It was hard to find anything amiss or out of place. That's the way things generally go on media day. There are smiles all around. Optimism oozes. It's that way from Atlanta to Seattle and everywhere in between.
In the case of the Celtics, however, there are legitimate reasons for the optimism beyond the boilerplate phrases like "fresh start." No, a noted naysayer like myself isn't predicting big things from this team. But if everything breaks as Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers think/hope/ pray it will, then the Celtics will quickly (and mercifully) make everyone forget about last season.
In the spirit of hopefulness, we bring you five reasons why the 2004-05 Celtics may not only be decent, but may also be able to register playoff television ratings beyond a 1.0. These are listed not in order of importance, but, sort of like Uma Thurman's hit list in "Kill Bill, Vol. 1," they are all of consequence.
Raef LaFrentz: He says he feels fine. The coach says he looks great. Ainge says he looks great. Paul Pierce said LaFrentz looks as fluid as he did when the two were teammates at Kansas. If any of this is true, and the season will tell us, then it would be huge. No one is asking LaFrentz to go 35 minutes a game. If he can, so much the better. But if he can give Rivers a solid 30 with all the things he once did so well -- shooting, rebounding, shot-blocking -- then the Celtics would have their most solid power forward in some time. (I never really thought of Antoine Walker as a power forward.) They'd also have a pretty decent 1-2 inside presence with LaFrentz and Mark Blount.
Gary Payton: He sounded downright Jeffersonian yesterday, saying all the right things and in precisely the right way -- and without any epithets. (OK, there were a couple of times I shuddered when he mentioned taking the kids under his wing.) The Celtics have cast their lot with Payton, to the point of flying him in for yesterday's session in a private plane. We know this isn't where Payton wants to be. We know this isn't the kind of team on which he wants to play. But if there's anything left in his tank, and he can give Rivers a solid 30 minutes, maybe there's hope. A lot of fans are hoping to see a new, energized, determined Payton running the team. I don't know if that Payton is still around. But I don't know that he isn't, either. It's all in his hands and it sounds as if Rivers is going to give Payton the ball and tell him to run the show.
Doc Rivers & Co.: I'm not sure the Celtics coach this season is any better than the one they had at this time last year. What I do know is that Rivers is a proven NBA head coach, a former Coach of the Year, and, most important, a coach who has the imprimatur of his boss and his boss's bosses. You never had the feeling that Jim O'Brien and Ainge were on the same page. You knew they weren't after Dec. 15, 2003. There's no reason now to think that Rivers and Ainge aren't acting in concert on most things, although I still find it hard to believe that Rivers endorsed the Payton deal. But, as Ainge said last week, there's a lot less friction this year, starting with the coach and the hoops el jefe. Rivers also has an experienced staff, led by Dave Wohl, the only NBA person I've ever heard use the word "synapse" in conversation. (He knows hoops, too.)
Realignment: In case you might have forgotten, the NBA realigned since last season. With 30 teams, there now are three five-team divisions in each conference. While the Celtics will, for the most part, play the same schedule, they will be grouped with four suspect teams: the Nets, Knicks, 76ers, and Raptors in the new Atlantic Division. A first-place finish in the division gets no worse than a No. 3 seed in the playoffs. Who among the aforementioned teams scares you? The Knicks? Remember, Lenny Wilkens is their coach. The Sixers? Jim O'Brien is counting on Glenn Robinson. The Nets? No KMart, no Kerry Kittles, and, for the near future, no Jason Kidd. The Raptors? Never mind. You win a division, you get a high seed, you get some home playoff dates and anything can happen.
The kids: There are four intriguing kids, not to mention Marcus Banks, who was part of the Vision in April and traded (and reacquired) in August. But Pierce said yesterday that he's most impressed with the development of big man Kendrick Perkins, and the three first-round picks all pique some inherent interest. Is Al Jefferson able to make the leap from Prentiss, Miss., to the NBA? Is Tony Allen a new Ron Artest? Is Delonte West as comfy at the point as Ainge says he is? (If he is, then look for Banks to be shopped. Again.) If these guys play well enough to take minutes away from others (Payton, LaFrentz, Ricky Davis), then the season may be better than even the most starry-eyed optimist envisions.