Saturday, June 29, 2013

End of an Era

Six years after it began, the second Big Three era in Boston has officially come to an end.

A few months from now Doc Rivers, the team's head coach for nine seasons, will be drawing up alley oops for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the greatest Celtics since Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, will be suiting up for the Brooklyn Nets. And Ray Allen, who broke Reggie Miller's career three-point record with the Celts, will be back with the Miami Heat helping them gun for their third straight NBA championship.

The thought of all that, of Pierce and KG not retiring with the Celtics, of Rivers coaching against them, of Allen helping LeBron James instead of hurting him, is hard for me to wrap my head around. It shouldn't, because this day was a long time coming. Danny Ainge said over and over that he wasn't going to repeat Red Auerbach's mistake of keeping McHale and Bird into their golden years instead of trading them when they still had value. Red's unwillingness to break up the original Big Three (along with the death of Len Bias and not getting Tim Duncan in the '97 draft) was a big reason why the team went 21 years between Finals appearances.

Ainge took that lesson to heart. There's no room for sentimentality in sports. When the time came, he'd do what needed to be done, no matter how much it hurt.

So now, with his stars approaching the twilight phases of their careers and the team in a state of transition, he pulled the trigger on a pair of blockbuster trades to reshape his roster and start preparing for life after Pierce, Garnett, and Allen.

Still, a small part of me didn't want to let them go. I wanted to see Pierce and Garnett play their last games wearing the Celtics green. I wanted Doc to guide them through the rebuilding process. I wanted a chance to say good-bye.

Now, all that's left of the Big Three is the memories, the fondest of which have been fading for quite some time.

There was the title year of 2008, when the Celtics were just as good as everyone thought they'd be. Boston's new super-team ran roughshod over the league, winning 66 regular season games and hoisting the franchise's 17th Finals trophy on the Parquet floor in June after thoroughly dismantling Kobe Bryant's Lakers. At the time it felt like we were witnessing the birth of the next Celtics dynasty, when in reality it was just the beginning of a prolonged hunt for that elusive 18th title.

Then came the much-anticipated title defense of 2009, as Boston looked to become the franchise's first repeat champions since Bill Russell's 1968-'69 teams. They probably would have done it, too, had they not lost Kevin Garnett to a season-ending knee injury in February, forcing them to lean heavily on Brian Scalabrine and Glen Davis during the playoffs.

That was followed by the crushing near-miss of 2010, when the Celtics went up 3-2 in their finals rematch with the Lakers, only to have Kendrick Perkins' knee explode in Game 6 and blow a 13 point third quarter lead in Game 7. In 2011 Perkins was traded to the Thunder for Jeff Green, dealing an emotional blow to a team that felt like it would have beaten the Lakers had Perkins remained healthy. Demoralized and depleted, they were bounced from the first round by Miami's juggernaut and seemed to be finished as serious championship contenders.

But in 2012, the Celtics made everyone believe again. Dismissed as too old and slow, they somehow willed themselves to within one win of the NBA Finals before the Heat snuffed out their hopes for one last shot at a title. The Celtics had no business getting that far, but they defied the odds and penned a heartwarming postseason story. Perhaps with the right moves, they'd be able to fight Father Time for another year and keep their championship window open just a bit longer.

We didn't know it at the time, but that was the beginning of the end. It started when Ray Allen--the greatest pure shooter of all time--defected to the Miami Heat for less money. He felt disrespected after Ainge tried to trade him (twice) and brought in Jason Terry. At the end of the day, money wasn't everything, especially for a man who'd earned nearly $200 million of it. Allen knew joining forces with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh greatly improved his chances of winning another ring. Sure enough, Allen got the last laugh when he helped the Heat clinch another NBA title.

Back in Boston, Terry and Courtney Lee weren't the answer and the team's playoff hopes went up in smoke when Rajon Rondo shredded his ACL in late January. Ainge missed a prime opportunity to tear the team apart at the trading deadline, instead deciding to hold out and explore his options after the season. To their credit, the resilient C's fought on without Rondo, hanging tough with the New York Knicks for six games in the first round. However, it was obvious the once proud Celtics had deteriorated into a .500 team, good enough to make the playoffs but not nearly talented enough to compete for a championship. Drastic changes were required.

Rivers saw the writing on the wall and jumped ship. He made it clear that he didn't want to stay, essentially forcing his way out of town a la Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony. He turned his back on a front office that stuck with him during the rough times early in his tenure and recently made him the league's highest paid coach. In return, all the Celtics could fetch for him was an unprotected first round pick in 2015, not Eric Bledsoe and/or DeAndre Jordan as they originally hoped.

I hate the manner in which Rivers left Boston, bailing out with three years left on his contract, but if he couldn't commit to the rebuilding process then he wasn't the right man for the job. You don't want to be here? Fine. Go. Good riddance. Besides, I've always felt that he's better handling veterans than he is with fostering the growth of young players (not that there were many of those in recent years). The Celtics would benefit from a new voice on the bench, a patient coach willing to put the work in now and reap the rewards later.

That said, the Clippers are lucky to have Rivers, a spiritual leader who connected with his players and always seemed to squeeze the most out of them. He's also the best coach in the league when it came to drawing up plays out of time outs. Rivers represents a significant upgrade over Vinny Del Negro, whose incompetence has prevented the Clippers from reaching their full potential these past two years. With Rivers at the helm, LA looks like a serious championship contender.

So do the Nets, who now boast a starting five of Pierce, Garnett, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, and Brook Lopez. Pierce and Garnett are old, but they can still play at a high level. The future Hall of Famers are much better than the men they'll replace: Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace.

The Celtics, on the other hand, aren't going to raise that 18th championship banner anytime soon. Realistically, it'd be in their best interest to tank this season and land a top draft slot in next year's draft, which is shaping up to be one of the best in years. The last time they tried that they missed out on Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, but ended up trading for Allen and Garnett so everything worked out.

In the meantime, Boston is officially Rajon Rondo's team, which I suspect is how he always wanted it to be. They've been his team at various points in recent seasons, especially during the playoffs, but now they're really his team. He'll have to make the most out of a less than stellar supporting cast--Humphries, Wallace, Jared Sullinger, and Avery Bradley--but the onus is on him to elevate his game (read: scoring) and play like the superstar he's shown himself capable of being when he wants to be (aka national TV Rondo).

Boston fans can only hope he gets along better than the new coach than he did with Rivers. Otherwise, it won't be long before he gets pushed out the door, too.

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