1. Celtic Revival: It’s a pretty fun time to be a Boston sports fan and the Celtics are no small part of the fun right now. Obviously, adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen has helped. Not often is a team able to bring in so many big names in a short period. Here’s the short list and how it turned out:
–Wilt/Baylor/West Lakers: The Lakers brought Wilt in for 1969-70 season to put them over the top after a painful seven-game Finals loss in 1967-68. At that time, Wilt (age 33), West (31), and Baylor (35). Wilt was injured for nearly all of the regular season (he played 12 games) and the Lakers were just okay (46-36). Still, he came back for the playoffs and helped lead the team to NBA Finals, where they lost to the Knicks in the legendary Willis Reed Game 7. Baylor was never healthy again but the West/Wilt core, surrounded by a pretty deep roster, kept the team in contention for another three years.
–Barkley/Hakeem/Drexler Rockets: The Rockets acquired Charles Barkley in 1996-97 in a last attempt at a title while Hakeem (age 34) and Drexler (age 34) were still near the top of their game (They had been swept by the Sonics in the second round of the playoffs in 1995-96). Barkley (age 33) played great when healthy (20 ppg 10 rpg, 5 apg) and the team went 57-25 and made it to to the Western Conference Finals before they were submarined by John Stockton’s buzzer beater in Game 6. Barkley and Hakeem declined pretty rapidly the next season in both health and performance and the team slumped to 41-41. They still almost made a nice run in the playoffs (they were up 2-1 on the top seeded Jazz in the first round) until Charles Barkley injured his elbow and missed the rest of the season. Drexler, who was still quite good at age-35, retired to coach the University Houston. It was a bad idea for Drexler, who resigned after two season and a record of 19-39, especially when he probably could’ve squeezed out another good NBA contract. The Rockets replaced Drexler with another Hall of Famer in Scottie Pippen (age 33) for 1998-99. The team improved to 31-19 but, again, lost in the first round. Pippen bitched and moaned and was traded out of town after the season. The Rockets collapsed to 34-48 and the run was over.
–Kobe/Shaq/Payton/Malone Lakers: After losing to the Spurs in 2002-03, the Shaq/Kobe Lakers tried to get a leg up by grabbing a couple of older Hall of Famer free agents, Karl Malone (age 40) and Gary Payton (age 35) to add to Shaq (age 31) and Kobe (age 25). This new four-person star team improved the Lakers six games to 56-26 and made a march to the NBA Finals before being upset by the Pistons 4-1. The team ended up being a one shot deal. They fell apart that off season when Shaq was traded because of contract dispute/blood feud with Kobe. Payton was dealt because he wasn’t quite the same player in L.A. and Malone’s knee injury in the playoffs essentially ended his career.
The 2007-08 Celtics are materially different from all three of these famous star-powered teams. Each one acquired the stars to prolong a playoff run and to put them over the top. The Celtics were a miserable team last year and had been mediocre previously. Getting Allen and Garnett was really more of a desperate attempt at relevance. But sometimes desperate works. The Celts now have the best forward in the East (Garnett age 31), a very good small forward in Pierce (age 30), and Allen (age 34), who is great when healthy but has missed about 30 games in two of the last four years.
As pretty much everyone has noted, even if all three stars play well, lack of depth is a serious issue here. This is where coaching matters. Some coaches do a very good job of maximizing mediocre benches by identifying players who might contribute more than you would think and by enhancing team defense, which is the primary asset that any good coach brings to a team. In that respect, you’d think that the Celts might have to worry. Here are Rivers’ coached teams defensive rankings (points per 100 possessions) as an NBA coach:
2006-07 Celtics, 107.2 pts/100, 17th out of 30
2005-06 Celtics, 106.9 pts/100, 19th out of 30
2004-05 Celtics, 106.6 pts/100, 14th out of 30
2003-04 Magic, 110.8 pts/100, 29th out of 29 (Rivers was fired after a 1-10 start so it’s hard to attribute this all to Doc)
2002-03 Magic, 104.9 pts/100, 20th out of 29
2001-02 Magic, 105.4 pts/100, 16th out of 29
2000-01 Magic, 102.1 pts/100, 10th out of 29
Aside from Doc’s debut with the plucky 2000-01 team with Ben Wallace, Bo Outlaw, and Darrell Armstrong, Doc’s teams have been middling to poor defensively. But so far, the tables have been turned. The Celts have allowed the fewest points per game this year and have really held people down. They key to watch going forward is whether they can keep this awesome defensive pace going. The answer probably depends on Kevin Garnett, who has been a boon on every level, KG has topped the plus/minus stats of all Celctics at 82games.com, he is averaging a ridiculous 14 rpg so far, and is the only above-average defender in their starting five. If he can keep up this pace (and there is little evidence in his past to indicate otherwise) the Celts will remain quite good.
2. Bearish on the Bulls: Though the Bulls are loaded with young talent they have had a rough start on several levels. First off, they are playing quite poorly and they have to decide whether to give big extensions to Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, and, soon enough, Tyrus Thomas. Lastly, they have felt a ton of pressure as to whether they should break up their young core and add a veteran.
As bad as they have played so far, you have to think the Bulls will eventually get it together. They have no major injuries just some a general sense of malaise. This is not a unique thing for a Scott Skiles-Bulls team. Check how if his Bulls’ teams have started in full season as Bulls coach:
2004-05: Bulls started 0-9 and ended up 47-35
2005-06: Started out at about .500 but dipped to 29-39 before finishing 41-41
2006-07: Started out 3-9 (actually 3-3 and then lost 6 straight) and ended up 49-33
In case you’re wondering, Skiles did not have this problem in Phoenix, where he started off hot when he replaced Danny Ainge in early 1999-00 and was hot for all of 2000-01. Skiles was fired in mid-2001-02 with a 25-26 record (this was the year the Suns struggled after trading Jason Kidd). All this is our long way of saying that we have no idea but if you are a Bulls fan you can take solace in the fact that there is a history of fixing terrible starts in Chicago.
3. Keep the Core?: Even harder than fixing the bad start in Chicago, however, is deciding whether to trade some of the core players for a star. The Bulls have the assets and cap room to try to land Kobe Bryant but do they want to? So far, they have shown no inclination (and it does seem that Kobe is temporarily off the market). It’s a hard decision and not many teams get it right. Here’s a quick sampling of some other up-and-coming teams and what they did when they were faced with surplus talent and the possible need for an established star:
–Cleveland of the late 1980s: The Cavs were close with Mark Price, Ron Harper, Larry Nance, Hot Rod Williams, and Brad Daugherty. They decided to cash in Harper for prospect Danny Ferry and play Craig Ehlo at two guard. Ferry ended up being a role player and Harper for Ehlo was not a great swap. It didn’t kill the Cavs as much as injuries did but the trade certainly didn’t help.
–Dallas of the mid-1980s: Another loaded squad with Derek Harper, Rolando Blackman, Mark Aguirre, Roy Tarpley, James Donaldson, and Brad Davis. They sensed they needed toughness so they traded Schrempf for Herb Williams. Williams was okay for a few years but Detlef was an All-Star. The Mavs were undone by Tarpley’s drug problems anyway but they didn’t target the right asset for Schrempf to begin with.
–Golden State of the early 1990s: Yes the exciting Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin team was loaded with scoring guards in reserve (Sarunas Marciulionis and Mario Elie). Don Nelson decided that Sarunas could replace Richmond so they dealt Mitch to the Kings for high draft pick Billy Owens. Sarunas and then Latrell Sprewell replaced Richmond to some degree but Owens was injured and, ultimately, a wash out.
–Phoenix of the early 1990s: Blessed with Kevin Johnson, Jeff Hornacek, Dan Majerle, Tom Chambers, and Ced Ceballos, the Suns traded Hornacek and Tim Perry for Charles Barkley. They never won a title but Barkley got the team a lot closer in 1992-93.
The Bulls have a ton of young talent and they could hold onto it all and win 50 games or so but I don’t think this is ultimately a title team if the maintain the status quo. The team has a unique opportunity to package some of their cheap young players for a star (Cleveland and Golden State squandered their young assets by crapping out on rookies who didn’t pan out). Kevin Garnett would have been nice but they have to be players in the Kobe Bryant sweepstakes when it re-appears (and it probably will). Having assets when a great player is available is a like an eclipse, it’s rare event and you better catch it while you can.