June 2, 2005
OK, everyone. Exhale. We've all had some time to stand back and examine the current state of theCeltics with a little less emotion and a little more practicality. Does that make Paul Pierce's Game 6 antics any less horrifying? Not really, but when you're talking about business sense, you better make sure you get something of equal value if you plan on shipping him out of town. For all his warts (including a maddening defensive indifference, at times), Pierce is still a big-time talent who can rebound and pass and fill it up. I don't see anyone who is available that offers the same skills. Ray Allen is a nice player, but he's no Paul Pierce.
I spent the last two weeks taking my own exit polls, and after talking with Boston's players, coaches, and front office personnel, there could be another scenario to ponder: the possibility that Pierce will demand a trade. His displeasure with coach Doc Rivers was thinly veiled, at best. He didn't like it when his coach sat him for bucking the up-tempo transition style. He didn't like it when his shot selection was questioned. The coach, meanwhile, was as appalled as the rest of us regarding Pierce's postgame antics in Indianapolis. If Rivers had seen Pierce heading for the interview room with that ludicrous bandage wrapped around his jaw, you can be sure he would have corralled him in the hallway and ordered him to get a grip. Rivers was in the TNT truck reviewing the play that led to Pierce's ejection, and didn't learn of his star's bizarre postgame performance until after it was over.
Rivers has been around long enough to get beyond all of this. The question is, can Pierce? His immaturity is troubling, particularly in his role as a veteran captain who should be setting an example for a group of young, eager teammates. If he turns on his coach, how does it affect the kids? Pierce has said in the past he wants to stay here providing the Celtics can contend for a title.
For the second year in a row, Boston was bounced in the first round. Pierce must bear some but not all of the responsibility for that.
Pierce needs somebody to keep him in line, which is why the first order of business for Boston should be to bring in a solid veteran with good work habits and even better locker-room presence. Picture someone like Antonio (or, for that matter, Dale) Davis, albeit a younger version with less wear and tear. This team is crying out for someone with playoff seasoning who commands respect and can stand up to Pierce, if needed.
There were times when that player was Antoine Walker. His genuine, heartfelt attempt at leadership was appreciated within the organization, but his poor practice habits were not. His willingness to accept a lesser role at times was a plus, but his inability to produce with consistency was not. The bottom line is this: While Walker's earnest approach endeared him to his teammates, the fact remains Danny Ainge has never really warmed up to Walker's game. He simply does not fit the system Ainge and Rivers have in mind. His shocking decline in jumping ability is baffling. His trend of avoiding contact when going to the hole was odd; it makes you wonder if he's so psyched out by his poor free throw shooting that he was avoiding having to go to the line.
Count me among those who feel Walker still has worth to this team, for his rebounding skills and his quirky intangibles. If I were the boss of the Celtics, I'd bring him back for three years at a modest (for him) salary, starting at around $5 million or so, and explain to him his minutes will be reduced, because man-child Al Jefferson needs to continue to develop, and Kendrick Perkins needs to start to develop. If Walker could live with that, he'd have value. Whether he'd agree to such terms is another question entirely, and likely a moot point. The sense I get is that he's played his last game here.
If that is indeed the case, here's hoping Boston has another power forward in its radar. Remember this: as exciting as it was to watch Big Al in action, this is a kid who averaged just 14 minutes a game and struggled mightily when Indiana started paying attention to him and throwing double-teams his way. The kid is going to be a great one, but he's not there yet. The Celtics know better than to throw him out there for 36 minutes a game next season and to ask him to be a star. He still has much to learn.
Ditto for Delonte West, Marcus Banks, and Tony Allen. They had their moments, but need some additional tutelage before they rule the backcourt. It won't come from Gary Payton. If you are looking for a lock (instead of a lockout) during this NBA offseason, write it down in black ink: Payton won't be back. While he did provide on-the-floor stability, his game is clearly in decline. But that's not why theCeltics will move on. It has more to do with Payton's habit of listening in the huddle, nodding dutifully, then going out and running whatever he sees fit. Not the example you want for the young 'uns.
Ricky Davis made huge strides in resisting similar temptations. He is on his way to establishing himself as a reliable scoring threat, but at the end of the day, confide his teammates, he was still too busy counting shots and not busy enough counting wins. It leaves us to wonder if he ever will completely buy into the team concept. There might be some interest in Davis, provided the lockout doesn't obliterate offseason movement, but he's only 25, and you have to believe his best days are ahead of him.
That leads us back to the concept of a veteran presence. While officially recognizing Ainge's outstanding judgment in the 2004 draft, the last thing the Celtics need is another young not-quite-ready-for-prime-time prospect. Better to package their first-round pick (and another live body, if necessary) for some quality guys who know what it takes to win.
The 2004-05 Celtics thought they knew. Let's hope their first-round flop was a rude awakening to all of them, the kind that requires a good, long self-examination and a vow to learn from their mistakes.