One tick of a clock sounds exceedingly mundane, but that tick can mean so much to so many. The final tick at Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals can describe such a moment, as this wasn't just the end of a game -- it was a tick of epic proportions.
For the franchise that landed on the short end of the stick, it marked a morph from championship contention to self-preservation. That's what happens when a team built for one last run nosedives into an offseason where nine of its players -- including two of its "Big Three" -- were either days away from free agency or teetering on the brink of retirement; when the head coach mulls over staying on board for another season or walking away to spend more time with his family; and when the assistant coach who was the architect of the team's tenacious defense accepts the head coaching job with a conference foe.
That's exactly what happened to the Boston Celtics.
As entertaining as the NBA Finals were, the summer of 2010 was billed to be one of historic value; a period of weeks where the power of the NBA could shift in any direction. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh headlined free agency, but players such as Boston's Paul Pierce (pending an opt out) and Ray Allen, who are already sure-fire Hall of Famers, could entertain overtures from other teams, too.
In addition to the uncertain futures of two of their best players, the Celtics also had to deal with the thought of their premier offseason acquisition from 2009, Rasheed Wallace, hanging up his sneaks, as well as having a handful of key role players leave via free agency.
And so the days ticked away from June 17 to July 1, a period where no one knew what the NBA, let alone the Celtics, would look like come the end of summer.
As daunting a task as it may have seemed, the Celtics, and in particular Danny Ainge, kept an even keel throughout that two-week period of uncertainty. Boston did not panic. It did not fold. It developed a plan that, if executed, would prove to all who were watching that the 2010 Finals appearance was not 'one last run' for this team.
As the master plan was put together, it was all based around the fulfillment of the very first step. Most critical on the list was to convince Doc Rivers -- or maybe allow him to convince himself -- that he should bypass another year of watching his children's youth in order to roam Boston's sidelines.
Paul Pierce is one of many Celtics players who have praised Doc Rivers and his coaching style during his tenure with the Celtics.
Rivers was clearly the most important step of the process, because without the man who has garnered so much love from his players over the past few seasons in Boston, the pitch to retain Pierce and Allen would pack much less of a punch.
There is no doubt that Rivers is the man Boston's veterans want to play for. They look to him to keep their cool, to sustain their confidence and to lead their every step in the right direction.
"Doc Rivers is everything; he's the glue that keeps us all together, the captain of our ship," said Kevin Garnett during the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. "We listen to him, follow his direction. We believe in him 100 percent... he hasn't proven us wrong yet. He's a true soul, who speaks his mind."
And Garnett isn't the only one who has gone on record with public love for his coach. Pierce, one of those two superstars the C's hoped to retain, echoed his big man's sentiments during the Finals.
"Doc is the greatest coach for this team for the strong personalities (we have)," Pierce said.
"[He] is sort of like an arbitrator. He keeps things in line. We go to him when we need him."
So does Ainge, because he and the Celtics never needed Rivers more than this. Luckily for Boston, Rivers knew and accepted that.
That's why on June 30, after spending a couple of weeks with his family after the Finals, Rivers committed to coaching the Celtics for the 2010-11 season. It was pristine timing, too, because that was the exact same day that Pierce opted out of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent.
With Rivers locked in for at least another season, Pierce's opting out wasn't accompanied by the same tone that most similar moves are. Usually when an opt out takes place in the NBA, it's because the player is looking to move on to greener pastures (i.e. James and Bosh). With Pierce, however, the general consensus was that he opted out simply to return on a long term contract -- a contract with terms that would allow Boston to execute the rest of its summer plan.
With rumors of the above swirling around the league, the Celtics swarmed in on their next two targets, Allen and Jermaine O'Neal. Allen was coming off of a season in which, statistically speaking, he may have been the most consistent Celtic, and many believed that he would be the perfect compliment to any of the other teams that were attempting to create supersquads. But with Pierce reportedly making personal sacrifices in order to help Boston make other moves, the C's attacked Allen and O'Neal with a full court press that neither player could avoid -- nor did they want to.
Boston had the biggest week of any team this summer, with the exception of the week Miami scooped up James and Bosh to join Wade, by sandwiching the re-signings of Pierce and Allen around the signing of O'Neal on July 14. In a span of only three days, the Celtics had reassembled their Big Three and added a more-than-capable replacement for Kendrick Perkins, who will miss a substantial portion of the season while recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL.
Ainge had now taken care of the largest areas of needs in the offseason by retaining Rivers, keeping the Big Three together and signing a solid center to fill an empty void. Next up was his sculpting of the bench.
You don't contend for a championship with only a starting group. Championship teams need great players on the bench. Boston drafted combo guard Avery Bradley and power forward Luke Harangody in June, two players who could conceivably make contributions next season, and then signed 2008 second round pick Semih Erden on July 5. All three are young and talented, but there was no doubt that the team needed to dip into free agency in order to solidify its bench.
Initially, it didn't have to look far to find what it wanted. Ainge turned Eddie House, J.R. Giddens and Bill Walker into Nate Robinson at last season's trade deadline, and the 5-foot-9 sparkplug made enough of an impression during the playoffs to make the Celtics immediately push to re-sign him this summer. Although it took a few weeks, the sides were able to come to an agreement to keep Robinson, who averaged 6.5 PPG and 2.0 APG during the regular season for Boston, in green and white when they completed a deal on July 19.
Robinson and Bradley are certainly enough to play behind Rondo at the point guard position, so Ainge next moved to small forward, where he also had an in-house option. Marquis Daniels went through a difficult season with the Celts in 2009-10 after tearing a ligament in his left thumb in December, but there is no doubting his ability. Prior to joining the C's, Daniels had just averaged 13.6 PPG and 4.6 RPG in 2008-09 for the Indiana Pacers. He also played well in the early portions of last season before suffering the injury.
When the third week of July rolls around, GMs know that the talent pool in free agency begins to dry up, and that's exactly why the C's snatched up Daniels with another contract before any other team could get its hands on him.
Shaquille O'Neal signed on with the Celtics on August 4, bringing the team's total All-Star appearances to 51.
By re-signing four of their own players (Pierce, Allen, Robinson and Daniels), bringing in Jermaine O'Neal and signing three young players (Bradley, Harangody and Erden), the Celtics had nearly put together a full roster. When the calendar turns to August, making a splash in free agency is about as frequent as the World Cup. Luckily for Boston, this was a Cup year, and there was a Future Hall of Famer with a championship pedigree lurking in the background.
Shaquille O'Neal, whose personality is as big as his physical stature, was surveying the league and waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. When Ainge came calling, offering a professional and talented team primed for another title run, O'Neal couldn't pass it up. The Big Leprechaun, as he's since been named, who has career averages of 24.1 PPG and 11.0 RPG, signed on with Boston on August 4, presumably making his last stop in the NBA with the most historic franchise in the league.
Loaded is probably an understatement for the Celtics' frontcourt nowadays. Yes, Wallace did choose to retire and Boston waived him on August 10, but the team now has a group of bigs that includes Garnett, Glen Davis, both O'Neals, Perkins (when healthy), Harangody and Erden.
Ainge was content with that frontcourt, but he still wanted to make some moves with his backcourt. Somehow he managed to make another splash in the month of August by signing a versatile shooter that had seemingly flown under the radar after a subpar season in Europe last year.
After having the best season of his career in Houston in 2008-09, averaging 9.7 PPG and shooting 39.0 percent from 3-point range, Von Wafer chose to sign with the Greek Euroleague squad Olympiacos. He struggled to acclimate himself overseas, resulting in a drop in production, but there is no doubt that he is long, athletic and can shoot the ball from the outside. That's a talent the Celtics desperately sought, which made his signing on August 3 that much sweeter.
Boston now has 14 guaranteed contracts on the books for next season, which leaves one roster spot open for a trade, free agent signing or a training camp invitee to snag.
The coaching staff is also set in stone thanks to the return of Rivers and another great move that somehow went relatively unreported. With Tom Thibodeau accepting the head coaching position in Chicago this summer, the Celtics needed to fill the role of defensive guru. Rivers and Ainge found the best available option by luring in Lawrence Frank, who was the head coach of the New Jersey Nets for five-plus seasons, to become his new assistant coach. Frank is well respected around the league and is known for his defensive expertise. The Nets limited opponents to less than 93.0 PPG in two of his five full seasons in New Jersey.
The summer began with uncertainty, but the chips have now fallen into place. Boston addressed the rebounding issue that may have cost them the 2010 Finals by signing both O'Neals and bringing in a couple of hungry rookies. The 2009-10 team also struggled with perimeter scoring off the bench, but that may be fixed with a settled-in Robinson and an explosive pair of scorers/shooters in Bradley and Wafer. And don't forget Daniels' ability to score around the paint. All in all, not a bad summer for a franchise that started out the offseason in a mode of self-preservation.
In retrospect, the Celtics could have conceivably wound up with a skeleton of itself, dangling in the middle of the pack with no hope of another title and their greatest player since Larry Bird-- Pierce -- sporting another uniform. Instead, the 2010-11 Boston Celtics, with the Big Three intact, are another hungry team looking to make that one last run at Banner 18... again.