It was June of 2007. The Celtics were a 24-58 team that had just tanked its way to second worst record in the NBA in a draft where the top two picks were almost certain locks as rebuilding centerpieces.
The tanking was an absolute disaster, yet it was the best thing that happened to the Celtics. They avoided getting Greg Oden, who we now know has a body that simply refuses to participate in his dream of being a dominant big man. And falling to the fifth pick tipped the first domino in the series of events that constructed the 2007-08 NBA champions.
Danny Ainge whipped a champion out of the second-worst team in the NBA. And since then, other teams have been looking for that “just add water” approach to success. But what we’re seeing now from other “instant contender” hopefuls is that it’s not so easy. What Danny did in 2008 is a Luke Skywalker, shot into the Death Star’s thermal exhaust port, almost impossible thing to do.
The New York Knicks struggled after the mid-season trade last year to acquire Carmelo Anthony. This season, they put their own “Big 3” together, but they ignored key elements that have prevented them from becoming what their fans had hoped. The Clippers, in acquiring Chris Paul, are also missing key pieces. They had one in Chauncey Billups, but his injury has derailed their hopes of a similar turnaround.
And this just shows what went into the Celtics championship season, and why it’s a lot harder than throwing a bunch of good players together and saying “go win us a title.” The ingredients have to be just right, or else it won’t work.
When you look back on things, the Celtics had a perfect storm for building the right kind of team and team chemistry.
First, Danny acquired complimentary pieces. Ray Allen is a shooter. His comfort zone is coming off picks, catching, and shooting. Kevin Garnett is an unselfish big with an amazing skill-set that allowed him to finish at the rim, face up and hit jumpers, and pass out of the post like no one else. Paul Pierce was (is) a slasher who can hit a shot from anywhere on the floor and demand double teams as he got closer to the basket. Put all that together with a pass-first point guard who was just coming onto his own and a mean-spirited center who was more than happy to buy into the new defensive strategy, and you had a starting 5 that clicked instantly.
Second, the coaching staff was just right. With Doc now coaching veterans, he had guys that shared his philosophy of how to handle team business. He wasn’t dealing with kids who had no idea how the NBA worked anymore. He had a group that could police themselves, freeing the coaches up to actually coach. Add Tom Thibodeau’s amazing defensive plan, and KG’s undying willingness to execute that and refusal to let others NOT execute that, and the X’s and O’s fell into place.
Thirdly, the bench was constructed perfectly to compliment the starters… including the late season additions of Sam Cassell and PJ Brown. Mostly, though, it was James Posey who made things click off the bench. Add Eddie House’s shooting ability and Leon Powe’s toughness and the bench just worked for this team.
And finally, in the preseason, there was a trip to Rome that set the tone for everyone. That forced these guys to be in one place, at one time, and get to know each other better than they could have if they were in Waltham and retreating to their own homes after 2-a-days. Ask Doc Rivers how huge that trip was for the Celtics, and how important it was to establishing the dynamic that would become “Ubuntu.”
The Knicks lack a lot of these elements. They haven’t built the right roster around their stars. Carmelo Anthony dominates the ball and is a lazy defender. Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler need a point guard to get them into their comfort zones and the Knicks overall need a bull-headed floor general with enough cache’ to put a guy like Carmelo in the right spot without fear of retribution.
Say what you will about Rondo, but even as a second-year player, he was confidently directing traffic out there in 2008. The wrong point guard could have let that thing fall apart. Rondo’s stubbornness and confidence were a big asset back then. The Knicks need someone like that now. As good as Jeremy Lin has been, he defers a little too much because he doesn’t have the resume or attitude to do otherwise.
The Clippers also lack pieces. The loss of Billups killed them because he drew defenses out of position and let Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan operate inside. I think we also saw that Blake is a bit limited offensively, and he needs a lot of touches to find a way to bull his way to the hoop. He does a fantastic job of it, but without a mid-range game to really open up lanes, he’s strictly a power guy and a dunker who needs to be fed the ball. He’s not as bad as Jordan, who has no offensive game whatsoever beyond being very tall and being able to jump very high. Caron Butler is a nice option, but beyond that, the Clippers don’t have the same complimentary pieces that the Celtics did… despite having the best point guard in th game. There’s only so much even Chris Paul can do.
And finally, and maybe most importantly, those Celtics came together at the right time. Put that exact team together with the exact same situation with mid-20-year-old Garnett, Allen and Pierce and you get a wildly different result. These guys were ready to sacrifice their own games for the betterment of the team. What the Knicks, Clippers, and even Heat (to a lesser extent) have right now is guys in their prime doing things that are important to themselves individually. The Garnett the Celtics got was ready to do whatever it took to win. So was Ray Allen. And Paul Pierce was especially ready to do the same.
It all had to come together perfectly. The right players, at the right age, with the right coaches and the right circumstances (and some luck with health mixed in). Some on the outside might look at New York and other teams and think “well, the Celtics did it, why can’t you?” And the answer is simple: because despite outwards appearances, these teams aren’t doing it the same way. It might be impossible for any team to do it that way again. The 2008 World Champion Boston Celtics were a one-of-a-kind team that simply may never be duplicated.