…to be an opportunity. That’s one of dozens of ways to look at it. It’s probably healthier than being all doom and gloom. Depending on your perspective, a prolonged NBA lockout is either a bad thing or a really, really good thing for an aging Boston Celtics team (you can probably tell which way this is headed). What’s not up for dispute is that the worst-case scenario for all involved is a totally lost season. It’d be easy to assume that the opposite — a season played in full — would be the best-case scenario for the Celtics, but that might not be true.
At the moment Doc Rivers has six players in the fold for next season, not counting the team’s two rookies. Four of the Celtics’ five projected starters for next season have accumulated geologic amounts of NBA service time. Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jermaine O’Neal have combined to play 59 NBA seasons. Rajon Rondo, the fifth Celtics starter, has played five NBA seasons. Avery Bradley was a rookie last year.
If there is an NBA season, the Celtics will obviously play it with more than six players. Jeff Green is a restricted free agent and will likely be back. Glen Davis could return for the right price, and the Celtics would be making a big mistake by not bringing back Delonte West. The Celtics will fill out the rest of their roster, but with their payroll likely to be in luxury tax territory again next season, they’ll be adding complementary players, not key pieces.
The reason this is relevant is that a San Antonio Spurs team with a similar makeup won the NBA title in a lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. That lockout ended on January 20, and teams squeezed 50 games into the rest of January, February, March, and the first part of April, playing more back-to-back games than normal to fit them all in. That could be a bad thing for a Celtics team that relishes as much rest as possible. Of course, chopping two-plus months off the season could also be a good thing for players who will spend more time in the training room before games than they will on the court during them.
The 1998-99 Spurs provide a blueprint. Gregg Popovich’s team went 37-13 following the last lockout, good for first in the Midwest Division. They went on to win 15 of 17 playoff games, beating the Knicks 4-1 in the NBA Finals.
The Spurs had a roster whose top six players had an average age of 31 and had a rising superstar (Tim Duncan) who was just 22-years-old. They had a gregarious, defensive-minded coach in Popovich who was adored by his players.
As currently constituted, the Celtics have a roster with an average age of 31. Their point guard is 25-year-old and has risen to stardom in recent seasons (granted he’s no Tim Duncan), and their gregarious, defensive-minded coach is adored by his players.
There’s no need to tell Celtics fans how integral Duncan was to the champion Spurs, but an aging David Robinson, Sean Elliot, Avery Johnson, and Mario Ellie were his supporting cast. The Spurs won with defense: they had the No. 1 ranked defense in the league, while their offense ranked 11th.
The Celtics led NBA teams last season in opponents’ points per game. With Rivers and Lawrence Frank on the bench, there’s no reason they can’t be one of the league’s best defensive teams again. They can spread the load on offense with Pierce, Allen, and Garnett capable of putting up 25 points on any given night.
Rondo won’t be Duncan. It’s unfair to even suggest that Rondo carry the Celtics like Duncan carried the Spurs. But there will be a time in the not-too-distant future where Rondo is the Celtics’ best player. If it’s next season — and if the team’s complimentary players can truly compliment — the Celtics can use the lockout to their advantage and contend for a title. Maybe they’ll have fresher legs than they did this postseason. Maybe a healthy Rondo can lead them past the Heat. Or maybe all this wishful thinking is a foolish waste of time.
Hey, there’s nothing else to do.