- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Now that the 1 percenters have finally reached an agreement on how to divide the last 1 percent of revenue, the NBA season, at long last, appears to be heading toward a Christmas Day debut.
It's good news for the Celtics. The last thing the franchise needed was for the league to shut down for a year, see Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen go off into the sunset, and wonder if the next championship was going to come before or after Boston Mayor Tom Menino stepped down.
Now, they still have your basic puncher's chance. With Rajon Rondo, Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce, they still have an effective, explosive and, most important, experienced core. The older teams benefited from the last lockout (save for results in back-to-back games) and the Celtics were among the league's five graybeards at the end of 2010-11.
Coach Doc Rivers has his third defensive coordinator in as many years, but all that probably means is that the team will have to get accustomed to a different voice still emphasizing that defense is the surest route to success, even if there are the inevitable detours along the way.
So with the season likely to be starting up in 29 days, here's a "reminder" of who they are, where they are, and where they might dare to go in a truncated 2011-12 season many of us wondered whether we'd ever see:
Question 1: What's the opening night roster going to look like?
Depending on how big a roster the team intends to have, there are likely to be anywhere from five to seven openings on Rivers' bench. We know four of the starters and we can assume a healthy Jermaine O'Neal would be the fifth, unless the team gets lucky in free agency. That leaves the current bench as Jeff Green, Avery Bradley and the two Purdue draftees, JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore. Not exactly the reincarnation of the 1985-86 Celtics. The bench could get an instant upgrade if the team re-signs two of its own free agents, Glen Davis and Delonte West. While we don't know the details of the new CBA, it appears there might be more freedom for players in free agency, albeit at drastically reduced rates.
Question 2: What is the situation with their own free agents?
In addition to Davis and West, Green is a free agent, although he is restricted. But, again, until we see the details, we won't know for sure how it impacts the Celtics. Restricted free agency may be more liberating in the new deal. (Which, as an aside, brings to mind a quote from a prominent agent after the last lockout. When discussing player movement, he was moved to say, "Why don't we wait and see it so we can figure out the best way to circumvent it?" Or words to that effect.) There is no denying Davis' impact on the team when he is healthy and focused. Unfortunately for him, those can be two mutually exclusive qualities. Same for West, with an emphasis on the healthy. Green simply has to settle in, play relaxed, and not think about the $40-odd million he passed up a year ago that he may never see again. If he doesn't, the Kendrick Perkins trade is going to go down as one of Danny Ainge's certifiable blunders. The Celtics have already lost the underutilized Nenad Krstic. And, yes, I think we can bid adieu to Troy Murphy, Carlos Arroyo and Sasha Pavlovic.
Question 3: How will a shortened season affect the Green?
In winning the 2008 championship, the Celtics won 66 games. Now it's a season for them. Here's the upside: They are experienced and know how to take care of themselves. Here's the downside: They are playing a compressed schedule on experienced but aging legs and, lest we remind you, Garnett, a paradigm of durability in Minnesota, has yet to get through one season in Boston unscathed. We don't know the finer points of the soon-to-be-released schedule, or whether ace schedule-maker/team tormentor Matt Winick can come up with one that doesn't have any stretches of three games in as many days. But even if he is able to do that, there still are going to be the dreaded back-to-backs, which are never a welcome sign for the older teams in a tighter season. ESPN Stats & Information went back to the last lockout and discovered that while older teams ended up with the best overall records, they all were sub-.500 in back-to-backs. And the wild and crazy Celtics of 1988-89, led by the maniacal Rick Pitino, won 15 of their 19 games that season in back-to-back situations, according to the stats guys.
Question 4: How has the competition changed?
Don't see much of a change here. The eight best teams in the East last season were Chicago, Miami, Orlando, Boston, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Indiana. You might see some movement along the bottom of that group, but, based on what we know now, the top six teams will probably remain the same, although perhaps not in that order. The Knicks, the Celtics' possible Opening Day opponent, will have Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups from day one, so they could make a jump into the top four. But the Bulls and Heat should still be at the top of the list, and if Chicago is somehow able to get a quality shooting guard, all bets may be off. The Celtics, barring a calamity, will be in the mix. They may have lost to Miami in five games last spring, but they did so with Rondo playing with one arm. They lost Game 4 in overtime and were leading for the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter of Game 5. The ominous sign from that series was a tiring Garnett, who delivered one signature game (the one the Celtics won) and otherwise was pretty much indistinguishable from Murphy in the other four.
Question 5: Who do they get in free agency?
Again, details are sketchy as to what the true free agents can expect in the open market. But the marquee free agents may find the NBA landscape looking more like the lunar Sea of Tranquility than a veritable Garden of Earthly Delights. So don't look for Samuel Dalembert to come walking through that proverbial door anytime soon, although he is someone the Celtics could really, really use. There is certain to be a more punitive tax on the big spenders, of which the Celtics are now one because of their existing payroll. Rivers said he wanted the team to be more athletic going forward to be able to compete with Miami, Chicago and the other young teams. You might hear names like Josh Howard, Al Thornton or Carl Landry come up when Boston's needs are measured against the wants of the new free-agent class. There may be one added twist in the new deal which could benefit a team like the Celtics: the new amnesty proposal. This would work like a contract buyout, but at the beginning of the season rather than after the trading deadline. So you might see some attractive names on that list and the players, who will still get the big bucks from their old teams, would be able to sign with a new team for significantly less, or so one would presume. The Heat, Bulls, Lakers, Thunder, Magic, Spurs and Mavs will all be in that same position -- as attractive situations for amnesty players. So it may not just be the current free agents who become available Dec. 9. It might also be the amnesty releases. And no, I don't see the Celtics doing that to Jermaine O'Neal unless Ainge has a cheaper alternative already under agreement that we don't know about.
Question 6: Can Pierce get a second ring while further establishing himself as one of the franchise greats?
Barring an injury, the sometimes underappreciated Boston captain may not get that second ring, but he will pass Larry Bird on the team's all-time scoring list and move into second place behind John Havlicek. Hard to believe, but Pierce was just an unproven rookie with a huge chip on his shoulder when the last lockout occurred. With the exception of Dirk Nowitzki, he pretty much has lapped the other nine players who were taken ahead of him, as he vowed to do in the winter of 1999, when he finally made his debut. (Three have retired and a fourth, Robert Traylor, died last May.) Pierce also could pass Bird to become the team's all-time steals leader (until he, in turn, is passed by Rondo a few years down the road). And when Pierce suits up for his 36th game this season, he will join Havlicek and Robert Parish as the only players to play 1,000 games for the franchise. In case you were wondering, Bird played 897, Kevin McHale 971, Bob Cousy 917 and Bill Russell 963.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
14hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
15hMatt Walks, ESPN.com