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Time running out for Celtics' title hopes

Posted by Andrew Mooney  November 14, 2011 01:15 AM

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The clock is ticking quite loudly for the current iteration of the Celtics. Though the Big Three –– Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce –– were almost solely responsible for rescuing the franchise from the extended mediocrity of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, their time as the faces of the team will soon be at an end.

No one needs to be reminded that Garnett, Allen, and Pierce are getting a little gray around the temples, but there’s also the business end to consider. Garnett’s and Allen’s contracts expire following the 2011-12 season, and both will likely consider retirement –– Garnett will be 36 and Allen 37 by the start of the 2012-13 campaign. Even if they desire to re-sign, it’s not clear that the Celtics will want them back. At some point, GM Danny Ainge has to turn the page and build for the future.

Which brings me to the lockout: the Celtics need a deal to be reached as soon as possible. The loss of the entire season effectively narrows the title window for the Big Three to a crack and might even shut it completely. The foundation of the team is simply getting old, and aging teams don’t often raise championship banners.

As evidence, here’s a plot showing the average age of every NBA championship team since 1952, weighted according to each player’s minutes in proportion to the team’s total minutes. For an example of the concept, Jason Kidd’s 38 years counted more toward the 2011 Mavericks’ weighted age than J.J. Barea’s 26 years, since Kidd played almost 1,000 more of the Mavs’ minutes during the season.

nbachamps.png

The minutes-weighted average age for all these championship teams is 28.1; for comparison, the minutes-weighted average age of the NBA in 2011 was 26.6. We can see that teams younger than 25 and older than 30 very seldom win it all, which seems self-evident. A team’s best shot at a title comes when the majority of their roster is in the latter half of its prime, possessing the athleticism of youth along with the experience and savvy obtained from multiple seasons in the league.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the rest of the Celtics’ roster, it’s hard to project where exactly they would fall on this spectrum. The brief free agency period following any deal made now would result in a mad scramble for players, with the Celtics picking up as many as five new bodies, should Jeff Green and Glen Davis choose to depart. But as their weighted average age last season was 29.5 years, a conservative estimate would place the 2011-12 Celtics at about 30.

Only six teams have won an NBA title with an average minutes-weighted age of 30 or older. Of those six, two were Michael Jordan-led Bulls teams; unfortunately, the Celtics will not have the luxury of the greatest player in history on their roster this season –– that is, unless Brian Scalabrine plans an unexpected return from Italy.

Offering somewhat more hope are the 2011 Mavericks and the 1999 Spurs. Last year’s champions, the Mavericks, proved that sometimes age is just a number. Their top four players in terms of minutes, Kidd, Jason Terry, Dirk Nowitzki, and Shawn Marion, all topped 32 years, yet missed a combined 11 games over the regular season and played every game in the postseason.

The ’99 Spurs showed that, for an aging team, the cancellation of games may actually be a good thing. An abbreviated season, as Gary Dzen pointed out in July, is the best-case scenario for the Celtics, removing somewhere between 10 and 25 games of wear from the veteran legs of the Big Three. Ideally, the Celtics would follow San Antonio's blueprint (average age: 30.1), coasting into the playoffs after a shortened regular season and remaining unusually fresh for a deep run into May and June.

The good news is that, at this point, the players and owners seem too close to an agreement to justify totally cancelling the season (Update: or maybe not...). The setback the league would suffer from a lost year is one they cannot afford, particularly with the buzz generated for the NBA during last spring's playoffs. As long as the negotiators don't try to compress too many games into too short of a schedule, the Big Three will be well-prepared to make one last push to claim their second title, before their time is officially up.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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