If your goal is encapsulating this Celtics regular season, you’re hard pressed not to center the discussion on the trade that sent Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma. This season was about the Perkins trade. With a second-round exit, this season is still about the Perkins trade. With a trip to the Conference Finals and a quick exit, it’s still probably about the Perkins trade. It’s possible, even, that losing to the Lakers in the Finals again would make this year even MORE about the Perkins trade than it is now, just as last year’s Finals remain mostly about the Perkins injury among Celtics fans.
So the trade is the symbol of this season, and only a championship or a profound injury to one of the remaining Celtics (find some wood to knock and come back) could supersede it. Sure, 2010-2011 will also be secondarily the year of Ray Allen’s three-point coronation and the year Shaq played for the Celtics, but those both stand pretty dim next to Perkins crying in the locker room, an image that lingers in all our brains even though we never actually saw it.
The prominence of the trade in our collective memory chambers is pretty easy to explain: it was super sad. This fact, like all facts, is an unappreciated reason why it shouldn’t have happened. The one aspect of the Perkins trade that should have torpedoed it (other than financial and basketball) was that it robbed Boston of the NBA’s funnest team.
Earlier this season my friend Garrett emailed me to tell me I “lucked out being a native fan of the Celtics.” Absolutely goddamn right I did. There’s nothing forced or unnatural about rooting for the Celtics, because the players make their personalities freely available, and when things are good, the only thing you want to do is hear those players talk about playing together. There’s a reason why ESPN chose to follow the Celtics all season, and I would tell you what it is but I’d just be repeating that last sentence.
To impose the Perkins trade on that team was irreparably devastating to its fun quotient. Not only was Perkins an unrecognized contributor to the fun (he was a great interview and, we now know for sure, deliberately gets technicals to motivate himself and provide the game with a storyline), his departure made playing NBA basketball less fun for everyone else. These players, more so than the average NBA player, were motivated to perform by how much they enjoyed one another’s company. That joyful camaraderie constituted the entire difference between the guy Paul Pierce was before the summer of 2007 and the guy he was after. Today, he’s a little closer to Spring 2007 Pierce than he has been in four seasons, just as we’re seeing a little more of the Spring 2007 Rondo we thought had disappeared forever.
When the Perkins trade first happened, there was a lot of solemn shrugging among NBA pundits accompanied by the words “This is just a reminder that the NBA is a business.” While business-reminders are, of course, consistent downers in basketball (ex: last summer), I don’t really see the Perkins trade that way. Ditching a helpful player for a less helpful one while saving your operation zero dollars is not, you know, businesslike. KEEPING Perkins for the rest of the season would arguably have been a better reminder that the NBA is a business, because businesspeople tend to retain strong employees for the length of their favorable contracts.
No, the only thing that the Perkins trade was a reminder of was that Kendrick Perkins wasn’t on the Celtics any more. And that’s all it needed to be to ruin the year. SORRY BUT IT’S TRUE.
That’s the burden shouldered by these playoffs. They need to be involving enough to make us forget about the personnel changes of the regular season. The story elements are certainly in place for the Celtics wipe all of our minds clean: if they get through the anticipated playoff docket of Knicks, Heat, Bulls, and the Western Conference champion, we’re all going to have a lot of trouble recalling this thing we’re trying to forget. For example, what if that Western Champ is the Thunder? Pretty sure fans could forgive Danny Ainge if the Celtics beat the Thunder with pieces the Thunder gave them.
That’s what we need from the next two months: positive theatrics to combine with the negative ones from earlier this year and effectively zero them out. Math, son!