WALTHAM — Kevin Garnett sat down at the podium alone at Celtics media day Friday afternoon, surveying the team’s practice facility at a makeshift stage on one corner of the court. Garnett looked to his left and right, saw two empty seats, and sighed.
“Man, the days of the three of us…” said Garnett.
He was referring, of course, to Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, the fellow All-Stars who used to flank him for such press conferences. Garnett rarely spoke without at least Pierce by his side, and the Big Three made a point of showing their unity more often than not.
We’re five years removed from the Three Amigos “Sportcenter” commercial and less than four months removed from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, which the Celtics lost, 101-88, to the Heat in Miami. The Celtics leave for Europe this week. They’ll play games in Turkey and Italy before flying home and continuing training camp back here. It’s the first time they’ve gone overseas for camp since they went to Rome before the 2007-08 season in which they won the NBA title.
“It’s kind of weird because as I sit up here, I’m thinking about Rome,” said Garnett. “I see a lot of parallels between ’08 and this year. I’m just wondering if we can bond and give ourselves to each other for the betterment of the team like we did then.”
Allen’s departure was a hot topic Friday, as were the ages of Pierce and Garnett and the burgeoning leadership of Rajon Rondo. The Celtics signed nine new players this offseason, but in a lot of ways this year feels the same as that charged season of 2007-08. In a lot of ways it feels very different.
“A lot of good things happened quickly,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “I just really like our team. I like our team on paper. And now we have to turn it into a team.”
Celtics general manager Danny Ainge admitted it was “a very challenging summer”, but the team managed to put it all together. The Celtics set the trend by assembling three established stars in 2007. Before that, there was no trend. The question now, with the additions of above-average role players like Jeff Green, Jason Terry, and Courtney Lee, is this: Can the Celtics stay on trend in a league where the best teams force together star-power when two of their three stars are over the age of 34?
Rondo is both the team’s biggest question mark and best player. Don’t take that the wrong way. Questions about Rondo’s ability to be an elite player are gone. He’s established himself as one of the league’s best point guards, and he’s still getting better. He may be the most unique talent in sports.
Questions about Rondo’s maturity have been, in a word, overrated. Rondo has never been immature, but he also admitted Friday he wasn’t a leader until last season. Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers all said during media day that Rondo has more than earned his new role. They’ve embraced him and handed over the keys. The question is whether or not the Celtics can win it all with Rondo as their undisputed best player.
“I think he’s a leader,” said Garnett. “He just didn’t know how to. The three that were here were able to teach him parts of it. I just didn’t think Rondo knew how to lead.”
Rondo says he’s “accepted” the role. He says he used to get into arguments with Garnett and still does, but he also said Garnett is his closest friend on the team. He credits Garnett and Pierce for allowing him to lead.
“It’s not easy accepting a young guy with my type of demeanor or attitude to take charge,” said Rondo.
Friday was a day to both look ahead and look back. The Celtics may have more depth than they’ve had since 2007, and not just in the backcourt. Chris Wilcox and Jason Collins should give some help to Garnett at center, while Darko Milicic looks absolutely huge, and not in an out-of-shape way. The rookies have a chance to contribute, and Green looked extremely confident. Last season at this same event. Green gave off an air of nervousness as he answered questions about what was supposed to be his breakout season. Two days later, the Celtics announced he was out for the year with a heart ailment. On Friday, he called himself and Wilcox “scar buddies” and said he’s ready to excel at both forward positions.
Terry is supremely confident. He showed off his new Celtics tattoo and said he thought this Celtics team is better than his Mavericks team that won the championship two years ago. He should anchor a much-improved Celtics bench.
“I was embarrassed when they said that in Game 7 [vs. Miami] the bench scored two points,” said Terry. “That’s unacceptable. That won’t happen when I’m here.”
On replacing Allen, Terry said, “Who?”
Speaking of Allen, it’s clear his departure has not sat well. Pierce said he thought he would end his career with Allen and Garnett. He still hopes to retire when Garnett’s contract expires in three years. Garnett said nice things about Allen, but when pressed on the issue he said he had not spoken to his former teammate since he signed a contract with the Heat.
“I don’t have Ray’s number anymore,” said Garnett. “I’m not trying to communicate. I’m just being honest. I don’t wish him less. It just is what it is.”
It’s can be painful to look back, but it’s also useful. Owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca started off the festivities by going through some of their favorite memories in their 10 years of team ownership. They highlighted Rivers’s redemption from a bad season in 2005-06 and Pierce’s NBA Finals MVP award as crowning achievements. After buying the team, Pagliuca chose Ainge, who chose Rivers, who chose to keep Pierce despite some rough patches. The Celtics have chosen to veer slightly off trend this season and keep their older stars around rather than try to assemble a team from scratch with two or three new ones. The Lakers are the latest team to reboot with a superstar, joining the Heat as the league’s most predominant “super teams.” We’re about to find out what happens to a team that, once again, defies a trend.