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BOSTON -- Ask members of the Boston Celtics organization if the 2012-13 squad is the most talented team since the start of the Big Three era and you get three styles of responses.
There's (1) the Emphatic Leader; (2) the Optimistic Coach; and (3) the Cautious Captain. What you won't find is anyone who is even a tiny bit pessimistic or uncertain if this squad has, at the very least, a chance to be as deep and talented as the 2007-08 championship squad.
Now, training camp tends to be a gush-fest of unbridled optimism for all 30 teams in the NBA, a chance for last year's doormat to proclaim themselves back in the hunt with a clean slate. But these Celtics are genuinely giddy about the collection of talent on their roster.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and his staff were tasked with a somewhat daunting chore this offseason: reassemble Boston's core and restock a roster that had only four players under contract at the start of the summer.
Ainge and assistant general managers Mike Zarren and Ryan McDonough, along with director of player personnel Austin Ainge, proceeded to, in no particular order, draft Jared Sullinger, Fab Melo and Kris Joseph; re-sign Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox and Kevin Garnett; sign veterans Jason Terry, Jason Collins, Darko Milicic and Leandro Barbosa; and work a sign-and-trade deal to deliver Courtney Lee.
Boston did all that and stuck to a modest budget given the cap constraints in place after using the full value of the mid-level exception. The result? A roster that, on paper, could be the deepest and most talented since banner No. 17 went to the rafters.
Rajon Rondo lifted some eyebrows at the start of training camp when he suggested this was the most talented team he's been a part of. After only a handful of informal offseason workouts, Rondo was ready to compare this roster to Boston's last championship cast, when the bench featured the likes of James Posey, PJ Brown, Eddie House, Tony Allen, Glen Davis and Leon Powe.
Two days before the start of the regular season, Rondo wasn't backing down.
|Rajon Rondo likes the mix of veterans and youth on this season's Celtics.|
"We have a lot of young guys now," said Rondo, the emphatic leader. Boston still has a veteran core in Paul Pierce, Garnett and Terry, but the nucleus of the team also features star-caliber talent in Rondo (26), Brandon Bass (27), Avery Bradley (21), Green (26), Lee (27), Sullinger (20) and Milicic (27).
"They considered us old the last couple of years," Rondo said. "We've got a good mix now, some young and some old. With our substitutions, our bench play, we've got young and old coming off the bench as well, with Jeff and [Terry], and Avery will be back soon. So this is the deepest team we've had, and I look forward to this season."
Ever since the 2008 championship campaign, the Celtics have been trying to find the right mix, often erring on the side of adding veteran bodies. In 2010, the team inked Rasheed Wallace to a three-year deal (he barely made it through one, although he's making a comeback this season with the Knicks) and clawed their way to the NBA Finals before a lack of overall depth hurt them as they ran out of gas in seven games against the Lakers.
The next season saw the arrival of the O'Neals, Shaquille and Jermaine, former NBA All-Stars pegged for potential bench roles. There also was renewed excitement about the reserve unit with the return of Delonte West and Nate Robinson (who had been acquired the previous season). But injuries plagued that group -- and the O'Neals specifically -- and Boston ultimately broke up its core at the February trade deadline to bring in Green while looking for a bench spark. The Celtics were was eliminated by Miami in the conference semifinals.
Last year, Green's season was sacked by heart troubles and Boston's depth again was ravaged by injuries. Even while leaning on the likes of rookie Greg Stiemsma and journeyman Ryan Hollins for frontcourt depth in the postseason, the Celtics had two chances to close out Miami before falling in the conference finals.
Now, renewed depth -- even after Ray Allen defected to the rival Heat -- has Danny Ainge squarely in the Rondo category.
"It's the deepest team," Ainge said. "A lot of times there's only eight or nine guys that play, so the team that has the best eight or nine usually wins. We do have a lot of depth on this team to overcome injuries and inconsistent play, and we shouldn't have to wear out our starters as much as we have in the past."
In recent days, coach Doc Rivers has downplayed his team's depth a bit. While he can envision just about everyone on the 15-man roster playing a role at some point this season, he says he plans to stick to a 10-man rotation and notes that, if the Celtics were playing 10-on-10 this season, they'd dominate the league. Of course, only five can be on the floor at one time.
But Rivers likes the overall makeup of his team and is quick to note, "I think we can be very, very good."
Pierce, who was in full business mode while discussing the start of the season on Sunday, is doing his best to tread cautiously. He's liked the look of this team on paper in recent seasons and knows this particular group must prove itself before any comparisons can be made.
"It's hard to say right now. We haven't proven anything," Pierce said. "The best team that I've been on is the 2008 championship team. As far as talent-wise, this may be the most talented team from top to bottom. But we still have to go out and prove ourselves."
Caution, schmaution. Terry prefers the Rondo approach.
"A lot of times, when you see your team on paper before the season, you're like, 'Oh, OK, we might have a chance,'" said Terry, who won a title in Dallas two seasons ago. "But as we've worked through [informal workouts in] the September month, which was earlier than usual, into training camp, the trip to Europe, to our last practice today, we are legit. We are for real.
"I think, to a man, we are a very tough team. And I think our bench is deep, but our starting lineup is a beast. These guys are champions. These are guys that know what they want and the ultimate goal is to win a championship."
And a title might be the only way to confirm what Rondo has been preaching -- that this is the most talented team of the Big Three era.