving he and Pierce could be a great one-two punch, especially when teamed with a dynamo like Ricky and a scoring point guard like Delonte. The Celtics still don't have a low post threat and Jefferson will be it if he continues his dramatic improvement.

So at the end of the day the short term payoff of the move has been great, no question. But will that payoff bleed into next year when Antoine is gone because he won't take a HUGE pay cut and the young guns are still a little bit off because they need to learn on the job? I think no. The casual fan will wonder why there was such a drop off in wins and quality of play and may just turn away again. And Boston still won't be any better than Miami or Detroit. It's a done deal now, so we'll just have to enjoy this years run while it lasts and keep hoping for the day when banner number 17 is raised to the rafters.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Welcome Back 'Toine

I wanted to wait a few days before putting my thoughts down about the Antoine Walker trade. I wanted to see Antoine play again, here some of his statements, Ainge's statements, and see how the team responded to having him back. Here now, the good and the bad of the whole trade.

The Good - Antoine has provided an immeadiate lift for the team and has rekindled interest in the Celtics in Boston. His first Fleet appearance was sold out and it was a win. Clearly Pierce likes having Antoine around as he has raised his game. Antoine himself is a bit of a different player if only because he does not have a green light to jack three pointers as he did under Obie. Antoine's hustle and board work are welcome antidotes to the Celtics pre-All-Star malaise.

The Bad - Antoine was shown the door in Boston because Ainge wanted to build a championship contender and he did not feel that Antoine could be part of that. Ainge found that 'Toine's trade value was quite low and panicked in trading him to Dallas for the lengthy and bloated contract attached to one Raef LaFrentz (we have him until 2009). Not exactly a blockbuster trade seeing as Raef is widely known to be a bit soft on the glass and to prefer the three point arc to the paint. These were problems with Antoine too, but at least Antoine was the team's lightning rod. Now Antoine is back for one purpose and that is to make the playoffs. The Fleet has been very empty and people who only casually follow basketball barely knew the Celtics were playing. Now the Fleet is hopping and the Celtics are looking like they'll be able to counter Phillies grab for Webber and take the Atlantic, a number 3 playoff seed (home playoff games for those counting at home), and potentially advance against a comprable or lesser foe. 'Toine still does not make the Cs a championship team. Miami and Detroit both have the size and teams to knock the Cs off their collective block. The match ups just don't pan out well for Boston. Pierce is the only slot the Cs have an advantage over everyone and Walker, well let's think about how he would fare against Rasheed Wallace after remembering how KMart too him to school the last time Walker was in Celtic green. This team isn't even built to get to the conference finals quite frankly.

The ugly - Playing time for the rooks is way down. Jefferson is suffering, and he needs to play. The kid has too much talent and needs to hone it. He's big and has skill. He could be a force for years to come. Why wait on that for one lousy trip to the playoffs when we were sold that Ainge wasn't happy just making the playoffs? Then G.P. was brought back as well. Now West and Marcus are going to find their playing time curtailed. This is not good. West was beggining to emerge in the absence of GP and Marcus has been improving his play too. Now they will have to watch and learn more too. This cannot sit well with them. And all this mess cost them a first round draft pick that could have been used this yearAnd finally, Antoine Walker is in his contract year. He has already stated that he will not work for the veteran's minimum and the Celtics aren't going to keep him close to the $14 million/year he is getting paid now. Contract situations can become ugly (I don't think it will be with Walker). So will this amount to Antoine being a hired gun for a single run at the playoffs to make the Celtics semi-relevant again or will Antoine stay long term and take up the playing time of Al and keep Perkins bolted to the bench?

Overall I don't think this is a good thing if Ainge's master plan is to win a championship. I felt all along that Antoine should have stayed in Boston during the first round of things to keep the playoff excitement going and then let him walk or sign for less money when his time was up. By bringing 'Toine back it makes it seem as if Danny's master plan is running up against the patience of the new owners for a successful product. Yes the C's were slumping, but with Detroit and Miami playing the way they are, better to lick your wounds with a high draft pick and come out swinging with new talent and more polished young talent.