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Contender Preview: Boston Celtics

Today we continue our Contender Previews, in which we look at challengers to the Lakers' throne in the upcoming season. Up today, live from your local geriatric ward, the Boston Celtics.

The Boston Celtics, as an organization, well, they don't listen too good.  Maybe it's because their hearing aid isn't functioning properly.  They were ahead of the curve on the formation of modern day super teams, but, due to the rather advanced age of all star members of that team, the general consensus was that they had a 2-3 year window in which to do some damage.  Year one went swimmingly, ending with a championship, but year 2 saw developments which made most people think that 2-3 year window was actually a one year window.  The consensus was that if the Celtics wanted to compete, they'd need to get younger.  Instead, they got older, signing Rasheed Wallace as their backup center.

Nothing about the Celtics' 2009-2010 season had anybody thinking differently ... until the playoffs, of course, where they put everything together to go on a legendary underdog run that came 4 points short (thank God) of capturing another NBA championship.  Still, even with that very, very impressive postseason, their season screamed "OLD" from the rooftops.  They compiled a 50-32 regular season record, which would barely have been good enough to qualify for the postseason in the Western Conference.  And that number wasn't deflated by missed games and injuries, as the Celtics starters only missed 31 games (otherwise known as Andrew Bynum's annual total).  It was simply a matter of their aging players looking like aging players.

Yes, the postseason run slapped some aging cream on those wrinkles, and yes, the emergence of Rajon Rondo as an undefinable basketball force has helped extend their window, but this is a team that is crying out for more youth and athleticism.  So what does the front office do?  Get older ... again.  For the 3rd year in a row, the major offseason moves involve players well past their primes, in this case a pair of O'Neals, Jermaine and Shaq.  Both were brought in to anticipate the long term absence of Kendrick Perkins, and both have some things they can still do well.  But does the addition of a couple of aging has beens really extend the C's window for one more year?

This far along the Big 3's shelf life, you know what there is to know about this team.  Any victories they acquire, any success they have, is driven by the fact that they are capable of freakishly good defense.  They don't have the horses to bring that kind of effort every night, and their offensive capability lands somewhere between OK and disgusting, but they are still the top defensive dog in the league until proven otherwise.  Last season, based entirely on an effort level that waxed and waned, they fell to 5th overall with a 103.8 defensive rating, just behind our beloved home team.  However, none of that matters because of the ridiculous 103 DR they also put up in the playoffs.

You might be thinking "Um ... those are the same numbers", and while you'd technically be correct, the 103 rating in the playoffs is 1000 times more impressive because of who their competition was.  The Celtics held all three of their Eastern Conference opponents to 8 points less (per 100 possessions) than their regular season average.  The only team relatively immune to Boston's defensive charms should be pretty familiar to you, and in fairness, the Lakers spent the entire postseason pulling the same trick on offense that Boston pulled on defense, so their regular season numbers are just as skewed.

Besides the aforementioned O'Neals, the Celtics did much the same thing the Lakers did in the offseason, re-vamp the part of the roster that doesn't matter so much.  Their core remains virtually unchanged, but they've got quite a few new faces at the end of the roster.  Delonte West replaces Tony Allen as the defensive guard off the bench, O'Neal and O'Neal replace the retired Rasheed Wallace as the old pivot off the bench, and Luke Harangody replaces Brian Scalabrine as the white guy who will never play.  None of these additions, save Shaq, will have the slightest effect on what Boston does well or poorly, nor will they have any affect on the C's style of play.

The Shaq question is an interesting one.  As in, why did the Celtics bring him in?  On the surface, it doesn't seem to make much sense.  At this point, it's been pretty well established that, while Shaq is still capable of being an offensive force in limited minutes, he's a huge (pun intended) liability in any defensive scheme because of his inability to deal with the pick and roll.  Shaq is such a bad pick and roll defender that Celtics coach Doc Rivers acknowledged there really isn't anything to be done about it.  Shaq will sit in the lane, and the rest of his teammates will just have to make up for that fact.  So, why would the Celtics sign a guy who so clearly goes against their bread and butter?  As strange as it sounds, I think Shaq improves their chances against the two teams they worry about the most, the Lakers and the Miami Heat.  Our Lakers just beat the Celtics in the Finals by killing Boston on the boards.  For all their merits, neither Gasol or Bynum will be able to torch Shaq defensively, because neither one operates with speed as their principle attribute, and Shaq is simple too big to allow for the sort of glass domination that the Lakers saw last season.  As for Miami, center is by far the easiest position on the floor to exploit against Miami, and the number of free agents capable of said exploitation are pretty limited, so Shaq works about as well as possible there, too.

Is the gamble worth it?  There's certainly no guarantee that the roster additions are capable of putting them over the hump against either team, and the additions do little in the way of encouraging success against the rest of the NBA.  Can the Celtics, who already weren't so great against the league en masse last season, really get away with making themselves worse against the 90% of the NBA that doesn't matter to them?  What is the goal/expectation for their regular season?  The East has just a bit more competition this season, and a repeat of last season's record would probably result in a first round pairing they'd probably rather avoid.

The answer, to me, is no, and the reason is due to the Celtics' major personnel loss in the offseason.  No player left that the organization was sad to see go, but the Celtics did lose a guy who might have been the foundation of their dominance over the past 3 years, defensive coach Tom Thibodeau.  Now the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, Thibodeau was the defensive mastermind that created the scheme which has been so, so successful over the past few seasons.  If anybody could deal with the defensive deficiencies caused by the new big men in Boston, it would have been Thibs, but the one guy who could have made this marriage work pretty well already left the building.  In fact, even if the Celtics weren't trying to integrate an un-malleable piece like Shaq, the departure of Thibodeau would still have been a huge loss.

Regardless, this is a team built with one purpose in mind.  The players, coaches, even the front office don't seem to care very much what happens in the regular season, and after last season's run, who can blame them.  They simply hope to survive the grind and arrive in a position to catch lightning in a bottle and make a deep playoff run one more time.  They certainly know how to get where they want to go; the only question is whether they still have the ability to get there one more time.  Can the cracks in their foundation stand up to another title challenge?  Considering those cracks are patched with spackle even older than the cracks themselves, it's tough to envision. 

Sort of like it was tough to envision last year.  Go figure.

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