Friday, June 20, 2008

The challenge for the Celtics now is to become truly great

The Boston Celtics once again sit atop the basketball world. On Tuesday night, they humiliated the LA Lakers 131-92 to win the best-of-seven NBA Finals series four games to two.

The victory gave Boston its seventeenth NBA championship. No team has won more.

Winning the title this season capped a remarkable turnaround. After not making the playoffs at all in 06/07 and winning only 24 regular season games, the Celtics won 66 games this year on route to their first appearance in the NBA Finals since 1987.

The 42-game spike in regular season wins was the most ever by a team from one season to the next in NBA history.

The change in fortune didn’t come as a huge surprise to basketball followers. Last summer, GM Danny Ainge glowed as he announced that the Celtics had acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to play alongside the teams restless All-Star, Paul Pierce.

Ainge still had work to do though. He knew that as good as Garnett, Pierce and Allen were, they wouldn’t be able to win it all by playing 3-on-5 basketball, they’d still need help.

However, it would now be easier for Ainge to entice the much needed role players to compliment Boston’s new ‘Big 3’. He correctly assumed that there would be no shortage of veteran players who could be lured by the opportunity to play for a championship ring immediately.

This offer would likely outweigh the chance of making a few extra dollars these players might get elsewhere.

It didn’t take a basketball genius to figure out that Boston was obviously going to become a much better team, very quickly. Still, not everyone was convinced that the Celtics would return to the Promised Land of the NBA straight away.

So where does this 2008 Boston Celtics team rank? After one championship win, it’s far too soon to immediately elevate this team to the same status as legendary Celtics teams and players of years gone by.

As a proud basketball franchise, the Boston Celtics have a long history of winning and boast some of the most well-known players and teams ever in the NBA.

Most recently was the 1980’s squad which featured the original ‘Big 3’. The trio of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish appeared in five NBA Finals series, winning three of them.

Going back a little further and for a while in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, during Bill Russell’s time, the city of Boston got used to celebrating NBA championships like it was their own summertime event. Russell won an incredible 11 titles in only 13 seasons in as a member of the Celtics.

Those glory days came to a complete halt in the 1990’s and the early part of this decade, but they might be on the way back.

These Celtics now need to create their own history. Winning one championship means that Garnett, Allen and Pierce at least won’t join the long list of great players who never won the NBA’s ultimate prize.

After watching Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls deny players such as Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley (to name a few) even one championship while his airness hogged six, it showed that no matter how good an individual talent a player was, there is absolutely no guarantee of reaching basketball’s Holy Grail.

It might not be fair, but that’s the way it is.

Any young player currently in the NBA would probably happily accept winning one championship for their entire career if it was offered to them right now.

A funny thing happens too in the NBA though. Occasionally, all winning one championship does is have the team compared to other one-championship winning teams. Sometimes, we’re told, it’s bad teams that can only win one championship.

Apparently, it’s only the very best teams that win the title again and again.

With the talent now on the roster, the only way this Celtics team is going to be regarded as true greats is to keep on winning. They need to stamp their authority on the league over the next few years and prove that this season wasn’t just a one-off.

Celtics fans will celebrate long and hard, after all, they got what they wanted – another championship. They don’t care how it happened they were just sick of waiting and sick of hearing how their beloved Celtics were constantly ‘rebuilding’.

Once the celebrations finish for this season, the hard work starts Danny Ainge. After the disastrous 06/07 season, he was able to convince his owners that in order for Boston to return to their winning ways, he would need to spend their money heavily, while assuring them that he was onto a good thing.

He will hope that the same tactic he used last will work again. Players prepared to play for less money in exchange for the chance to win it all. Given the Celtics success this year, it should be an easy sell.

From this year’s victorious team, Eddie House, Sam Cassell, PJ Brown & Scott Pollard don’t have contracts for next season. Scott Pollard being on the same team as Kevin Garnett in the first place is like walking into Blockbuster Video and seeing The Godfather on the same shelf as Dude, where’s my car?, but nevertheless, Pollard has a championship ring to his name now.

In sport, it’s said that the greatest challenge is not to become a champion, but to remain a champion. Anyone can win something once, but to do it all over again proves to any doubters that the initial success was fully deserved and did not come about by chance or any other mitigating factor.

There are many reasons which contribute to make maintaining the level of success such a difficult challenge. Obstacles appear that the team didn’t face during the initial triumph.

The champion team automatically goes from being the hunter to becoming the hunted. Opponents consider the regular season match up to be a measuring stick of sorts - how you fare against last season’s champs, gives you an idea of where your team is heading.

Team chemistry can change. Having secured a championship, sometimes players don’t play with the same level of desperation or commitment. The things that were sacrificed before might not be met with the same effort in the following years.

Things can change dramatically, just look at the Miami Heat. Two short years ago they were the NBA champs, now Dwayne Wade aside there are barely any remnants of that victorious team.

Expectations are elevated and fans are fickle. They want and expect to see winning and exciting basketball each and every season. A championship success might allow for one losing season later on down the track, but anymore than that and it’s open season on everyone and anyone associated with the team. Fire the coach, the players, the GM – anyone, just fire someone.

When it comes to winning championships though, for the Boston Celtics and their fans, it’s never a case of how, it’s only a case of how many?

That is what Ainge hopes for now. He wasn’t looking for a Las Vegas style elope, instead he has planned for a long-term marriage.

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