By Stephen Brotherston
The Boston Celtics organization has a deserved reputation for being loyal to their players. Not a blind loyalty, the Celtics do not have a reputation for overpaying or ignoring obvious opportunities to improve their team, but rather a pragmatic loyalty that suggests a belief in chemistry within an organization is better than simply making incremental improvements in talent level. This summer, the Celtics loyalty and pragmatism has been on full display.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge set up the summer of 2012 as a possible rebuilding period. Aging All-Stars Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were unrestricted free agents, Brandon Bass had a player option and the stage was set to clean house if that was what the organization decided to do. Everything was so obvious that even Celtic-for-life Paul Pierce recognized that he could be on his way out of Boston, but Ainge had other plans.
The Celtics had just won the Atlantic Division crown for the fifth season in a row and taken the Miami HEAT to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, led by a revitalized 36-year-old Garnett. The oft-described old Celtics still had something left in the tank.
Ainge kicked off reloading the Celtics by re-signing Chris Wilcox to a minimum salary one-year deal on July 13. Wilcox had been sidelined mid-season with the same heart procedure that had ended Jeff Green’s season. The next day Garnett and Bass were back in the fold on longer term deals and any questions about the Celtics rebuilding instead of competing were answered.
The Celtics also re-signed Green and Keyon Dooling to help maintain the chemistry in Boston and ensure the additions of Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jason Collins and the rookies quickly become part of the winning culture in Boston.
There have been questions raised about the loyalty of the Celtics to some of the players who are not returning, but there was every indication that Ainge wanted Allen and Mickael Pietrus back, despite their injuries. Both players had their surgeries at New England Baptist Hospital by Celtics team physician Dr. Brian McKeon after the season completed. Allen was offered more money than the deal he accepted from the HEAT and it was Pietrus who has been quoted as not willing to accept the veteran’s minimum that Boston paid him last season.
This loyalty to players on the downside of their careers and coming off serious surgical procedures, while commendable, does raise some obvious concerns. Can this group be successful and what has the past history of loyalty done for the Celtics?
In 1987 Red Auerbach refused to break up his Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish after the Celtics lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals and the team waited 20 years to make their return, but the complaints about this Celtics’ Big Three are beyond simplistic. The Big Three played five more seasons together and won their Division three more times. Bird averaged over 20 points per game during this time; McHale averaged over 20 points per game for three more seasons and Parish played seven more seasons in Boston until he was 40 and then three more after that. It wasn’t the same as Boston’s three Championships during the previous seven seasons, but that Big Three was hardly washed-up after 1987.
Ainge had his own decision to make about the new Big Three two years ago and opted to re-up with the 35-year-old Allen and the 32-year-old Pierce after losing to the Lakers in the Finals. Also, there were the persistent rumors about the possibility of trading Rajon Rondo, but the decision to keep the group together has led to two more Division crowns and another trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. Then, like now, the biggest improvements available to the Celtics were to bring back their own guys on reasonable deals.
In the modern era of professional sports, do players appreciate the efforts made by organizations that had the opportunity to kick them to the curb in order to save money or try out the next the guy instead? There are plenty of examples of players who have left good situations in hopes of finding a better one, but it’s also easy to notice how the Celtics have treated players like Wilcox and Green and believe this will impact on how players view the organization and how hard they will play for them.
If the only measure of success rests in winning an NBA Championship, then Ainge can be criticized for not being bold enough in his off season moves. It would be hard to argue the re-load in Boston makes this team better than the HEAT, but the pragmatic loyalty demonstrated by the Celtics to their own players does give them a real chance to get back to the Conference Finals where they just came to within one-quarter of advancing to the Championship round.