Many of us long-time Celtics' fans spent last season comparing the 2008-09 Boston Celtics with the 1986-87 Boston Celtics, and with good reason. Both teams had at least three things in common.
First, they were both coming off a championship season, and were both attempting to defend their championship with vastly depleted benches. The 1987 squad was missing sixth man Bill Walton and sharpshooter Scott Wedman. They were also missing their first-round draft pick, Len Bias, who had died from a cocaine overdose. Reserve shooting guard Jerry Sichting was as good as missing, too, as he never came close to reproducing his career numbers from the prior season. The 2008-09 Boston Celtics were missing PJ Brown, James Posey, and Sam Cassell, each of whom had contributed to banner 17.
Second, the players who remained from the previous championship season started getting injured. Power forward Kevin McHale broke his foot for the 1987 squad, while power forward Kevin Garnett injured his knee for the 2009 squad. Leon Powe also injured his knee for last year's team, and was not available for much of the playoffs, while the 1987 squad missed almost 200 games due to various injuries suffered by the nearly the entire team, and that doesn't include another dozen games missed in the playoffs.
Third, once the injury bug struck, neither the 1987 team nor the 2009 squad stood a chance to beat the Lakers in the Finals. The 1987 team tried and failed, while the 2009 bowed out early to spend the summer getting healthy.
Those two stories aren't happy ones. 1988 was worse. If the writing was on the wall in 1987, the championship window was about closed-shut by the following year. Everyone knew the Lakers were better than the Celtics in 1987, while everyone knew the Pistons and the Lakers were better than the Celtics in 1988. Celtics' fans kept their fingers crossed and said their prayers, but the steady decline into oblivion had begun.
We don't know if the 2009-10 Boston Celtics are headed into a similar downward decline. But even if they are, this is no 1987 or 1988.
The 1987 and 1988 Boston Celtics were 5 deep, six once the 1988 team added Jim Paxson. The rest of the bench consisted of players KC Jones could not or would not rely on (Fred Roberts, Darren Daye, Greg Kite, Dirk Minnifield, Mark Acres). The Celtics' competition in 1987 and 1988, however, was nine deep (the Pistons) and eight deep (the Lakers). This year, the Celtics are at least 9 deep, and probably 10 deep once Glen Davis returns. Speaking of Glen Davis, because his skills largely overlap with those of Shelden Williams, Big Baby gives the Celtics a reasonably attractive asset to dangle as trade bait if a midseason move is needed, a luxury the 1987 Celtics didn't enjoy. Thus, few pundits would disagree that the 2009-10 Boston Celtics are as deep or deeper than any other team in the NBA.
So despite losing 3 of their last 5 games, the 2009-10 Boston Celtics are not in the same boat as the team was in 1987 and 1988. However, the 2009-10 Celtics do share one thing in common with their late 80s forebearers. Both squads were getting old, and starting to show it. Yet the 1987 and 1988 Celtics possessed one advantage over the current squad that helped them overcome the effects of old age during many regular season games. His name was Larry Bird.
The 2007-08 Boston Celtics won a championship without having a player who dominated the game on offense every night of the season. The 2009-10 team is built the same way, and, of course, there is nothing wrong with sharing the offensive load. The Celtics have won 14 of their 17 championships with teams lacking a Larry-Bird type of scorer on offense. Still, there is no underestimating the value of having a go-to guy the caliber of Larry Bird. Watch the pivotal game 4 of the 1986 Finals if you disagree. He refused to let the Celtics fall behind by more than a small margin, and as the game's end approached, he made sure he took over.
Many fans assume Bird's play in 1987 and 1988 mirrored the play of his team, which is to say they assume that Bird's play was also in a state of decline, because the last MVP he won was in 1986. But even a quick glance at his 1987 stats shows that he averaged 28.1 points per game, with a .525 field-goal percentage. The field-goal percentage was the best in his career, until the next year, when shot .527 from the field while averaging 29.9 points per game. The down-side of having a primary go-to guy on the roster, with the talent and ego to match, is that he ends up playing too many minutes and it’s easier to defend him as the focal point of the offense.
I’d like Paul Pierce to step up and take on the Alpha-male duties more often, or even Ray Allen. But I don’t think it will happen. They've both become too team oriented, if that's possible. Rajon Rondo would be my next choice. But that probably won’t work either, at least until he finds a reliable jumper. So the bottom line is that this team will merely be a good team that plays great on some nights and plays bad on other nights, unless each player finds a way to motivate himself to play at a high level every night.