The Beat Up Celtics

The great Michael Jordan was 35 when the Chicago Bulls won their last NBA championship in 1998. Scottie Pippen was 32, while Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper were 37 and 34, respectively. That put the average age of those four Bulls’ starters in that championship season for Chicago at 34-and-a-half.

Now cut to 2012, to the Boston Celtics. Paul Pierce is 34. Jermaine O’Neal, 33. Kevin Garnett will be 36 in May, while Ray Allen will be just short of touching 37 when the season comes to an end in June. That puts the average age of the Boston starters at just below 35, almost in the same bracket as the Bulls’ legends when Chicago won in ’98.

Unfortunately, that’s where the comparison ends.

Neither are Garnett, Pierce, Allen and O’Neal anywhere close to Messrs. Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and Harper in terms of their playing pedigree, nor are the Celtics, in their current form, likely to win a championship this season like the Bulls did in ’98.

Yes, sure, the Celtics were a throwback to an earlier day when they annihilated the Orlando Magic in their latest regular season outing. Keeping Dwight Howard and the rest of the Magic down to just 56 points is no mean task. But does a 7-9 start to the season, three wins of which have come against the hapless Washington Wizards, inspire confidence that the Celtics will be around when the Larry O’Brien trophy is handed out at the end of June 2012?

To put things in perspective, ever since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in Boston in the summer of 2007, Boston has been off the blocks in the regular season faster than Usain Bolt. In 2007-08 they were 29-3 before finishing at 66-16. Then in 2008-09, there were off to an NBA best, 27-2, start before the injury to Garnett forced them to settle with a regular season record of 62-20. 2009-10 and 2010-11, similarly, saw the Celtics race away to 23-5 and 23-4 respectively before finishing at 50-32 and 56-26.

In that light, with a compacted schedule characterizing the 66-game 2011-12 regular season, it’s hard to imagine that the Celtics will not deteriorate any further from where they stand today.

Boston’s dismal start could partly be put down to fate. Forward Jeff Green was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm before the start of the shortened regular season, which ruled him out for the entire 2011-12 campaign. Then Paul Pierce missed the Celtics’ first three regular season games owing to a heel injury, which saw Boston slide to 0-3 for the first time since the 2006-07 campaign. More recently, Rajon Rondo’s absence in the game against the Phoenix Suns, because of a bruised right wrist, cost the Cs heavily as Steve Nash simply picked Boston’s defense apart in an eight-point win (79-71). Injuries to Ray Allen, Mickael Pietrus, Chris Wilcox and Keyon Dooling, too, have also left a negative impact on the geriatric roster.

But much of Boston’s current predicament originates from that one dramatic reshuffle orchestrated by GM Danny Ainge in the middle of February 2011, which sent center Kendrick Perkins and guard Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green, center Nenad Krstic, a 2012 first-round draft pick and cash. The expectation on Ainge’s part was that Shaquille O'Neal, who had been signed up by Boston in the 2010 offseason, would fill the void left by the Perkins' trade. However, Ainge’s ideas proved drastically incorrect as the veteran Shaq, with injuries constantly dogging him, failed to provide a viable replacement for Perkins and Boston crashed to a 1-4 loss to the Miami Heat in the 2011 Eastern Conference semi-finals.

To put it mildly, it’s never been the quite the same in Boston. In more boorish terms, Ainge’s reshuffle was an absolutely shortsighted one. Ever since the 27-year-old Perkins left for Oklahoma City, Boston has been exposed at the center position. Shaq retired while Krstic left to play in far off Russia at the end of the 2010-2011 season. As for Jermaine O’Neal, who also came to Boston in 2010, NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner wrote of the once former all-star, “he was damaged goods before he arrived.”

Meanwhile, just how much of a loss Perkins’ exit caused the Celtics, can be gauged by the fact that the center’s presence in Oklahoma City has helped the Thunder to a 14-3 start, which, currently, is the best record in the Western Conference.

Before the Perkins trade, Boston head coach, Doc Rivers, used to brag that with Perkins in the starting lineup, and Rondo, Garnett, Allen and Pierce playing alongside, Boston had never been beaten in the playoffs. It was this five that saw them win pole position in the 2008 Finals. Then with Garnett out in 2009, and Perkins injured in the last two games of the 2010 finals, the Celtics lost out on two NBA rings in successive years.

Now, with Perkins gone, and Garnett, Allen and Pierce only older and more banged up than ever before, Fran Blinebury’s words seem to reverberate most when he says, “Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers have gone to the well one too many times with the aging Big Three and now the bucket is empty.”

What a travesty!