Hello, Boston

The arrival of Kevin Garnett instantly revived a storied franchise. But many questions still need to be answered before the Celtics can raise banner number 17 to the rafters
August 12, 2007

Behold theNBAsuperstarus, a most splendid subspecies of Homo sapiens. He is a giftedsoul, perhaps energetic and multitalented (like 6' 11" Kevin Garnett), orefficient and charming (like shooting guard Ray Allen), or fierce and explosive(like swingman Paul Pierce). But the NBAsuperstarus often falls victim to theflaw of hubris, believing that he is surrounded by lesser subspecies whose jobit is to pay him homage and, most important, to recognize that their teamis--all together now--his team.

With that bit ofbiology in mind, it might be wise for the city of Boston to hold off mapping aroute for the 2008 NBA championship parade. True, now that Garnett, 31, andAllen, 32, have joined Pierce, 29, in Beantown, the Celtics--whose 24 wins lastseason were the second fewest, to the Memphis Grizzlies' 22--have beenestablished by oddsmaker Bodog as 5-to-2 favorites to win the EasternConference and 5 to 1 to win it all. Not incidentally, those odds were 40 to 1and 90 to 1 before the July 30 trade that brought Garnett from the MinnesotaTimberwolves to the Franchise That Auerbach, Russell, Cousy, Bird, et al.Built.

Yet despite theCeltics' rebirth and an accompanying outbreak of civic pride, it is quitelikely that next summer the league's latest Big Three will come up ringless,just like other Terrific Troikas of the past (page 70). Predictably, theGreat Green Gang of Three has said all the right things about selflessness andcommitment: At Garnett's introductory press conference they recalled bonding ata high school tournament in Las Vegas in 1993. After nixing a trade to Bostonfive weeks earlier--Garnett says that it had nothing to do with the city'sreputation for being inhospitable to African-Americans but, rather, with theteam's being years away from contention--the 10-time All-Star became open tomoving once the Celtics plucked Allen, a seven-time All-Star, from the SeattleSuperSonics in a draft-day deal. Pierce said that the acquisitions make himfeel "like a rookie again, like when you first get drafted and you'reexcited about playing in the league." Allen said it was going to be "apleasure" and "an honor" to step on the floor with Garnett andPierce every night.

Yes, things haven'tlooked this bright since June 1986, when Boston not only won its 16th (andlast) championship but also had the No. 2 pick in the draft; when LarryBird was trim and healthy, current executive director of basketball operationsDanny Ainge was a frisky young guard and the future, like the past, seemeddotted with shamrocks. But consider the observation of one NBA coach whowatched the press conference. "As I listened to Pierce, it was like he wassaying, O.K., you're coming to my team now," says the coach. "It seemedlike a message to KG and Ray." Perhaps the coach was referring to Pierce'sshout-out to Ainge and Celtics ownership for "bringing the players aroundme necessary for us having a shot at a ring."

As for Allen, thecoach thought that his whole demeanor gave the impression of I'm the veteranhere. I'll take care of things. "Ray can be a bit of a locker roomlawyer," says the coach. "And really, the best player is Kevin. We'llsee how he handles that."

Several othercoaches and general managers analyzing the trade saw potential conflicts."Ego and chemistry relative to Pierce is the first minefield for theseguys," says a Western Conference executive. A Western coach adds, "SanAntonio is good because two of their Big Three, [Tony] Parker and [Manu]Ginóbili, have no doubt that it's Tim Duncan's team. Tim was alreadyestablished as the main guy when the others came, and for KG earning thatrespect won't be as easy." And this from an Eastern coach: "None ofthem have won a thing. So who will point the finger at whom if things startgoing south?"

Who will be thereal Celtics capo? While Garnett is a first-ballot Hall of Famer with careeraverages of 20.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists, he was sometimes atepid leader during his 12 seasons in Minnesota, too eager to be just one ofthe guys even as he demanded it be his team, which of course it was. In aninterview with SI last weekend, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor--widely believedto be the driving force behind the trade, not vice president of basketballoperations Kevin McHale--came close to saying as much when he recalled anApril 3 game at the Target Center in which Garnett and the ClevelandCavaliers swingman Sasha Pavlovic went jaw to jaw and had to be separated.Taylor noticed how the Cavs' young star, LeBron James, took control of histeammates.

"He shouted tothem, 'Stop it! We're here to play!' " recalled Taylor, who was sittingcourtside. "Here's a guy who's 22 years old, and his command on that teamwas just as good as a coach saying that, or even better. When I heard that, itwas just so obvious how different that presentation was. . . ." He meanthow different it was from the emotions that boil over in Garnett in suchmoments.

Leadership issuesbleed into basketball issues. "Paul and Ray are perimeter-orientedplayers," says an Eastern Conference coach, "and Garnett doesn't get tothe line all that much." In averaging 22.4 points last season,13th-best in the NBA, Garnett attempted only 6.6 free throws per game, fewerthan any scorer above him except for Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson (5.5)and--what do you know?--Allen (5.6). "So," asks the coach, "whenit's crunch time, isn't Pierce [8.6 free throw attempts in last season'sinjury-riddled campaign] going to think, Hey, I'm the only one who can get thisdone?"

Another coachfocuses on two more question marks: defense and playmaking. After examining indetail the qualities of title-caliber teams, which this coach does at the endof every season, he believes that a couple of things stand out. "Nochampionship team has had to trap and overexpose its defense," says thecoach. "And every one has had a guard who can create [for himself andothers] at crunch time and with the shot clock going down. It doesn'tnecessarily have to be a point, like Parker or [the Detroit Pistons' Chauncey]Billups. Kobe Bryant did it for the Lakers. Dwyane Wade did it for Miami. ButRay is catch-and-shoot and Paul is get-his-own-shot. So I don't see thosethings with these Celtics."

Garnett, astout-hearted warrior, should help solve the defense problem. As the three newteammates huddled in Doc Rivers's office after the press conference, the Bostoncoach was about to bring up the D word when Garnett beat him to it. "Theonly way we're going to win anything is if we play defense," Garnett said.Everyone agreed to make it a priority. The consensus around the league: Pierceand Allen are inclined to either yield or commit a needless foul when drivenupon, but both have the ability to be terrific defenders if motivated.

That's where theBig Ticket comes in. "I don't see the Celtics imploding because Garnett isnot only a superstar but a super glue guy as well," says Donnie Nelson, theDallas Mavericks' president of basketball operations. "That is extremelyrare in today's game. He's the ultimate team player." Says the Pistons'Flip Saunders, who coached Garnett for 10 seasons in Minnesota, "I neverhad anyone with as much passion as KG. Practice, shootaround, games--it didn'tmatter. That has to be contagious."

The most glaringdeficiency of this remade Boston team, however, lies in the supporting cast. Toget the sweet-shooting Allen, Ainge had to give up forward Wally Szczerbiak,guard Delonte West and the No. 5 pick; to get Garnett, he surrendered threeforwards (Al Jefferson, Gerald Green and Ryan Gomes), a center (Theo Ratliff),a guard (Sebastian Telfair) and two first-round choices, making it the biggesttrade for one player since the Portland Trail Blazers sent six bodies to theHouston Rockets for Scottie Pippen in 1999. (NBA mathematics are elusive, butfigure it this way: 1 Superstar = 5 Other Guys.) "The Celtics have threescorers who can deliver at the end of the game," says Los Angeles Lakerscoach Phil Jackson. "But they need a rebounder-tough guy to aid Kevininside and a distributor to get the ball downcourt and into the hands of theirscorers."

Those roles arecurrently held by Kendrick Perkins, a 6' 10'', fourth-year center, and RajonRondo, a 6' 1'', second-year point guard. Rivers knows how much pressure is nowon Rondo in particular. "The toughest thing for any young point guard ishow to get a team into its [offense] when the tempo slows down," saysRivers, a former point guard. "He has to stay aggressive yet get otherstheir shots. Maybe Ray has scored 10 points in a row, and the tendency is tothink, Uh-oh, I better get KG or Paul some touches. No, no, no. We want Rajonto come down and throw the ball to Ray again."

With the Celtics'payroll now bloated into luxury-tax territory--Garnett, Pierce and Allen areowed about $168 million through 2009-10, the last season the three are allunder contract--it will be tough for Ainge to make a meaningful pickup to fillout his roster. At week's end, speculation centered on his trying to acquire apoint guard on the cheap, such as Rafer Alston of the Rockets or Tyronn Lue ofthe Atlanta Hawks.

Still, in the weakEastern Conference--which James and the seriously deficient Cavaliers won in'07--this threesome will make the Celtics a Finals contender. Offensively, theycould be as lethal as any team this side of the Phoenix Suns. "The firstthing I did after I knew KG was coming was sit down and go through theplaybook," says Rivers. "And after about two minutes I thought, Man,every option suddenly looks pretty good."

Sizing up his newcompetition in the East, New Jersey Nets coach Lawrence Frank puts it this way:"Other players get motivated when something big happens with yourfranchise. The Celtics have become the talk of the league. For everybody, thatups the ante." Frank laughs nervously, then adds, "Maybe that's thewrong choice of words these days."

Indeed, in the wakeof the news about former referee Tim Donaghy's being beholden to mob-tiedbookies over the last two seasons, the Garnett trade was just the salve the NBAneeded. Wild off-season optimism, after all, is part of what makes sportsgreat. So why not let Boston's parade planners take a preliminary look atstreet maps? (The Big Dig will make this thing way more complicated than it wasback in '86.) Any route should wind past Faneuil Hall and the statue of RedAuerbach, of course. It was the old cigar-puffer who created one dynasty bysnookering the St. Louis Hawks into giving up the draft pick used on BillRussell, then kept the C's relevant into the 1990s by snatching Bird in the '78draft, when he still had a year left at Indiana State. Auerbach would no doubtbe proud of Ainge (and would wonder what was wrong with McHale), but he alsomight offer this piece of advice: Along the way, many terrific players have tosacrifice their games for the good of the whole.

But whichNBAsuperstarus will do the sacrificing now?

"None of them have won a thing?," says an Eastern coach. "So who will point the finger at whom if THINGS START GOINGSOUTH?"

PHOTOBRIAN BABINEAU/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES SEEINGGREEN
Garnett nixed an earlier deal to Boston but signed off on the move after theCeltics upgraded their roster.
PHOTOPhotograph by Winslow Townson SoxAppeal
Fans at Fenway Park roared when Garnett was introduced to throw out the firstpitch one day after he was traded.
PHOTOBRIAN BABINEAU/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES BACK INBUSINESS
By adding Garnett (center) and Allen (right) to Pierce, Boston went fromEastern doormat to favorite.

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