The Vulnerability Of Arrogance

Photo via mrocki1 on Flickr

Maybe it was Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals that led to Danny Ainge trading Kendrick Perkins.

Even without the defensive stalwart thwarting scoring attempts in the lane the Boston Celtics still led the Los Angeles Lakers with less than seven minutes to play. A loss meant his team – a year older – would only be that much hungrier entering the 2011 playoffs, eager to win another championship before the triumvirate of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were no longer capable of elevating their play to the highest level. Certainly with Rajon Rondo blossoming into a superstar and the emergence of Glen Davis as a viable frontcourt presence, meant it was time to start thinking about the next wave of Celtic teams beyond the Big Three.

The opportunity to acquire a young, athletic wing player who could shoulder some of the load for Allen and Pierce wasn’t one that could be passed up – could it? Even with the asking price of Perkins, surely Garnett and the Brothers O’Neal were capable of maintaining Boston’s suffocating interior defense.

On second thought – perhaps it was Ainge’s arrogance that manifested itself in this trade.

The emotional impact is undeniable and was readily apparent in the reactions of Perkins’ former teammates when they learned of the news. The physical effects have been even more pronounced, resulting in a 15-12 record since the trade and a significant blow to Boston’s trademark defense. Derrick Rose’s endless barrage of forays to the basket last Thursday in a loss to the Bulls wasn’t an aberration, rather a nationally televised unmasking of the Celtics dirty little secret – the soft underbelly that is now their ability to defend the rim sans Perkins.

From an overall statistical standpoint, Boston remains one of the best interior defenses in the NBA. This however is an empty facade, a result of their first 55 games, which saw them limit opponents to 59.4% shooting at the rim, a percentage bested only by the Miami Heat. To be fair, Perkins was absent for a large portion of these games, with Jermaine and Shaq handling much of the interior duties, but suddenly with those two succumbing to injury and Perkins gone, things have digressed. In the 27 games since Perkins was dealt that initially pristine mark has swelled to nearly 64%, this puts the Celtics nearly on the league median. But the absence of Perkins goes far beyond numbers: Boston is suddenly vulnerable in a way we haven’t seen in years.

In a game rich with young guards who continually push the boundaries of their position, size remains directly correlated with success. The Lakers – for all of the adjectives used to describe Kobe Bryant – can point to their overwhelming frontcourt advantage as the base on which their back-to-back championship teams have been built. San Antonio and Chicago can point to the ability to defend the area around the rim as helping to propel them to the top seed in their respective conference playoffs. Is it any wonder that Oklahoma City has suddenly become an even bigger threat out west after providing a strong complement to Serge Ibaka inside? Boston’s intimidation factor is gone – teams aren’t deterred from driving the lane, an act that at best used to be cautionary.

Beyond his presence as an unselfish defender though, the void left by Perkins may be the single biggest argument for those that so staunchly oppose the statistical revolution. As much as I enthrall myself in the world of advanced stats, I do understand the need to sometimes throw caution to the wind and let the emotional aspect of the game have its due. The Celtics thrived on this emotion, dating back to that championship season, when they embraced the concept of Ubuntu.

Yet Ainge’s insistence that his (somewhat) failed offseason acquisitions in Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal could sustain the Perkins presence, not merely his production, was shortsighted. Boston may be better suited for the day when the Big Three retire and yes they got something in exchange for Perkins in the present, rather than losing him to free agency, but at what cost? A team once revered for its cohesiveness and lauded for its postseason play, has lost its edge and more importantly, likely its last chance at a title.

Is it unconventional that on a veteran laden team the loss of a 26-year-old proves to be its undoing? Of course, but then again, very little about Boston’s run of the last four years has been conventional. Now in a postseason filled with young and hungry sharks, the Celtics sudden vulnerability is akin to blood in the water and their life raft is wearing a new uniform.

Seth Carstens