Without Kevin Garnett, the 2008-2009 Boston Celtics were a scrappy, gritty team that managed to win one of the best playoff series of all time. They probably shouldn’t have actually been able to beat the Bulls and they probably shouldn’t have been able to take the Magic to seven games, either. That they got as far as they did is a testament to how hard these guys played, as well as the coaching job put in by Doc Rivers. That they won 62 games in the regular season when their best player only played 57 is, to be blunt, ridiculous.
The C’s, with Garnett, seemed prime to repeat as champions. Sure, there were other contenders, but they looked unstoppable during their 19-game winning streak (even though they didn’t play many playoff teams during that 5-and-a-half-week stretch). Ray Allen was absolutely fantastic, Paul Pierce was Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins continued coming into their own. These guys, coupled with the transformation of Glen Davis, were able to keep the Celtics playing at an elite level even after KG went down. The fact that they still only won four less games than Cleveland in the regular season is astonishing, considering that Tony Allen, Brian Scalabrine, Mikki Moore, and Stephon Marbury were all a part of the regular rotation at the end of the season. Make no mistake, the Celtics are a good team without Garnett, but they overachieved significantly when he was gone and there was a reason nobody took them seriously as title contenders once the playoffs started.
In the off-season, the Celtics have made two significant moves thus far, adding Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels. While you could reasonably say that they overpaid for Wallace and that they should have kept Leon Powe and/or gone after a guy like Brandon Bass instead, you have to acknowledge that he is capable of helping this team on the inside. Rasheed was lazy/awful last season, but, on a team with strong leadership, where he has a real shot at winning a title, you have to expect (or at least hope) that the effort will be back. In Daniels, they have a solid player at a position where they really needed more solid players. The fact that Tony Allen was their only real option off the bench on the wing did not bode well for the Celtics last year, especially with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce getting up there in age. Daniels is no star, but he’s a useful piece and a significant upgrade from what they had. Even after these signings, though, this aging team still has depth issues, especially at the backup point guard position. While Daniels is capable of running the offense in a pinch, this is far from ideal and Celtics fans seem to hope they acquire a more traditional point guard before the season starts.
The unfortunate fact about these summer signings, along with the re-signing of Glen Davis: they might not matter at all. Yeah, these are improvements. They’re improvements that Celtics fans should be grateful for, as not every owner is willing to pay for a winner like Wyc Grousbeck is. However, the key to this upcoming season is quite obviously Kevin Garnett and his health. It’s a weird situation, this. His knee injury is an unusual one, and, though he’ll likely feel fine when the season starts, the risk of re-injury will not go away. On top of his knee issues, the man has played more NBA minutes than Magic Johnson or Larry Bird did in their entire careers. The man has played as hard as anyone in the NBA since he was 19 years old, and even without the recent injury problems there would be reason to question how long he will hold up.
If Garnett is playing at an All-Star level when the playoffs begin (and the other veterans hold up, too), the Celtics will be in a very good place. This team now has the personnel to remain an elite team, both offensively and defensively, for another season. Without Garnett, though, they’ll once again be in the East’s 2nd tier, regardless of the improvements they’ve made this summer. Obviously, every team would be badly hurt by the loss of its best player, but, for Boston, KG’s health has to be the biggest storyline heading into 2009-2010. I’m not a big Celtics fan myself, but, for the good of the league, let’s all hope he’s got one more great year in him.