In our season preview for the Celtics, I wrote the following:
The Celtics appear to be the ultimate championship-or-bust team. They have a core of aging stars in their mid-30s, one of whom may not be on the team after this season (Ray Allen) and all of whom have entered into their slow decline toward retirement. But they are still stars, and they are surrounded by an unguardable waterbug with a nasty streak at point guard, a blossoming force at center and a beefed-up bench with proven back-ups at nearly every position. It seems reasonable to say anything short of an 18th championship would be a disappointment.
Then the team started 23-5, a start convincing enough to make the last sentence in that paragraph seem justified: A championship was a reasonable goal. The road would be difficult, but the C’s looked to be as good as any team in the league.
Since then, the Celtics are 18-19. In late January, when the C’s were in the middle of a 4-7 stretch, I tried to calm the panic by pointing out that several recent champions had gone through 4-7 or 5-6 down periods in the regular season.
But 18-19 over what is essentially half the regular season?
Only in very unique circumstances do you find a title team that has gone through a “stretch” like that. If you’re looking for a precedent, you’ll find it with only the few “mediocre” champions in league history (such as the ’78 Bullets or the ’75 Warriors) or those who went through strange, injury-filled regular seasons only to peak in the post season (the ’94 Rockets). Could the C’s qualify as such a team? Maybe.
Otherwise, title teams don’t play sub-.500 ball for half the regular season. They just don’t.
It may be time to ask: Should we reevaluate our expectations for this team? Will you be happy with another conference semi-final loss? Would a conference finals appearance be a wild success? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but with every discouraging loss—Boston is 2-9 now against Orlando, Cleveland and Atlanta—it feels less and less likely that this team will pull it together during the playoffs. Which, by the way, are almost here.
The more important questions, of course, are those facing the front office. Danny Ainge and his staff have spent more time than we would anticipate thinking of 2012 and beyond. But you wonder now if they must shift the way they think about that post-Big Three future—and if that shift has already taken place.
Do you view Ray Allen now as someone you either a) re-sign only as a sign-and-trade piece; b) let go; c) re-sign for one year at most?
Do you refuse to negotiate an extension for Paul Pierce, instead viewing him as a possible mega-expiring contract next season, when teams will be dying to get their hands on expiring deals?
Do you begin thinking of unconventional ways to part with Kevin Garnett?
These sound like outrageous, reckless questions. But if the front office believes—truly believes—that this nucleus can no longer compete for a title, these are the questions they should be discussing.
Note: If you disagree with this entire concept and think the C’s are still elite title contenders, express your views in the comments and by voting “Yes” in that poll on the right side of the page.