BOSTON -- The last time the NBA had a schedule like this, the 1999 playoffs turned upside down. The Knicks, a No. 8 seed, reached the NBA Finals.
That kind of upset run doesn't happen in normal NBA seasons, and this -- as everyone knows -- is no normal season. The lockout and the pressures of squeezing more games into a shortened window have rewarded the teams that were ready to play and punished those that have been trying to get up to speed. Doc Rivers's Celtics have been in the latter category.
"For a lot of the older teams, that's why they're in trouble with the schedule,'' he said. "They were going into the season thinking, Let's just get to the playoffs. The younger teams were thinking about individual games and playing hard and being aggressive, and it was a different vibe.''
The provocative question is whether the league will revert to normal at the end of April. By then the worst fear of a younger home-court seed in the Eastern Conference may be that the Celtics have rounded into shape. Once the playoffs begin, many of the advantages created by the lockout will vanish. There will be days off in between games. Quantity of depth will be less important than the quality of the starters.
There are a couple of reasons why it makes little sense for the Celtics to consider blowing up their team anytime soon. Over the next six weeks they can gauge the health of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who have struggled to find their legs these early weeks. In any case, it's too difficult to make an important trade at the moment, as players who were signed in the offseason are ineligible to be dealt until March 1. The talent pool will open up after next month.
If by then the Celtics are a hopeless bunch, then all possibilities should be available to team president Danny Ainge. But what if the Celtics are moving the ball, beating some of the better teams and creating hope for an underdog playoff run? It would be extremely difficult to trade Pierce, considering his value to the franchise as a lifelong Celtic, the probability that Boston wouldn't receive close to equal value (while watching him star for a rival team during the playoffs) and the likelihood that he would not move to a new team happily.
According to Pierce, when he heard in 2005 that he may be traded to Portland in exchange for a draft pick that the Celtics would have used to pick Chris Paul, he had his agent call the Trail Blazers to say he had no interest in playing for them. When Pierce was a free agent in 2010, according to a league source, he told his agent that he wasn't going to sign with any team but Boston. That the Celtics ignored his absence of leverage and rewarded him with a four-year, $61 million deal (of which the final year is partially guaranteed) showed the interest of the franchise in maintaining a strong relationship with its signature player.
The five-game losing streak that dropped the Celtics to 4-8 has given way to conjecture of trades involving any or all of their veteran Big Three, especially because the contracts of Garnett and Ray Allen are expiring after this season. But will the Celtics necessarily swap them out for cap space?
"We're going to make changes, no doubt,'' Rivers said. "But that doesn't mean they have to be part of the change. The salary may change, but the address doesn't have to.''
Allen, who is earning $10.5 million at age 36, continues to play at a routinely high level, and if that continues he'll have short-term offers for the mid-level exception or more this summer. The surprise news seeping out of the Celtics' locker room is that the 35-year-old Garnett is talking about extending his career beyond this season, even though the 17th-year power forward would face a drastic cut in his $21.2 million salary to go with the lesser job description of a role player.
It's not impossible for the Celtics to re-sign Garnett and Allen and still have enough room for a max player this summer. The presence of Garnett could encourage them to gamble on signing or trading for an immature talent. If Garnett is on the market as a relatively inexpensive role player, there will be big demand for him. Don't you think the Kings would love to have Garnett in their locker room alongside DeMarcus Cousins? Wouldn't the Wizards' JaVale McGee be able to recognize why he undermined himself and his team by dunking off the backboard if he had a respected teammate like Garnett? Think of all of the championship contenders that would love to bring Garnett off their bench.
By extending Garnett into the complementary end of his career, the Celtics would be able to bridge into a new era while laying down the ground rules that make championships possible. A big reason why Kendrick Perkins is more valuable to the Thunder than implied by his 5.8 points and 5.9 rebounds is because he understands how to lead defensively. He knows how championship defense is supposed to be played, and he brought that knowledge to Oklahoma City by way of the evocative examples of Garnett. The West-leading Thunder have made a big improvement to No. 6 in field-goal defense this season.
Rivers was laughing during a loss to the Thunder on Monday as he watched Perkins complain about a foul that sent him to the bench.
"He's not a superstar or anything like that, but he adds value to your team,'' Rivers said. "Whether it's leadership or whatever, he has a presence with them. And probably because it's a younger group, he has a stronger presence. Defensively, I was impressed with him early in the game. He was calling out sets, they were reacting to it -- and that's not them a year ago. I don't know how you put a value to that, but he has a value.''
If the Celtics were to cut ties with everyone, who would fill the cap space? Recent free agent David West was more attracted by Indiana than by Boston, and Boston hasn't been on the well-reported lists of Chris Paul or Dwight Howard. If the Celtics are unable to land a big star in free agency, they may face the alternative of acquiring and developing younger talent within their system. The hard daily work of Allen and Garnett sets an example and standard for younger players that cannot be replicated by any coaching staff.
The demands on Garnett would change if his salary and role changed. For this season, however, the Celtics need him in a big way, and he has had trouble finishing around the basket and rebounding (7.5 per game in 31.2 minutes).
"Kevin puts the weight of the world on his shoulders," Rivers said. "He's such a conscious player and sometimes it actually hurts him because he wants to do so well. It was funny, at halftime [against the Thunder] he was sitting there on the floor, right before the buzzer, and I walked by him and I said, 'Thinking hurts the team.' He started laughing and I said, 'I'm serious. I'm very serious about that.' And he was laughing. He's so wound up, but that's good.''
There's no hiding the Celtics' obvious problems -- they've been slow and they've rebounded poorly while ranking 20th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. On the other hand, Pierce's recovery from his heel injury will make a big difference in settling the offense, creating more space for others. Rivers has been developing a small lineup "that allows us to put our best players on the floor -- Paul, [Rajon] Rondo, Ray, [Mickael] Pietrus and Kevin -- and all of a sudden we're athletic,'' he said. He also believes they can assemble a post presence from Pierce, Garnett, Rondo and Brandon Bass, which will be a necessity for the playoffs.
"Can we win it?'' Rivers said of the championship. "I have no idea, I really don't. I'm not thinking about that. What I'm thinking about is getting this group of guys to become a team.''
In that sense, the Celtics are trying to follow the example of younger teams like the 76ers and Pacers by focusing on the games today and not looking ahead to the playoffs. The postseason schedule may yet help a team like Boston.
"But,'' Rivers said, "we have to get there first.''