BOSTON – A year ago today, the Boston Celtics were a hapless, hopeless cabal. Kevin Garnett wouldn't consider leaving a 32-win lottery team to join them. In terms of relevance and water-cooler chat, the Celtics were on par with Ivy League squash.
On Thursday, they will be treated like royalty in Boston, complete with the now obligatory Duck Boat tour and parade through the meandering downtown streets to celebrate their 17th NBA championship. There will be hundreds of thousands of fans, and, had you been asleep for the last 11 months, it would be a definite, back-to-the-future moment. Where's Larry? Where's Kevin? Where's Red?
That is why this latest NBA championship has its own, special place in Celtics history. There really was none like it among the previous 16, most of which were won by a team with presumptive greatness going into the season and previous achievement on their résumés. This one? Who knew?
It happened so fast and so implausibly as if it was in its own time warp. How could a 24-win team turn around in one year and turn away all comers, finishing with a Secretariat-in-the-Belmont flourish against their most storied and dreaded rival?
The 131-92 humiliation of the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night ended a 22-year championship drought for Boston. But "drought" is a relative term here, compared with another city's famine and pestilence. Atlanta, for goodness sakes, hasn't won a single, best-of-seven series since 1970. Garnett's old team, the Timberwolves, has won only two best-of-seven series in its history (and both in the same year) and has now gone four years without seeing the playoffs.
Those situations mirrored the Celtics' situation last year at this time. You put Boston right in the same basket with all the other clueless wannabes for whom a May date in Secaucus was as much of a yearly lock as the coming of the seasons and the turning of the leaves. As late as March of 2006, coach Doc Rivers was saying the Celtics didn't need high-priced veterans; that their young talent was growing, improving and one day would be the envy of the NBA. That team won 33 games and the next one won 24 games, second-worst only to Memphis. But when the 2007 ping-pong balls did not deliver Greg Oden or Kevin Durant to Boston, the team used the next six weeks to try and turn dross into gold.
Danny Ainge, the man entrusted with the job of delivering a title to Boston, wasn't so much of a trader over that span as he was a sports alchemist. He picked up Ray Allen, Garnett, kept Paul Pierce, and somehow managed to convince two teams that his 24-win roster was so chock-a-block with promising players and expiring contracts as to make the deals look even. Or close to even. That he did speaks as much to the aptitude of his colleagues and their respective, dire situations as it does to Ainge's brilliant bargaining. But either one of those deals would have fallen apart had Sam Presti in Seattle or Kevin McHale in Minnesota demanded that Ainge surrender Rajon Rondo. Both asked. Both were told "no way." Both eventually relented.
But while the fans, ticket buyers and Vegas wise guys went wild after the Garnett trade, there were legitimate concerns about where the 2007-08 Celtics might wind up. They'd be better, for sure. They'd be a playoff team, for sure. They might even get home-court advantage for the first round.
But could they also be like those Sonics' teams of the 1980s with Tom Chambers, Xavier McDaniel and Dale Ellis – good but not great? Or the Denver teams in the early 1980s with Alex English, Kiki Vandeweghe and Dan Issel – prolific at one end of the floor, pathetic at the other? If Garnett was so good, how come he couldn't get his team into the playoffs?
Now, those observations look silly. At the time, they were as valid as any other because the team had done nothing. It looked good on paper. But, after adding key free agents like James Posey and Eddie House, the 2007-08 Celtics had nine new players on their roster. Nine! It would add two more before the season was out. It had a coach who had never won a playoff series and its three mainstays all had failed to make the playoffs the previous season. Two of those three also missed significant time in the 2006-07 season with injuries. All were in their 30s with a lot of miles on their respective bodies.
But, as Rivers noted in the glow of Wednesday morning, "we got them at the right time." He's right. It was a lot easier sale when all you had to do was hold up the 2007 NBA Standings in front of those three to make your point. All three were hungry – voracious, really. They had to stay healthy and, for the most part, they did. They had to stay committed and they did, never wavering. And they had to learn to play a new system, with new teammates, learning on the fly. They did that, too.
There's really no parallel in Celtics history for what we just witnessed. The Celtics' teams of the 1950s were already playoff-caliber when Red Auerbach worked his magic to acquire Bill Russell. The teams of the 1970s were built brick-by-brick, with draft picks (Dave Cowens, JoJo White, Don Chaney) and trades (Paul Silas.)
The situation in Celtics history, which comes the closest to 2008, was in 1978-79, the year before Larry Bird arrived. That team was uniformly horrible and had the added distinction of being utterly dysfunctional. Bird and M.L. Carr were the promising newcomers in 1979 and Nate Archibald was the returning-to-good-health veteran. It took that unit two years to win a title.
It took this group only one. That was Rivers' message from the start – seize the moment because we can't afford to wait. He told Garnett, Allen and Pierce that they have to play the 2007-08 season as if it's their one and only chance to win. Because, in reality, it might be. Yes, all three guys are signed for multiple years going forward, but all that really means is that they'll get paid.
Who knows what next season's Celtics will look like? The starting five will be back, but key subs Posey and House are free agents and P.J. Brown can now retire for good, knowing he went out with a bang. But Garnett, Pierce, Allen and Rivers have made Boston relevant again, a desirable destination for veterans who want to have a chance to win. (Or, in Posey's case, win again.) The San Antonio Spurs have had that cachet for the last decade. The Portland Trail Blazers might have that cachet for the next decade.
But in the here and now, Boston is a pretty attractive star in the NBA firmament. It's a circumstance that was unthinkable in June 2007 – and every bit as real in June 2008.