The Celtics Lurk
The Boston Celtics, defending Eastern Conference champions, are too good to be considered a mere "contender" like the teams we've previewed this week. But certainly the C's don't hold hype company with the two-time defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers or the megalomaniacal Miami Heat. So, like the Orlando Magic (see below), the Celtics defy genre and fit into their own category: The Lurkers.
Star Power: Rajon Rondo
The image of Rajon Rondo is one of a cross-eyed Kidd/kid who needed guidance from legends to make it work. As a rookie, with Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Delonte West and a dejected Paul Pierce as his teammates, Rondo was supposedly an anxious youth trying to do everything all at once. When Kevin Garnett and especially Ray Allen came along, Rondo blossomed into to the starseed now taking over the franchise. Experienced sensei leads rudderless child to promised land. Right?
Rondo's game has actually been more telling of incremental improvement, like most other players. Rondo didn't find Jesus (Shuttlesworth) when the Big Three + 1 were assembled, he just kept growing as a player. Take a look at this annual chart measuring the percentage of Rondofied possessions ending in various positive and negative results. Notice the lack of a monumental leap in 2008.
Certainly, Rondo improved from 2007 to 2008, when Allen and Garnett arrived and the team became good. But he improved even more from 2008 to 2009, and a decent amount from 2009 to 2010. No huge changes to the roster happened those offseasons. Rondo, a kid, just got better.
What's that mean for this year? Well, he's 24 years old. He should keep improving incrementally. That's what the Celtics need as Garnett (34), Allen (35) and Pierce (33) break down. Luckily, it hardly seems like Rondo needs them to get better. He is self-contained, and regression by the Big Three -- while it will damage the Celtics -- shouldn't throw Rondo off-track.
The point guard certainly could use improvement in the turnover department, where he still loses too many possessions for the Celtics. Incredible defense (of which Rondo is the spark and kindling) has let Boston survive the less-than-perfect offense, but as the defense wanes (see: Garnett's aging, Kendrick Perkins out for a while) the ball-handling simply must tighten up. That starts with Rondo. (TZ)
People's Choice: Pretty Much the Whole Damn Team on a Good Day
By "a good day", I don't necessarily mean when they win. The Celtics can win either by being loathsome, or through something that reminds you what rare birds call Beantown home these days. I could stand here (sit?) and idly celebrate Delonte West's return to the Celtics -- except I take him seriously as a player, think the year he played a major role on the Cavs was their smoothest offensively, and would like to see him return to form. No, the real secret stars of the Celtics are ... the Celtics. Rajon Rondo may be the team's future, but he's also as unorthodox a player, and quizzical a personality, as the game has seen in years. That he's found such great success should be a beacon of hope to everyone who likes his basketball a little off-center.
The same goes for Kevin Garnett who, although he has been transformed into Bill Russell with a jumper through a combination of age and kelly-green hype, supposedly is showing the old KG in camp. That means more dynamism not just in the paint, but all over the floor defensively, and taking a less static role in the offense. He's the player who, if he reverts to his former self, could transform the entire feel of the Celtics squad. We saw something similar from Ray Allen; initially pigeon-holed as a crotchety stop-and-pop accessory, he was last year given the freedom to bounce the ball some and create. He was rewarded with a new contract. Suddenly, he looked like the underrated Ray Ray of yore. Anyone who remembers his transfigurative nights for the Sonics might be pleasantly surprised this season.
To come full circle, undrafted free agent Marquis Daniels crept out of nowhere in late 2004 to push the Mavericks into the playoffs. Along with Josh Howard, Daniels offered a strange new hope for this perpetually aging team. His do-everything game, at once versatile and stubborn, meshed perfectly with Howard's rangy athleticism. Now, Daniels is a forgotten vet, and Howard, working his way back to respectability. Like other Celtics, Daniels has a chance at regaining his own mojo. If he does, though, it will have far greater significance for the great unwashed herds of NBA junkies. They are unwashed because they live like the NBA is a bunch of drugs. Hence the analogy.
Oh, and I like Avery Bradley. He and Rondo means lots of arms. (BS)
Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down
Ziller: Can the Celtics knock off the Heat? Given that we haven't seen the Heat in real action yet, it's hard to determine. Boston handled the Heat and Cavs separately last year without too much trouble. Of course, Dwyane Wade had no help and the C's were able to safety-pin Tony Allen (now a Grizzly) to Wade's hip. LeBron's series against Boston deserves a documentary, not a two-sentence summary by me. Let's just leave it at the fact that we know the Celtics can handle these stars individually; the key is in denying their Voltron chemistry. Until we see how much better the Voltron chemistry will make each, I'll err on the side of yes, Boston can beat them. As for the Lakers? Well, you saw the Finals. The Celtics can hang, without question. Verdict: Thumbs up for Boston.
Shoals: I love what our colleague Sam Amick said in an radio appearance this summer: to paraphrase, we all got it totally wrong when the Celtics made the Finals last season, so why would we dare bet against them now? Realistically, a healthy Heat should be able to find a way around the Celtics, no matter how much Ponce de Leon they have up in their system. I will daringly go on record as saying that, if you drain out injury and utter awkwardness, LeBron James's Cavaliers did certainly have a chance against them back in that deadly spring. I know I'm saying this despite my hopes for a totally rejuvenated C's team -- really, though, it comes down to the sheer gravity of Miami versus Boston's veteran savvy. If it becomes a war of style or playmaking, the Heat win every time, no matter how awesome Rajon Rondo is. Verdict: Thumbs up for Miami.
Don't Forget the Magic
Like the Celtics, the Orlando Magic can't fairly be dropped in with the Mavericks and Hawks of the world. This is a championship-caliber team with championship aspirations. Nothing but a ring means success, something only three other teams (the C's, Lakers and Heat) can say with a straight face. With a certain flair for indigence and the best big man in the world, the Magic are The Forget-Me-Nots.
Star Power: Dwight Howard
I'm fully convinced that having Patrick Ewing, the king of great but somehow disappointing centers, as an assistant coach has dragged Dwight Howard's name unnecessarily through the mud. Like death and taxes, you can always count on a louse or two pointing out Howard's flaws without acknowledging his amazing feats. Feats like winning three straight rebounding titles before turning 25. Like leading the league in blocks and rebounds two straight years. Like missing a whopping three games in six seasons.
Howard doesn't have Hakeem's smooth or Duncan's craft; he's just a heap of muscles and a giant set of hands. So, like Ewing and even David Robinson, he's discounted as a player not committed to getting better, to not being the man. Bull pucky. This is the best big man in the game today, an heir to Hakeem and Duncan in terms of impact on a game, any game. How quickly we forget that Howard's team has beaten LeBron and the Celtics already.
Boston has allegedly solved Dwight, right? Howard has 13 games against the Celtics in the playoffs, all in the past two postseasons. In those games, he is averaging 19 points on 65 percent shooting, with 14 rebounds and nearly three blocks a game. Orlando is 6-7 in those games.
The Celtics smoked the Magic last spring, and Howard didn't get the ball enough, partly due a lack of insistence on his part that he get the ball more, partly due to Kendrick Perkins' great defense. But just 12 months prior, Howard whipped Perkins and the C's all over the court. I know this is a world devoted to recent results, but it's a bit absurd to act as if Howard isn't amazing because he doesn't shake the way Hakeem did or call the bank like Duncan. He's an absolute beast, always getting better and typically bludgeoning his opponents. Deal with it.
People's Choice: The People are always looking out for cases of grave injustice, and if you think Marcin Gortat got jobbed, what about Brandon Bass? I know he plays sometimes, but while Gortat has "back-up center" written all over him, or maybe, just maybe, "next Nenad Krstic," Bass has over the years shown us that he might be an athletic power forward worth a starting spot. Instead, he's stuck behind Howard alongside Gortat at the five (not his natural spot), and at the four he's hampered by his lack of a 3-point shot -- the trait that keeps Rashard Lewis valuable, and the reason why Orlando values Ryan Anderson. I think Brandon Bass is seeing the best years of his life slip away like so much mud in the drain.
Wishful thinking? Maybe. But first in New Orleans, then in Dallas, Bass produced when given a chance, and provided the kind of woosh down low that teams are looking for more and more these days. FREE BRANDON BASS. There, I said it.
Also, Stanley Robinson is the new James White. His getting waived only makes the comparison more valid. (BS)
Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down
Shoals: I know the Magic win games, and their rotation might be the strongest, and deepest in the league. But Carter and Lewis are slipping. Jameer Nelson seems to have hit a ceiling, one not particularly conducive to Dwight Howard. Speaking of Howard, I just don't feel it in my bones anymore that he'll ever get his offense under control. The Magic always beat everyone in the regular season, but -- whether out of laziness or genuine gut -- it's just hard to believe they're as good as they are until they're as good as they are. I also seriously wonder if 2009 wasn't their peak. At this point, I withhold judgment until the Finals. Can they still trade for Chris Paul? Verdict: Ask me later and then make fun of me.
Ziller: Relying on Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis -- which the Magic absolutely do in the postseason -- is always tricky, and that's what worries me. That said, no one in the league can handle Howard. When you have that great a big man, you always have a chance. A Heat-Magic series would be glorious (though I have a feeling penetration by Wade and James could tire Dwight out), and something tells me Carter would be all jacked up for a chance to take out old rival Kobe in the Finals. I have no doubt the Magic could represent the East. I won't pick them over the Heat, as of now. But it's certainly within the realm of logic the Magic are a better team. Verdict: Thumbs cautiously up.
What We Like (Or, The Things We'll Miss During the Great '11-12 Season Shutdown): Marv Albert
What We Like champions the unlikely things we'll miss if the league shuts down next summer. Rob Peterson is a FanHouse producer and frequent contributor to The Works.
With the commissioner David Stern talking deep salary cuts and others whispering about contraction, it may be time to start cranking these out at a higher rate. It sure looks like a lockout is on its way, which means less basketball and less Marv Albert on TNT.
This is not a good thing. Marv is the best play-by-play man in any sport at any level. Al Michaels, the lead voice of the NFL, is running on fumes. And while I could take or leave Joe Buck in baseball, I can understand why people find him smarmy.
But Marv, who got his start in 1967 with the Knicks and spent 37 seasons with them, is still at the top of his game. Maybe it's nostalgia, but when Pat Summerall and John Madden did football games years ago, their voices sounded like autumn to me. It's the same with Albert, as Marv's ability to manipulate every syllable in a word and his sepia-vocal tones, as smooth and as warm as 12-year-old Scotch, remind me of winter.
Albert also reminds us of a time when play-by-play guys described the action and let the players provide the excitement. His call of Willis Reed coming out of the tunnel and onto the Madison Square Garden floor is simple with a hint of hyperbole at the end.
"Here comes Willis and the crowd is going wiiiild."
Like a great photojournalist (his endearing catchphrase -- YES! a simple confirmation that indeed the shot was good -- is akin to the shutter clicking), he has a great sense of the moment and says just enough to make it sound as if he's said a thousand words. Willis coming onto the floor was thrilling enough. Albert, although he was calling the game on radio, expressed the excitement without trampling the flowers in the Garden. That may be his greatest attribute. He knows greatness when he sees it and is thrilled by it but he expresses it in such a way that suggests he's tugging at your sleeve and saying, "Did you see that?" instead of what a lot of announcers do today, which is, "Do you hear what I'm saying?"
Albert knows when to talk, when to tweak -- his dry wit has zinged many a partner -- and when to be quiet. Check out his work on LeBron's game-winner against Orlando in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals.
He explains the play perfectly, explains why it was important for him to talk and then lets the ambient arena noise wash the moment clean. It's hard to do it better, which is why Albert is the best. Thankfully for this season, Albert's 11th with Turner Sports, he's getting Steve Kerr back as color analyst. For the past couple seasons, Marv's been saddled with Reggie Miller, who often took crayons in both fists and smashed them across Albert's verbal Picassos.
We've been Marv-less before, which was his own fault, in the late '90s and it deprived hoops fans of a signature call about its signature player in that player's greatest moment.
Still, Albert was able to call five of Michael Jordan's six titles and none was more memorable than their first pairing. As a matter of fact, there's a word for it: spectacular. YES!
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available October 26.