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.

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