The Spurs had a roster whose top six players had an average age of 31 and had a rising superstar (Tim Duncan) who was just 22-years-old. They had a gregarious, defensive-minded coach in Popovich who was adored by his players.
As currently constituted, the Celtics have a roster with an average age of 31. Their point guard is 25-year-old and has risen to stardom in recent seasons (granted he's no Tim Duncan), and their gregarious, defensive-minded coach is adored by his players.
He goes on to emphasize that Rondo isn't expected to be Duncan (though I would argue that he's got as much talent as a 22 year old Duncan ...but I'm really, really biased).
Since we've got time, let's flush this out a little further. Assuming that there is a shortened season because of the lockout, can the Celtics capitalize in the same way the Spurs did?
In the 98-99 season, the Spurs actually started out pretty slowly. After the first month (where they played a jaw dropping 14 games) they were just 6-8. They caught fire in March though, losing just 2 (of 16!) games. They finished with 37 wins out of 50 and steamrolled through the playoffs losing just 2 games the whole time (once in the first round, once in the Finals). Talk about getting on a roll.
Why did they enjoy such success? Aside from just being the best team in the league, there were some things that helped a great deal that the Celtics can learn from. (stats via Basketball-Reference)
- As a veteran team the players had already established offseason routines that allowed them to stay in shape for the season.
- As a veteran team, they were able to focus on becoming an elite defensive team which feasted on the out-of-synch and out-of-breath teams across the NBA that were not nearly as well prepared.
- Duncan was in his 2nd full season playing alongside David Robinson in the latter part of his career.
- Despite the team's age, they were very injury-free all year. (Duncan, Avery Johnson and Sean Elliot all played every game and Robinson missed just one game. 10 players played a minimum of 45 games.)
- Pop used a deep rotation, with 11 guys averaging at least 12 minutes a game. Young Duncan averaged over 39 mpg but nobody else was over 33.
- It helps that their 2 best players were close to or over 7 feet tall.
So what can the Celtics take from this example? Let us go back to the bullet points from above.
- Nobody is worried about the Big 3. Ray is a workout nut, Pierce has been entering camp in phenomenal shape every year, and the only worry with KG is hoping he doesn't over-do it. In fact, the only guy I'd be concerned with is Big Baby and he's a free agent, so either he shapes up or he's someone else's problem.
- Elite defensive team, check. Core group back together for another run, check.
- Rondo is a certifiable star when fully healthy. He slumped a bit late in the season but I suspect a great deal of that was due to various injuries that he didn't tell anyone about. He's still setting the table for the Big 3 but the team goes as far as he'll take them.
- Health, ...there's the rub. Put the term "If fully healthy" in front of just about any goal, including the championship and there's no question in my mind that they can achieve it. The Big 3 were actually very injury free last year, but they didn't have much of a consistent supporting cast. Once again, that's Danny's challenge in the offseason.
- My first instinct is to say "give them each a game off a week" - especially if they have to play 15 games a month. You could rotate it with a different player each night or pick one night and punt the game to the reserves. The bench might even pick up an occasional win against the T-Wolves of the league. But I'm not a Hall of Fame coach and that wasn't what Pop did and it probably isn't what Doc would do. Instead, you can bank on skipped practices and tightly managed minutes for the starters and a deep bench (even if he isn't fully confident in it). This is where a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none like Jeff Green might really come in handy.
- We've still got Garnett (though he doesn't get into the paint as much as we'd like) and Jermaine O'Neal (though he's a shell of his former self) but beyond that, not so much. Ainge will be looking, once again, at centers in the free agent market but obviously none will have the impact that Duncan and Robinson did. We just have to hope that our 4 stars shine as bright as they ever have and get enough help down low from whoever is manning the paint.
There's a lot we don't know yet about this team and what kind of season (if any) we'l have next year but it is comforting knowing that there's a blueprint of success to follow if and when we get there.