New Faces: Brad Stevens (Head coach); Keith Bogans, Marshon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Donte Green and Gerald Wallace
New Places: Doc Rivers (Head coach, Clippers); Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White (Brooklyn); Shavlik Randolph, Terrence Williams, and Kris Joseph (Waived); Fab Melo
Draft: Kelly Olynyk (via Dallas)
Whether or not Danny Ainge will admit it, this summer marks the end of an era for the Celtics. It’s hard to sell a rebuild to any fanbase, especially be the Celtics’, but if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and looks like a duck…it probably is a duck. So, I understand why Ainge or anyone in Boston is trying to avoid publicly calling it one. But it’s pretty obvious, and you can’t fault them for looking to the future at this point.
Gone are championship team fixtures Pierce and Garnett, and Terry as well. In come Humphries (The face of the 2013-’14 Celtics for half a season?), Brooks, Bogans, and Wallace’s bloated contract. More evidence of a rebuild: Boston received up to four 1st round picks in the Pierce/Garnett deal from Brooklyn in 2014, 2016 and 2018, with the option to swap picks in 2017.
The Celtics also made a great move toward the future in acquiring Gonzaga big man Kelly Olynyk on draft. Terrific in the half-court, Olynyk works well in the pick ‘n roll, which should make Rajon Rondo happy when he returns. He also shot 70 percent at the rim during his senior season in college which, if that ability translates, should make everyone happy. Paired with Humphries’ ability to rebound (when healthy), the Celtics could potentially have a nice frontcourt pairing by season’s end.
Boston’s offseason has set them up well for the future. Aside from the picks, they will have some cap flexibility down the road. Humphries’ contract comes off of the books after this season; the last two years of Bogans’ deal are unguaranteed, saving them up to $10 million after this season; and with the expiring contract of Brandon Bass and Brooks’ team option after 2015, the Celtics could have an extra $7 million for Rajon Rondo as he will be simultaneously due for a new extension then as well.
It may not be a fun prospect to face being just five years removed from raising a championship banner, but the Celtics will likely be able to return to contention sooner than if they chose not rebuild and decided to make another run for the sixth seed instead. They’ll have Rondo, Avery Bradley, and some other decent pieces, but they will be terrible. Yet, if you’re going to be terrible you may as well do it just in time for the revered 2014 draft. Sometimes rebuilding isn’t so bad.
Sometimes I write about things other than basketball. It’s fiction; mostly short stories. That’s a relative secret I keep close to the vest, only mentioning my creative dreams to family and close friends.
It’s extremely hard for me. Five hundred words of fiction amounts to four times that much basketball material in terms hours and minutes, dissatisfaction and painstaking process. And worse, I often doubt whether the stories are any good, but there’s no way to know for sure – I’m the only one allowed to read them.
There’s no reason for anyone to care about any of this but me. The odds that I’m our next great story-teller are far, far longer than the odds I ever make a sustainable living out of writing at all, and the latter sometimes seem further from future reality than ever. I’m not an author, I know it and that’s fine. I’ll keep writing too familiar tales of male post-adolescence anyway.
But I won’t show it to anybody. That’s a magnifying glass to the depths of me that I’m barely comfortable squinting through; there’s no chance in hell I give anyone else the opportunity to see what’s down there.
That’s embarrassingly dramatic but it’s the way I feel. Writers are more arrogant and self-aggrandizing than even most assume. It’s why I mostly avoid first-person in my blog posts. I’m not now; is it obvious enough?
I’m no basketball sage. I played highly competitive ball year-round until I was no longer good enough, then a few years of varsity in high school. Not unlike many, many half-athletic kids that stopped growing at fourteen, probably. I watched and thought the game more than most I knew, too, but that accounts for mostly nothing.
I’m pretty much just like anyone else that likes basketball, can form a coherent sentence or two and has a lot of time on his hands. Just a blogger, basically. If there is a difference between me and the rest of us, though, it’s this: I’m wholly and unapologetically objective with regard to analysis. It’s a stupid point of pride for me, but it’s always there.
I grew up without a team to root for. I prefer the style of some to others and generally cheer for what I consider ‘winning’ basketball from either side. I have favorite players, but that’s more about method than anything else, too. Essentially, I like the teams and players that emphasize process and play the way I would if I could: enthusiastically, selflessly and intelligently. That’s it.
There’s one constant exception, and he’s the swinging pendulum between either side of this suddenly rambling internal – well, external now, I guess – conversation.
It’s not that I do and keep it to myself; I’ve literally never written about him. It’s not by accident, either.
As KG and the hapless Celtics were on the brink of playoff elimination in April, I tried to change that. His inspired, hardly surprising play and the increasingly cloudy skies of his NBA future deserved it. If I don’t write about KG now, will I get another chance?
This is the progress I made before giving up:
We cling to innocence.
Age doesn’t change that, either. Our superficial selves shroud it from plain-view as we get older, eschewing outward sense of the unknown in favor of partially feigned knowledge and certainty. Adults are too socially aware to openly pontificate on subconscious thoughts of imagination, impracticality and sheer belief without reason. It’s a balancing act that plays out internally, how to weigh our perpetual childish enthusiasm against the way society dictates our actions and vice versa. And as dispiriting as it is to admit, the scale normally tips to the latter by our very choosing.
I’m projecting my own demoralizing reality, of course. There’s no information gleaned from a survey or focus group that confirm these sentiments, so I should clarify they’re simple assertions. But it’s heartening to assume there are others out there like me, that this sudden crisis of NBA conscience is easily identifiable by those with similar ambitions and who believe similar means are necessary to achieve them.
And should I ever do so, I’ll know my chosen path of resistance was worth it. But that doesn’t make this time lost any easier to comprehend or come to terms with.
I don’t know, either. If fiction is a highly intensified lens to my soul, then what does that make this?
The diction is histrionic and the syntax is contrived, but the emotion conveyed is all too real. I knew it was a road to nowhere when after several hundred words I’d yet to mention anything relating to basketball or Garnett at all. Hardwood Paroxysm, after all, is not an alternative to the diary I don’t have or even my stream of conflicted twenty-something consciousness. It’s about the NBA.
So I dropped it, saved the excerpt among my cavalcade of dying ideas stored in Google Docs and left it to rot for six weeks. It didn’t cross my mind again until this past weekend, when talks of a trade sending KG and Doc Rivers to the Clippers reached their fever pitch.
I don’t know if the trade will happen. On a very thin surface, it seems Boston could do better than DeAndre Jordan, cap flexibility and a couple late first-round picks for sacrificing the franchise as we’ve known it since 2007. But there’s no foolproof way to rebuild a broken roster, and perhaps the notoriously cutthroat Danny Ainge wants his guys – including Paul Pierce, assuming an eventual buyout should the deal be completed – to ride off into the basketball sunset together.
But for once, this isn’t a time for me to analyze. It just feels like a time to be thankful that I’ll have another opportunity to appreciate my favorite player’s relevance on a broad NBA scale before he hangs them up.
I want to be KG’s fan; I’ve missed out on that aspect of his twilight in lieu of unbiased and timely assessment over the last couple years, once I realized I might take basketball writing seriously. Nobody likes a homer, I thought. And it’s always hardest to write the things you really, really care about – if irrationally; he’s a goddamn athlete – and identify with, anyway.
So I want KG in a Clippers uniform, I want Doc roaming the sidelines, and I want Pierce, Paul and Griffin to be there, too. If this postseason’s taught us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as a surefire championship contender. A team’s fortunes can change in the blink of an eye; injuries suck. But this hypothetical Clippers group has the on-paper makings of a team capable of playing into June.
And when I really think about it, that’s all I want most: more time. More time to make up for that which I lost. More time to appreciate his seemingly subtle superstar influence. More time to laugh at his post-game interviews. More time to think he’s better than he actually is. More time to be KG’s fan.
I may not write about him, and even if I do it surely won’t be published. It would take too long because I care too much, and most importantly, it might not be too good, either. But I want a chance to do so on the level KG deserves regardless, talking culture-change, playoff-seeding and championship aspirations; not his farewell tour on the suddenly sorry Celtics, or worse, a career retrospective before I knew it was over.
It’s the summer of 2011 and the Boston Celtics are at IKEA. Marquis Daniels is futzing with the coffee maker. Greg Stiemsma just set a hard screen on the Parisian floor lamp. Paul Pierce isn’t shaving over by the mirror. Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers look at their spare parts assemblage. “Here,” Ainge says. “I just bought these guys for next year. Put it together, okay? Make sure it doesn’t collapse on Red’s legacy.” These Boston Celtics somehow snuck into the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and nearly the NBA Finals. But this is the franchise’s mythic ethos – it’s not just the ratty championship banners. That, no matter how scattered and disjointed things appeared to be for them, you know they could win. It’s the looming threat of your pending victimization.
These 2012-2013 Boston Celtics are either fiercely loyal or brutally overmatched. Either way they’re lurking, and it’s making everyone uncomfortable. No one wants to face Boston. Even as the No. 7 seed, even without Rajon Rondo, even without Ray Allen. Even though they’ve been scotch-taped and paper-clipped and patched up to hide rusting edges. Every player to leave the team means another layer of crazy glue. Because more than that one championship in 2008 and a bunch of near misses in the ensuing seasons, the Big Three era Boston Celtics are a mentality that any team can be out-basketballed with just the right parts coaching and will and scheme and chest-puffing. It isn’t so much that you can’t count them out so much as you can always count them in. Striking range has no boundary.
As the playoffs roll in, it will be impossible to accommodate any kind of Celtics basketball discussion without at least mentioning Monday’s horrifying events and somewhat veering into a dialogue of sports’ place in the grander scheme of things. They’re somewhere – this, we know, and probably agree upon. But it ends there. There are jersey-wearing people yelling in bars and tattoos and dolts and indifference and other and varying levels of hysteria. Sports mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people and it’s always and definitely impossible to cramp these perspectives under a single banner. But if only to serve as a reprieve from the Marathon explosions, the Boston Celtics can and probably should be a symbol for falling into something bigger and happier. Not that the Larry O’Brien trophy is either doctor or therapist; Paul Pierce squirming towards the paint in slow motion won’t erase the devastation. But there’s something to be said for re-gathering and momentarily walking into distraction.
It’s impossible and unfair for me to speculate on the recovery mechanisms for Bostonians; I’m a New Yorker and only absorbed the horror through news-breaking tweets and solemn television broadcasters and graphic photos on the internet. But I’ll dare to say that most of us will heal, and probably quicker than we’d like to think. When the Celtics play the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, moments of silence won’t stop Kevin Garnett and Carmelo Anthony from beefing and spewing pointed and not safe for work words. Someone’s going to foul someone else a bit too hard. Gesturing won’t be sympathetic. And this is a good thing. Any tempered or cautious tip-toeing around the basketball will only cheapen however you might choose to purpose it. Playoff basketball is only playoff basketball if it’s playoff basketball.
Still, when it comes to the Celtics, we’re left with scattered basketball pieces grafted onto two minutes-limited veterans. The Boston Celtics, as a whole, are not that good at basketball, or at least as good as they once were. And so despite their impending status as an escapist or redemptive beacon, this team is exactly that already. A first round series victory over New York will be nothing short of miraculous. A spot in the conference finals will pretty much send the entire internet into a riotous frenzy of told-you-so’s and crying LeBron James GIFs. Someone might as well light a match to Twitter should they win the NBA title. Yet no matter how longshot the Celtics appear to be, they’re never that. They’re a shot. A maybe. They’re the but (though, this season, sometimes butt) of every playoff conversation.
Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on the Celtics last second win over the Cavaliers.
Since Rajon Rondo went down with a torn ACL, Paul Pierce has assumed the distributing role while continuing to be a viable scoring option. He recorded eight dimes and seven made baskets against Cleveland, increasing his percentage of games with at least as many AST as FGM to 59.3% since the Rondo injury. While he has made a strong effort to get his teammates involved, he has still managed to average over 15 points in those games. His ability to score opens up driving lanes for Jeff Green and mid range jump shots for Brandon Bass, two players who have emerged since Boston lost their floor general. In fact, they have scored at least 99 points in a winning effort more time (12) in less games (33) played without Rondo than they did with him (11 in 38). The Celtics are much more talented with Rondo in the lineup, but the playmaking ability combined with the scoring capabilities of Pierce has made them a more efficient team since January 25th.
Brandon Bass missed only his second free throw of the month and his first misfire in 12 games (335 minutes played). Oddly enough, the Celtics are 6-2 since January 17th when Bass misses at least one free throw but have lost three games in the past eight days when he makes all of his attempts (minimum one attempt). With Kevin Garnett’s health issues, the emergence of Bass has come at the most opportune of times. In March, Bass has been remarkably efficient, averaging 1.37 points per FGA (Garnett is averaging 1.18 points per FGA this season). The Celtics are a team no one wants to play this year, but I contend that the end of the KG/Pierce era will not signify the end of the Celtics competitive teams. Rondo (27 years old) and Avery Bradley (22) can hold their own against any backcourt and Jordan Crawford (24) provides a strong scoring punch. In the front court, Jeff Green (26) and Bass (27) have versatile styles that are tough to matchup against. They aren’t an old basketball team, it is simply the household names that are aging. The names won’t be the same, but the win totals aren’t going to change much as the Celtics roster turns over.
Each quarter in this game was decided by at least five points. The Celtics won the first and fourth quarter by a total of 13 points (they are outscored by an average of 0.2 points in those two quarters) while the Cavs won the second and third quart by a total of 12 points (they are outscored by an average of 2.2 points in those two quarters). The strong late game performance by Boston is a welcomed site, as they are currently set up for a date with the Knicks in the postseason (the NBA’s second best fourth quarter team in terms of point differential). The subtraction of Rondo helps a bit in this category as well, taking a FT liability out of the game in favor of a player like Jason Terry (86%), Courtney Lee (85%), or Jordan Crawford (79%).
For his career, Daniel Gibson averages 4.2 points per assist, but against the Celtics since December of 2010, Gibson has the exact same number of assists as points. Gibson’s career trajectory has been trending downward ever since LeBron James left town. His percentage of games started, three point percentage, free throw percentage, points, and assists have decreased every single season since The Decision. Don’t be surprised if Gibson, as a unrestricted free agent, isn’t a Cavalier next season, as they’ve got five guards that are his age or younger (Kyrie Irving, Wayne Ellington, Dion Waiters, CJ Miles, and Shaun Livingston) that they seem to like more.
Tristan Thompson, however, is a player that is in the future plans of Cleveland. The 22 year old undersized forward grabbed nine rebounds, his 19th straight game with at least seven rebounds. He has produced seven double doubles over that stretch. The numbers are nice, but the fact that three of his double doubles this month have come against strong teams in the paint (Pacers, Grizzlies, and Jazz) is encouraging. He isn’t the ideal size for a NBA PF (227 pounds), but he is good around the basket and has a nose for the basketball. His statistics are up across the board from his rookie campaign, a trend that should continue as the young Cavs continue to improve.
Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on the Mavericks win over the Pistons.
Jae Crowder matched a career high by handing out five assists as he is possibly carving a niche for himself as more of a big guard than a small forward. Already in March Crowder has two zero rebound games, something he didn’t do once in all of February. He has also had four consecutive games in which his assist total at least matches his rebound total, setting a career high for such games in a month. His playing time figures to fluctuate as the Mavericks have been outscored when he is on the court in three of their last four wins (including a -16 point difference against Detroit).
OJ Mayo is generally thought of a pure scorer, but until last night, his best scoring nights included a handful of assists. By scoring 20+ points and dishing out only three assists, Mayo ruined a nearly three month long streak of handing out more than three assists in every game in which he scored 20+ points. The explosive shooting guard has already recorded a season high in assists (268), but he is also scoring at the most efficient rate of his career. At 25 years old, the free-agent to be has got to be enticing to teams with franchise point guards who are looking for a back-court mate (76ers, Cavaliers, and to some extent the Wizards). Here’s a look at Mayo’s improvement in terms of shooting percentage and points per shot (PPS).
Vince Carter managed to tally seven rebounds against the Pistons without recording a single assist. He had gone 144 straight regular season games sense the last time he had as many as seven rebounds with no assists. It has been 536 regular season games sense he had more than seven rebounds but no assists. The rebounds these days are grabbed below the rim, but Carter has shown to be graceful when it comes to aging. He is 36 years old, but unlike some great players, he has adapted his game to his physical limitations, making him capable of helping a playoff team for the next season or two.
Jose Calderon may have changed jerseys this year, but his game has not transformed a bit. He registered his seventh game this season with at least seven assists and no turnovers, and has done so in 21.9% of his last 32 games. That is more often than LeBron James drops double digits dimes (18.3%) or Kevin Durant takes 22+ shots from the field (21.0%). His ability to create for his teammates has allowed Brandon Knight to establish himself as a scoring two guard that can pass when needed as opposed to an offense initiating point guard who was asked to keep his teammates involved. The Pistons are full of youth and potential, making Calderon the perfect man to run the show.
Kevin Garnett had choice words for Charlie Villanueva back in the day, and while I trust KG’s basketball intelligence, I highly doubt he used the word “marksman” when describing the Pistons big man. But the eighth year pro out of UConn has earned that title this year, connecting on multiple trey’s in 45.3% of his games this year despite averaging only 16.9 minutes. Kobe Bryant, who averages nearly 11 more points than Villanueva does minutes this season, makes two or more three pointers every other game. Villanueva is currently averaging about three more points per 48 minutes than another 6’11” shooter that played for Detroit (Rasheed Wallace) who always got considerably more press. He’s got one season left on his current deal and he should find himself on a contender before long.
Will Bynum plays on the same team as Calderon, but that is about the only comparison to be drawn. Bynum passed the ball to the wrong team four more times, giving him 54 turnovers in 44 days (not 44 games, 44 days) despite playing only 20.4 minutes per game. For reference, Ty Lawson has turned the ball over 43 times in that same time frame while averaging 36.9 minutes. On a team full of young guards (three that are 26 years of age or younger), Bynum may very well find himself looking for work in the near future.
In a game featuring two teams that will combine for 93-100 losses, I find it interesting that they have pieces that would be of interest to contending teams. Role players are difficult to find, and I believe both of these teams have assets that could be dealt in order to help them accelerate their rebuilding phrase. That being said, f the Mavericks think they can get another few solid years from Nowitzki, would it be unreasonable for them to bring in Calderon next season? They don’t seem to have a ton of faith in Darren Collison, and if Dallas is working in a small frame in trying to build a winner around Nowitzki, Calderon’s age shouldn’t be an issue. Neither one of these teams is headed to the playoffs this season, but who do you like to make a playoff run first: the very young Pistons or the aging Mavericks? Tweet me @unSOPable23 your responses, I’m curious what the public thinks.
Once there was a boy and girl
Boy said, “I love you so”
Girl said, “I’ll never leave you”
They grew older and left each other
‘Cause that’s the way love goes
That’s the way love goes
We know Kevin Garnett’s back story and history. He had a lengthy stay in Minnesota as a Timberwolf. 12 years in fact. Minnesota was a perennial playoff team that only once advanced beyond the first round. Following that one advancement the Wolves fell down into an abyss of suffering and losing that wore on the loyal KG.
But hey, that’s the way basketball goes.
Moving on to Boston Garnett found his way on a champion and, amazingly, 6 years later the Celtics are still chugging along as a respectable inexplicable basketball team. In 2007 it was believed the Big Three Era of KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen would sustain for 3 maybe 4 years. The rise of Rajon Rondo prolonged the Era but 6 years is more mileage than ever could have been dreamed.
Well, now Rondo is out for the year, but Boston keeps winning because KG keeps on playing like an all-star. Approaching 37 years on this earth, Garnett may not be what he once was back in Minnesota in terms of absolute all-around domination. However, he can still alter a game and even control it for significant stretches.
Years from now I doubt we truly appreciate how magnificent his 15 points and 7 rebounds a game have been this season.
It reminds me of the vocal group that provided the opening notes of this article. The Spinners were a great group, but toiled fruitless for mos the 1960s. Then, like Garnett, they had one awesome blossoming that seemed to pave the road for greater success. But just like Garnett, their 1970 single “It’s A Shame” didn’t pave the road for greater success.
It took a move from Motown Records to Atlantic Records and magically the Spinners went on a roll of massive hits from “I’ll Be Around” to “Then Came You” to “The Rubber Band Man”. Then came a devastating dry spell, like KG’s injury, but the Spinners rose from the grave and proved that even on their last legs they could put out a great tune.
“Working My Way Back to You” and “Cupid” in 1980 were their final spectacular salvos. Years from their heyday, though, the Spinners still aren’t quite appreciated.
Garnett’s 2013 season and his time as a transformed center are proving that his last legs are still more valuable than most in the NBA. Don’t be surprised if he puts on another all-star level campaign next season. Stranger things have happened… like grown men dancing with rubber bands on stage…
In the fourteen days since the gong was rung on official free agency, player movement has been considerable and constant. Among the new multi-year contracts inked in the past two weeks, nine have gone to players who will be over the age of 35 by the time next season begins. This includes Jason Terry, Grant Hill, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Steve Nash, Ray Allen and Tim Duncan. Two others, Antawn Jamison and Chauncey Billups have agreed to one year contracts. Nazr Mohammed is also reportedly close to signing with the Bulls, and a handful of others in that age bracket, like Raja Bell, are still available and could feasibly receive multi-year deals as well.
Those players I’ve mentioned above have, for the most part, been very productive for an extended period of time. In the context of professional basketball, they’re also all eligible for the senior citizen’s discount. I’ll admit, I find it somewhat confusing to hear the Celtics have signed Terry to a three-year deal, given that it was 16 years ago that I watched him win a National Championship with the Arizona Wildcats. Focusing just on career production, the contracts Terry and his cohorts have received this summer seem perfectly reasonable. But when you consider their age and injury histories, some of the logic and reason seems to leak out of those multi-year deals.
However, there is a commonly held idea which is bringing comfort to fans in many NBA cities. That idea, a favorite talking point of Bill Simmons, is that advancements in nutrition and physical training are allowing players to extend the productive segments of their careers in a way they never have before. Three of the players Simmons mentions most often – Duncan, Nash, Garnett – are all in that group that received multi-year extensions this summer.
That group of over-35 players has obviously continued to produce and win games, or they simply wouldn’t have had multi-year offers available to them. But is this phenomenon of older stars extending their careers and maintaining productivity truly something new? Are older players really more productive than they have been in the past?
On an individual basis, it turns out that new ground is not being broken. I used Win Shares as a measure of productivity and looked at the best individual seasons from the last 30 years, for players over the age of 35. Just 10 of the top 40 individual seasons occurred during the last decade. The only individual season from the last decade to makes the top 10 was Karl Malone’s 11.1 Win Shares in 2002-2003, at age 39.
This is also not a case where the heroic efforts of a few have skewed the sample in favor of the past. Malone, David Robinson, John Stockton, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Artis Gilmore, Detlef Schrempf, Reggie Miller, Robert Parish, Dikembe Mutombo, Moses Malone, Dennis Rodman, Sam Perkins, Arvydas Sabonis, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Alex English, Bob Lanier, Horace Grant, Jeff Hornacek, Hakeem Olajuwon, Anthony Mason, Dale Ellis and Dan Issel all had seasons over the age of 35 where they produced at least 6.0 Win Shares. All of those seasons occurred in the first two-thirds of our 30 year sample. To put that level of production in context, in 2010-2011, 6.0 Win Shares would have placed a player into, roughly, the top 15% of NBA players in terms of productivity.
Although many over-35 players have had incredibly productive seasons in the past, how has that age bracket fared as a group, historically and over the past few seasons? Sticking with Win Shares as a measure of productivity, I calculated the total Win Shares produced by players over the age of 35, in each of the last 30 NBA seasons. The totals for both strike-shortened seasons are 82 game projections based on the games that were actually played.
While things have certainly been trending upward over the past few seasons, the over-35s are haven’t even approached the total productivity of the six year stretch they had from 1997 to 2003. That era saw the career twilights of Malone, Stockton, Robinson, Miller, Drexler, Barkley and Olajuwon; all Hall of Famers who remained incredibly productive as they aged.
Adding another layer of information we can to look at how many over-35 players it took to produce those incredible Win Share totals.
The spike in Win Shares, both recently and during the 97-03 stretch, was also accompanied by an increase in the number over-35 players in the league. The number of over-35 players has been trending upward in each of the last three seasons but still rests below the apex of that previous stretch. The height of success for older players in the NBA, both in the number of roster spots they held and the number of wins they produced occurred almost 15 years ago. It’s also interesting that the number of older players steadily declined, along with overall productivity, for an eight year span from 2001 to 2009. This would seem to be the time period that most of those new advances in the science of athletic performance would have been making their way into the world of professional basketball.
The next step is to look at the average Win Shares produced by those players. This average is now graphed on the second vertical axis.
The average line is somewhat misleading. The peak of this graph came in the early 80s when there were just a handful of players over-35, one of whom was the single-handed average-skewer, Kareem Abdul-Jabar. The average Win Shares per season of players over-35 had a resurgence in the late 2000s roughly equal to the 97-03 time period, but it has actually fallen each of the last two seasons.
One more measure to look at for further clarification is Variance. This is a measures of the variation in Win Shares, each season, from the least productive player to the most productive player. The higher the variance, the bigger the difference was between best and worst. This is also graphed on the secondary axis.
There is one curiosity I’d like to point out. In no way do I mean this as an accusation, but I found it incredibly interesting that the height of productivity among older players in the NBA, matches up almost precisely with the height of steroid use in Major League Baseball. As I mentioned above that time span also saw the simultaneous aging of numerous Hall of Famers. Nevertheless, there is something eerie about the symmetry. Unfortunately, we may never know how that piece fits into this puzzle.
Although the over-35 players of the last few seasons have not been nearly as productive overall as previous groups, there is definitely an interesting pattern at work which may reveal some of the impacts those advances in nutrition and physical training have had. The number of over-35 players has been increasing over the four seasons, although their average productivity has remained somewhat flat. The variance has also, essentially, been flat or declining the past four seasons. The pattern then is a move to the middle. A mostly flat trend in the average, coupled with a decline in variance means the average is being carried by players in the middle range of productivity. There are fewer terrific players, but fewer awful ones as well. The fact that there are increasingly more players in that age bracket means we are seeing more and more moderately productive players extending their careers.
There is certainly a bubble of Hall of Fame quality players continuing to produce at terrific levels. However, this has happened before. Fifteen years ago it happened because a cluster of supremely talented players were moving through the chronology of their careers at the same time. The incredible longevity of Duncan, Nash and Garnett may have as much to do with their individual greatness as it does with technological advancements that allow them to take better care of their bodies. However, the moderately successful longevity of players like Jason Terry, Nazr Mohammed, Vince Carter, Antonio McDyess, Brad Miller and Marcus Camby may be where we are seeing the true effects of modern science.
The advancements in nutrition and physical training are all about preventing the erosion of skills. Players like Nash, Duncan and Garnett, who are supremely talented in multiple aspects of the game and play with a deep understanding of the nuances of basketball, will be able to survive and thrive even as some of their skills degrade. However, stopping that skill erosion for a player like Terry who really only does on or two things on the court, may be the difference between being in the league or sitting on their couch at home. The players who have less to lose seem to be benefiting more from holding on to what they have.
The season is over for the Boston Celtics. It was over when Miami’s Big 3 decided to make its triumphant return just as the Celtics’ legs (and miracles) began to wear out. It was over when the team had a 15-17 record heading into the All-Star break and threatened to miss the playoffs entirely. The season was over before it even began when the team found out Jeff Green would miss the entirety of the 2011-12 season due to an aortic aneurysm, or when the Celtics lost convincingly to the Heat in the second round of last year’s playoffs. Life hasn’t been easy for the Celtics. Cheating death—or cheating the many deaths since their 2008 title in this case—isn’t easy. It’s a low-down dirty shame, life is. The Celtics have been singing the blues for years now, but it was never as apparent as this season, and there was no iteration of this era’s Celtics that have stood as bare.
Albert Murray has written at length about the blues as a musical form and as a fundamental metaphor for the human experience. While the blues is rooted in African American struggle, its message, Murray suggests, is about heroic action and fairy tales; universal concepts. Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison stated that, “as a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” Singing the blues is affirming the existence of a problem and not shying away from it. Murray’s basis for the blues idiom is the ability to be the hero who finds ways to deal with a dragon that refuses to die, to continually readjust to the entropy of life.
All season, the Celtics tempted entropy. Their offense (frequently referred to as “random”) encircled it, as if to be charmed by it. It would certainly explain Rajon Rondo’s almost-expected botched layup attempts. Often, games against the Celtics are determined by gamesmanship, forcing opponents to wade in the same mire the Celtics inhabited. The team’s old legs were able to maintain an elite defense, but the offense became increasingly erratic. Rondo’s brilliant passes—relatively few and far between—were a necessary respite from entire quarters of forced jump shots. But if struggle results from the constant and random changing of events, then the Celtics repurposed struggle as a tool of survival. They combated both the opposing team and their own internal misfortunes by becoming one with the nature of randomness itself. Fighting fire with fire isn’t normally a key to success, but it perplexes and frustrates opponents, opening a window for improbability to crawl in.
Despite having four franchise cornerstones the Celtics place a great deal of weight in the unlikely performances from their marginal players: a defensive shutdown from Keyon Dooling, an offensive explosion from Brandon Bass, an entire game from Mickael Pietrus devoid of boneheaded plays. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce don’t take over games like they used to. Their importance is seen throughout the game, neutralizing and negating the advances of the opponent, creating situations where pawns become essential. It was the recipe for some of the most dumbfounding Celtics victories this season, victories that affirmed the team’s faith and spirit in the face of adversity.
The Celtics transcended statistical norms and boggled the minds of those looking to divert the discourse away from the heroic narrative. But the Celtics and narrative are inseparable, partially because the Celtics play a game metrics can’t fully quantify. Statistical norms are set up as categorical structures that aim to explain patterns. When they no longer explain what they’re supposed to explain, the structures are revised or scrapped, and that process repeats. The poetic narrative, as Murray suggests, doesn’t need to be revised. It’s fluid, taking into account the inherent randomness of life and acknowledging it rather than disposing of the outlying data. The Celtics are discussed in myths and symbols because it’s what makes the most sense.
Beyond the harrowing lyrics, the blues is celebration music. Despite all the troubles that befall a bluesman, there are still reasons to rejoice, to stay alive. Broadly speaking, these Celtics may be thought of in the future as the progenitors of the modern “Big 3” era, but their five-year run was truly defined by re-adaptation and finding the humor of struggle. Rondo’s ritualistic unorthodoxy after every won tip-off sets a tone for the rest of the game. As grueling as the Celtics’ double-edged-sword style of play can be, Rondo’s antics are a reminder of the inherent joys of basketball. The reality of key injuries and the uphill battle against age isn’t exactly life-affirming, but the opportunities within the game to rise above nature’s limitations are. Dwelling on the absurd injustices of nature is missing the point of the blues altogether. Life is random and absurd. The reaction to it all—in song, dance, laughter—is the tool for survival. In one of his many published essays, Ellison suggested that the allure of the blues is “that they at once express both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit.” The Celtics came close. But dealing with the blues is a daily affair, and you can’t win them all.
Don’t weep for these Celtics. Their era may be nearing an unavoidable death, but life goes on. Indeed, if anything, that was their essential message.
Basketball has always been a trigger for nostalgia for me. Indeed, the memories and joys of watching the NBA as a kid are why I’ve come back year after year to this sport. It’s not so much a wistful reminder of how things will never be how they were, but a welcomed stability. I got older, life got more difficult, and mistakes had consequences. Watching basketball meant keeping a piece of my childhood purity alive, despite growing up into a world I can barely see myself functioning in. I can live with blown calls, and I can live with improbability. None of it is as shocking or as upsetting as real life can be.
What makes these conference finals series interesting is how carefully constructed (completely coincidental) the juxtaposition between new and old is. I’ve watched Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan since I was 5 and I’ve lionized their accomplishments and abilities with my broad, blurred understanding of what playing basketball meant. I’ve watched LeBron James and Kevin Durant since the moment basketball made sense to me. Their worlds are converging just as my world is beginning to expand. These last two decades of basketball are my Toy Story trilogy.
Last night’s Celtics victory was the type of performance that time was supposed to take away from the group of haggard veterans. The Celtics are a game away from the NBA Finals—what would be their third trip in five years—after a 15-17 record and a five-game losing streak heading into the All-Star break. The Celtics were left for dead then, yet here they are. Even after several grueling series, testing the mettle/eyes of basketball fans everywhere, they’re one step away from the Finals. It’s due in large part to Kevin Garnett. He’s been brilliant for much of the postseason, finding ways to sidestep his age and play some of the best basketball since he arrived in Boston.
His entire playoff run is worth noting, but it’s easier to recall the moments that crystallize the entire process; moments that embed themselves within a web of collected memories.
This was one of those moments for me. At 36, Garnett plants both of his feet, and explodes for a dunk as undeniable as any he’s thrown down in six years. In those two seconds of flight, there’s nothing say about our doubts or the sense of inevitability that we’ve tacked on to the Celtics this season; just the timelessness of a particularly vicious dunk from a man who shouldn’t be able to get up that quickly. That timelessness sticks with me. For that fleeting instance, Kevin Garnett’s career came full circle, bounding toward the rim like he did as a “Kid.” One single play can blur the passage of time, as if to show that youth doesn’t deteriorate over time, it only lies dormant.
There’s the shot of nostalgia. As unseemly as this turn of events has been, I can live with the Celtics’ ugly basketball. I can live with a team, stripped down to its skeletal core, potentially making it all the way to the NBA’s grandest stage seemingly off of pride and fumes. Because it’s worth it to get a glimpse of these fading careers come full circle. There has been a great deal of change since 1996, but Garnett is still able to land a forearm shove to the face of time ferocious dunk when he needs to. There’s something special about that. Doc Rivers said in last night’s postgame presser that Garnett has a calming presence on the team, and I certainly understand why. Consistency, constancy, is calming.
We’re a little worried about this lockout. We want basketball. But in case we don’t get basketball, we’re going to give ourselves a season.
The following is a work of fiction and no one was harmed in the writing of this story. These works will be based on how we think the 2011-12 season would play out if the lockout ended and the NBA is able to play all 82 games. Every other week, we will have a fictional work until the lockout is over. This is the first. The heart believes it will be a singular work and the NBA will be back in business soon. The head, sadly, realizes that it may not be the case.
BOSTON, June 1, 2012 — Ray Allen sat at his locker with a thin towel draped over his shoulders and another wrapped tight around his still-slim waist, a waist that hasn’t gained an inch over Allen’s professional career. His feet were in Jordan brand sandals, his toes separated by pieces of foam cut to fit. Allen said he learned the trick early in his career from a vet on his first team, the Milwaukee Bucks. The foam prevented the toes from sliding and smashing into the toecap and helped minimize bruising and torn toenails. Combine that with regular pedicures the he received to prevent ingrown toenails and Allen’s feet — the base from which he made an all-time NBA record of 2,703 three-pointers — looked as if they could carry him for another 16 seasons.
The scoresheet from the Celtics’ epic 99-98 Game 7 overtime loss to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals lay between Allen’s pristine feet. The rest of him looked spent. He had just played 51 of the game’s 53 minutes. If he saw his line, it read like this:
The 39 points were the most he scored all season, regular or post. The 51 minutes were easily the most. Allen, a free agent, had no reason to hang his head in what had been his best game of this unusual season.
Yet there it hung and his shoulders sagged. Allen’s elbows rested on his knees and his fingers dangled like branches from a weeping willow. The Celtics locker room was quiet and reporters, who had just been informed that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce would be the only Celtics to go to the podium, milled about waiting for that precious eye contact from a player, a signal that he was ready to open up or spout cliches.
Most of the reporters had turned away from Allen. They knew that he never spoke to them just after the locker room opened. In fact, it was rare to see Allen there at that time at all. By the time reporters entered after the cooling off period, Allen was gone to treatment, then the showers. If the local scribes did catch a glimpse of him, it was fleeting, like an apparition. When Allen did emerge from the players’ sanctuary, he strode to his locker in a bespoke suit, put a couple things down, usually the book he was reading and a DVD of the Celtics’ next opponent, and then turned around to face the media.
But in the silence that suffocates a space after a devastating defeat, there was what sounded like a sharp sob coming from the direction of Allen’s locker. Then another. Any murmuring between reporters ceased and their heads turned in Allen’s direction. Allen’s shoulders heaved once, then again. He pinched the bridge of his nose with his right hand and made a small circular motion. There was another sharp sound. The seasoned Boston scribes stood in stunned silence. None of them had ever seen this.
If Allen were upset, it would be understandable. It was the worst season of his 16 year, soon-to-be Hall of Fame career. He missed 41 games after the Pacers’ Danny Granger tripped trailing Allen on a screen and rolled into Allen’s right knee in a game on Jan. 6. Allen feverishly worked his way back from arthroscopic surgery. He was ready to return at the end of February, but suffered a setback as doctors had to go back in for a second surgery.
When Allen finally returned against Utah in late March, he came off the bench for the first time in his career. He couldn’t get his timing and his sturdy legs, which propelled him around picks and provided the springboard for the smoothest jumper in NBA history, were now shaky. So was Allen’s confidence.
“I’m working hard to get my rhythm back,” Allen told the Boston Globe in April. “My knee isn’t responding as I hoped it would. Your legs are so important to your shot.”
Throughout his career, Allen’s work ethic had been well chronicled, almost fetishized by the media. They noted how he arrived at the arena at the same time, ate at the same time and went through his pregame routine at the same time every game day. As a military brat, Allen knew routine as discipline and discipline as order. If there was order in his life, Allen knew success, built on a solid foundation of meticulous work, would follow. It did. He won a Big East tournament title at UConn, won a gold medal with Team USA in the 2000 Sydney games, made 10 All-Star appearances for three different franchises and played Jesus in a Spike Lee movie.
Then there was the crowning achievement in his career, the NBA title he helped the Celtics win in 2008. He had come close to the Finals with the Bucks in 2001 and nowhere near them with the Sonics. An alpha dog in Seattle, Allen subjugated his game to blend in with Pierce and Garnett. The result: the C’s 17th NBA title.
But as Allen struggled in his comeback, Yahoo! reported a Celtics source as saying they weren’t going to re-sign Allen, who wanted a two-year extension with the same player option he had when he re-signed for two seasons in 2010. The source noted Allen would be nearly 39 when the extension ended and that it would be in the C’s best interest to seek a younger option at two guard. Combined with the physical ailments, Allen’s world, which he had so diligently worked to put in order, was now out of whack. For the first time in his career, Allen was coming off the bench, a move Celtics coach Doc Rivers said was necessary to limit the guard’s minutes. Allen averaged 12.6 points per game and shot .332 from three-point range, both career lows for a shooter, who, if his jumper could sing, it would sound like Marvin Gaye.
Allen and that melodious jumper re-emerged in the postseason. He averaged 19.4 points in the first round against the franchise for whom he first played, the Bucks. Against Orlando in the second round, he shot a scintillating .435 from three-point range. In the East finals, Allen averaged 24.3 for the first six games running Dwyane Wade, who missed 26 games this year with shoulder problems, through a series of screens designed to bang Wade around.
Then came Game 7 and that overtime and those 39 points, the final three of which gave the C’s an 98-96 lead with 3.4 seconds left in OT. Allen was back. The Celtics were on the precipice of their third Finals appearance in five seasons before Mario Chalmers, the Heat’s fourth option, found himself open for a short-corner three right in front of the C’s bench. Swish.
And now, Allen sat at his locker after what was more than likely his last game as a Boston Celtic and he was â€¦ crying? Allen let go of his nose, stood and reached for something in his locker, his back to the reporters. When he turned to head to the showers, Allen instantly noted the sympathetic looks on the reporters’ faces and frowned.
“Hiccups,” Allen said in his flat baritone, his eyes dry and jaw set. “Pinch your nose, hold your breath, close your eyes tight and count to 20. Works every time.”
Now, some reporters looked incredulous.
“You all thought I was crying?” Allen said, neither his expression nor his tone changing. “You know me better than that.”
They did. They knew he’d be back in about 15 minutes, freshly showered, freshly dressed, prepared to answer questions for however long it took to ask them. The reporters would pepper him about the game (“Hell of a game. I thought we had it, we just got caught looking at LeBron and Wade.”), quiz him about his knee (“It’s a little sore, but I’m 37. Everything is sore.”) and query him about his future (“I’d love to be here. Celtics green is the best green I’ve worn in my career. It’s where I won a title. It’s important.”)
With that, Allen paused and pinched his fingers to his nose again. A reporter tried levity.
“You could say that,” Allen said. “This whole season has been one.”
He looked over the reporters as if to say, “anything else.” One reporter stepped forward to say good luck and thanks. Allen and the man exchanged pleasantries. Allen then grabbed his book — “Collapse” by Jared Diamond — and his coat. He started to walk out of the locker room with the confidence some mistook for arrogance.
“Yep,” Allen said to no one in particular, “a hiccup. Can’t go out like that.”
With that, Ray Allen, turned, smiled and was gone.