The Boston Celtics were clearly the best team in the NBA in 2007-08, and they certainly have the means to stay at the top of the league, but the circumstances for success might not be as perfect as they were last season.
It all came together for the Celtics in '07-08: Three title-hungry All-Stars, a bunch of role players looking to silence their critics, no major health issues, and the right coach to bring them together and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
The Celtics were the best team in the NBA from start to finish. And it started on the defensive end. While the rest of us saw the new Big Three and wondered about their offensive chemistry, Doc Rivers stressed defense from Day 1. The players bought in and made it their No. 1 priority. More important, they played like a team on both ends of the floor, and the result was banner No. 17.
"Our guys really bought in to what we were doing," Rivers told NBA.com as he prepared for the new season. "They understood that everybody wants to win, but if you really want to win, you're going to have to sacrifice some things and you may not be able to do it in your normal comfort zone. And I think they were willing to do that."
The champion Celtics remain largely in tact, but they did lose James Posey, their most important bench player, to free agency. Though he was backing up All-Stars Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, Posey was on the floor in key postseason moments. And Boston wanted him back, but not at the terms he eventually signed with New Orleans for.
The Celtics took a flier on Darius Miles, who hasn't played since 2006, but the more likely candidate to fill Posey's shoes is Tony Allen, who played less than five minutes per game in the 2008 postseason. Allen doesn't have the veteran savvy or experience that Posey did, but Rivers believes he's ready to take on a larger role, now almost two years after blowing out his knee.
"I think that Tony's going to have a special year this year," Rivers said. "I thought last year, he spent the year trying to get healthy, trying to believe that he was healthy. This year, he's just going to be able to play basketball. So, we're going to miss what Posey gave us, but what Tony can give us will help us."
And before predicting a step back for the Celtics, it shouldn't be overlooked that their two starters not named Garnett, Pierce or Allen have a lot of room to grow. Rajon Rondo is just 22 years old and Kendrick Perkins is just 23.
While Rondo still needs to develop confidence in his jumper, he showed what kind of a player he can be with 21 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and six steals in the deciding game of the Finals, a huge performance on a huge stage. Perkins, who had offseason shoulder surgery, is a nice complement to Kevin Garnett down low.
But even if Rondo and Perkins continue to improve, the Celtics' fortunes will come down to Allen, Pierce and Garnett. Boston's ability to repeat will depend on the Big Three's health and hunger. Allen is 33 years old, Garnett is 32 and Pierce turns 31 on Oct. 13. They missed only 22 games between them last season after missing a total of 69 the year before, further evidence that it was their year.
But when evaluating his big three, Rivers takes an optimistic outlook, believing that Garnett and Allen needed a year to adjust to their new team before fully realizing their potential with the group.
"I think Kevin will have a better year because he'll be more acclimated to what we're trying to do," Rivers said. "And I think Ray will have a better year. Probably of the three, he will probably improve the most, because I thought he had the most difficult adjustment. I think he understands how we play now, and we understand him."
After their Game 6 blowout of the Lakers at the TD Banknorth Garden, with their dreams realized, more emotion than champagne poured out of the Boston locker room. And regenerating the same drive for a championship that they displayed last season may be too much to ask.
"I'm not going to try to recreate that," Rivers said, "because that was trying to do something for the first time. The challenge now will be us against us. Can we push ourselves now?"
With their first title, Allen, Garnett and Pierce forever changed their legacies, going from stars to stars with rings. Now the question is: How badly do they want to make more history?
Pierce believes he has the answer.
"We have a number of guys who didn't get an opportunity last year who will be very hungry," he told NBA.com's John Hareas. "I don't think we're going to have any problem with that with me, Kevin and Ray out there keeping everybody motivated."
-- John Schuhmann