Still 10 Months íTil the Finals
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SECAUCUS, NJ, July 31, 2007 -- Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are the new Big Three. The title that has been imposed on the triumvirates of the Spurs, Nets and Wizards can now make its home in Boston.

And this Big Three is better than any other in the league right now. (I'll spare you the best ever talk. These guys ain't Magic, Worthy and Kareem or Bird, McHale and the Chief.) But is that, because the Celtics don't have anything else left after today's trade, enough to compete for a championship?

To win a title, no matter who your stars are, you need quality role players, your Steve Kerrs, Dennis Johnsons and Robert Horrys of the basketball world. Do the Celtics have quality role players? No, not really.

But what they have may be enough to get them through the Eastern Conference as it now stands. Heck, LeBron James just led his team to the Finals without much talent around him, right? The combination of The Big Ticket, The Truth and Jesus Shuttlesworth should be able to do the same.


First, let's look at what the Celtics now have on their roster:
PG: Rajon Rondo, Gabe Pruitt
SG: Ray Allen, Tony Allen
SF: Paul Pierce, Brandon Wallace
PF: Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis, Brian Scalabrine
C: Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe

Once you get past the big three, it's slim pickings. But as one fellow employee said, "They've still got Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers." Good point. So, pencil Doc in as the back-up point ahead of Pruitt, until the Celtics sign someone else. Ainge could be the back-up two, with Tony Allen sliding to the three.

Seriously, though. Rondo is talented and about as quick as anyone in this league. But his game is more suited for the open court, and he's not a good shooter. When he's on the floor with any of the big three, defenses will leave him alone on the perimeter, daring him to shoot. So Rajon, you would be best advised to get on the Agent Zero Summer Shooting Program right away.

And the Celtics would be best advised to looking at other point guards who can provide some support to Rondo. Among the available are Brevin Knight, Earl Boykins, Dee Brown, Jeff McInnis and Gary Payton.

Knight is probably the best of the group, but he doesn't really help you in the shooting department. Boykins does, but the Celtics might also want to look at someone like Eddie House, who is a shooter by trade, but who could also handle the ball a little.

Center is less of an issue. KG can play the five against most teams in the East, and the remaining Boston bigs have decent enough size and skills to get by. Still, another big body wouldn't hurt. Chris Webber perhaps? If not, the C's could settle on P.J. Brown, Marc Jackson or Alexander Johnson.

Now, let's look at the other contenders in the Eastern Conference, in order of where I see them finishing in 2008:

Chicago: The Bulls replaced P.J. Brown with Joe Smith and added Joakim Noah, while bringing back Andres Nocioni. So, they should continue to get better. And defensively, they have Wallace and Luol Deng to match up with two of Boston's stars. But offensively, they've got nothing down low, so KG could be a off-the-ball menace without needing to stick with one guy.

Cleveland: The Cavs should once again be one of the better defensive teams in the league, but unless they find a way (like upgrading at the point) to become more potent offensively, they might not be able to handle the Celtics. KG should take away Cleveland's advantage on the boards.

Detroit: Are the Pistons still an elite team? They brought back Chauncey Billups, Jason Maxiell is on the come-up, and Rodney Stuckeycould be the best back-up guard they've had in the last couple of years. Also, KG has only averaged 17.0 points per game on .397 shooting against the Pistons over the last two seasons, so they know how to defend him. But in order for Detroit to return to their status as the best in the East, they need to get back to being the best defensively. And I'm not sure that can happen without Larry Brown and Ben Wallace.

New Jersey: The Nets added Jamaal Magloire, and they're getting Nenad Krstic back from injury. Add to it that Richard Jefferson will also be healthy to start the season and that New Jersey became a good defensive team again when the 2007 Playoffs began, they should be in the 45-50 win range. But even though Jason Collins is one of the best low-post defenders in the league, he hasn't been able to slow down the not-just-a-low-post scorer Garnett in recent memory. This Garnett deal might just make Rod Thorn a bit more itchy to acquire Jermaine O'Neal.

Toronto: Last year, the Raptors were good, and they were young. So generally, that means they should be better this season. Replacing Morris Peterson with Jason Kapono is a bit of a downgrade. Maceo Baston should help them on the boards (where they had serious problems last season) a bit, but probably not enough for them to take the next step just yet. That could come once Andrea Bargnani has another year or two under his belt.

Miami: Dwyane Wade might not be ready for the start of the season, but as long as he comes back healthy and Shaquille O'Neal can play more than 50 games, the Heat should be a tough out. And with Shaq, Udonis Haslem and Alonzo Mourning, this is the one team where the lack of depth up front could hurt the Celtics. Still, if Miami doesn't bring back James Posey, they lose a guy who could slow down Pierce or Allen.

And I shouldn't overlook Washington (who should still be a playoff team), Orlando (who got better with the addition of Rashard Lewis) and Milwaukee (who were a playoff team if they stayed healthy last year). If you think about it, Philly, Charlotte, New York and Atlanta should also be better. Believe it or not, the Eastern Conference is pretty solid from top to bottom.

And where do the Celtics fit in? At worst, they're probably at New Jersey's level (assuming the Nets stand pat the rest of the summer). At best, they're at the top. When it comes to the playoffs, success could be determined by matchups (just ask Avery Johnson and Dirk Nowitzki). So pay attention to Boston's regular season games against the above contenders.

And in the end, it all depends on how well they play together, and how well they play defensively.

Because you can decry the non-LeBron components of the Cavs' roster as much as you want. But you can't argue that they were an excellent defensive team, the best defensive team of last year's playoffs, in fact. When it comes to basketball, good team defense can make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Last year, the Celtics ranked 18th in points allowed per possession, while the KG-led Wolves ranked 22nd. So, while Garnett is considered one of the best big-man defenders in the league, on paper the new Celtics aren't exactly the Spurs or Cavs defensively.

Which means Doc Rivers still has some work to do. Let's see these guys on the floor before we make our June hotel reservations.

This writer is still not ready to anoint the Celtics as the 2008 Eastern Conference champions ... yet.