The 2011-2012 Boston Celtics were far more than the sum of their parts. They were a team defined by sacrifice, by tough, gritty, hard-nosed, all-out play. People of all sorts who had watched the team since the time of Red and Russell proclaimed that this was one of their favorite Celtics teams ever. This team played with trust and love -- like a band of brothers, them against the world.
Keyon Dooling, an understated yet eloquent leader for the Cs this season, spoke to a level of chemistry and commitment on the team rarely seen in the NBA.
“This bunch of guys, it was a like a senior year of high school. It was a memorable, lifelong friendships, a lot of great moments. This team was very unique. We love each other, we care for each other and though we aren’t champions this year, we have hearts of champions, and that will always keep us connected.”
The 2011-2012 Celtics played with a sense of urgency, a palpable sense that this was their last chance to make their mark on the game they love so much -- at least, their last chance to do so together. Players and fans alike can look back on this season and say that they were a part of something great, even though it didn't end in a championship. In many respects, the 2011-2012 season for the Celtics was more remarkable and awe inspiring than the 2008 championship run, or the 2010 run that brought the team within a few minutes of winning another title.
If this truly is the end of the (new) Big 3, then this group left us all with the perfect impression of the character and style of the team at its best over the past five years. The Celtics have been a different team ever since Kevin Garnett came to Boston, and not just because he's an All-Time Great who elevated them to contender status the moment he stepped off the plane.
Paul Pierce explained after Game 6:
"Well, he's been everything for my career," said Pierce. "Just his locker room presence, his desire, his determination, his leadership. I've said it before, when Kevin first got here, he really changed the culture of everything we did around here -- from the practice habits to on the court, just the discipline. He made everybody accountable, from the ball boys to the chefs to the guy who flew the plane. Everybody was accountable. It was tremendous to just have him around. The culture he brought -- it would be great for me to end my career with Kevin."
The core values that Garnett has embodied his entire career, and the force of his personality -- whether his sober, soft-spoken off-court persona or his seven-foot-beserker on-court persona -- was an aura that enveloped his teammates, changing them for the better, or isolating them from the rest, singling them out as incompatible. Garnett brought with him a focus on accountability, intensity, devotion, loyalty, and team success over individual success. When the Big 3 came together, the team as a whole adopted "Ubuntu" as their slogan. Garnett was undoubtedly the primary standard bearer, though there's no doubt that in his typical fashion, he wouldn't admit it.
In any case, what KG did was no less than cultivate a culture of success, resurrecting a winning tradition that was the hallmark of the Celtics for decades, but that had been lost in the past fifteen to twenty years before he arrived in Boston. Once again, Celtic Pride meant something, a significance that had been lost amid tragedy, bad luck, and a revolving door of players, coaches, management, and even ownership.
As the (new) Big 3 era potentially draws to a close, the Celtics find themselves at a pivotal juncture in their history, because it is imperative that this rediscovered culture of winning -- Ubuntu, Grit 'n Balls, whatever you want to call it -- be passed on to the next group of players. The best teams, the ones that enjoy consistent, long-term success, create and maintain a winning culture. This sort of organization-wide ethos transcends particular players, coaches, or members of management. Organizations that stay successful prioritize team achievement over individual achievement, and trust in a certain method of doing things.
Of course, it is always easier to maintain success with wealthy ownership and a large fanbase. Nevertheless, some small market teams have stayed successful because of their winning culture. The Spurs are the best example of this model, and the Thunder are trying to follow in the same line. Tom Thibodeau, a former Celtics assistant coach, has helped restore the Bulls to elite status with those winning values. In other sports, teams like the Patriots, Steelers, Packers, and Yankees stand out as well. The simplest way to describe what sets these teams apart, and what set the Celtics apart these last few years, is that they knew how to win. As Jay King of CelticsTown put it, "They didn’t always win, but they knew exactly what success required and never deviated from their quest to attain it." That kind of knowledge is what sets great teams apart from merely talented ones; it's what allows teams like the Celtics to exceed expectations, year after year.
The majority of responsibility for instilling the next generation of Celtics with the core values of the current group falls squarely on the shoulders of Doc Rivers and his young point guard, Rajon Rondo. Doc Rivers is under contract for another few years, and he appears determined to serve out the full term of that contract. If we know anything about Doc, it's that he will expect maximum effort and dedication from his players, particularly on defense. He holds his players to high standards, but he isn't hands-on in the sense that he doesn't hold their hands. He is a coach who deals only with professionals. He treats his players like grown men, who can handle their own business, but he expects them to earn his trust and consequently their spot in the rotation. Any player who can't do that, who doesn't act professionally, isn't going to stick around on this team for long, and that's a good thing.
Rondo, despite coming up in trade rumors for nearly his entire career, figures to stick around long-term as well. Between his run of double digit assist games (which is still active going into the next regular season) and his magnificent performance in the playoffs this spring, Rondo has shaken any reasonable doubts that he is a true star. He's entering his seventh season in the league, and over the next three to five years he will likely play the very best basketball of his career, barring any injuries. It's unlikely that the Celtics could possibly get fair value in return for Rondo in a trade (see: attempts to trade Rondo for Chris Paul last December). Therefore, it makes sense to hold onto Rondo and instead endeavour to surround him with the types of players whose effectiveness will be maximized by playing with the kind of otherworldly facilitator that he is.
Whether or not the Big 3 return next season, Rondo is the leader going forward; this is his team. Rondo can't rely on guys like Garnett and Allen to teach the newest Celtics the way this team does things anymore. He has to be an example, because just as the (new) Big 3 Celtics followed Garnett's lead and largely took on his personality, so too will the next iteration of the Celtics follow Rondo's lead, on and off the court. Furthermore, Rondo isn't the young gun, the guy with something to prove, anymore. He's a veteran, a guy with a championship ring and more playoff games under his belt than most NBA players have in an entire career. Accordingly, he has to be a teacher. He has to be a mentor for the guys joining the team in the same way that Paul, Allen, Garnett, Dooling, and others have at various times over the past five years served as mentors for him.
Though Rondo and Doc are the long-term fixtures who will bear most of the responsibility for leading the next group, they shouldn't be alone in that effort. Even if the team is going to enter a semi-rebuilding phase over the next couple of years, it makes sense to use roster spots to bring back at least some of the members of this Celtics team, if only to serve as mentors for newer, younger, players. Keyon Dooling and Mickael Pietrus are probably the top candidates for those mentor roles, but players like Brandon Bass and Marquis Daniels deserve extra consideration on those grounds alone, too. In seasons past, players like Brian Scalabrine, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe, Eddie House, and James Posey have also stood out as guys who play their role, sacrifice for the team, work hard, play tough, and in general buy into what the team is trying to do, no questions asked, and no concern for anything but winning.
Indeed, even Rasheed Wallace was like that; at times he seemed lazy, and he was definitely out of shape. He got himself a lot of technicals by talking back to the refs too much. He took way too many three pointers, and didn't take advantage of his size inside nearly enough. But at the end of the day he kept the theatrical stuff on the court, the same way that Kevin Garnett has done, and when a game really mattered, he played his heart out. Sheed retired when he knew he was done, even though he could have collected a few more paychecks riding on the end of the bench trying to get a free ring like Juwan Howard has done the past few season. He was about basketball -- playing and winning on his own terms. When he couldn't do that anymore, he retired. All of that, I suspect, is why he and KG got along so well, and that's the kind of player the Celtics need (minus the flabby belly, of course).
These guys represent the type of player that the Celtics need to target, whether in free agency, the draft, or via trade. That's why, all "basketball reasons" aside, it would make good sense to bring back guys like Dooling, Pietrus, and even Daniels simply to maintain contuinity from this year's group to the next.
Similarly, the Celtics need to stay away from players like Stephon Marbury, Nate Robinson, Glen Davis, Delonte West, Tony Allen, Jermaine O'Neal, and even Shaquille O'Neal. All of those guys were valuable in their own way, and contributed to the team significantly at various times (though most of them fell short of expectations), but each of them also brought something to the locker room or onto the court which subtracted somehow from what the team as a whole was trying to accomplish. An underrated factor that contributed to the Celtics success in the second half of the regular season this year and their deeper-than-anticipated playoff run was the fact that the Celtics basically rid themselves of players of that sort.
The result of this discussion should be both optimism and tempered expectations for the future. The Celtics have a great opportunity to hold their position as one of the premier teams in the league, even once Garnett, Allen, and Pierce have finally moved on, whether that's this season or a year or two from now. At the same time, however, we should all have learned in the past five years, and especially from this season, that simply putting together a talented group of guys is not enough. Rebuilding this team into a top contender won't be as easy as landing some big names in free agency, or getting lucky in the draft.
The Big 3 were able to accomplish as much as they did together because their greatness went far beyond their abilities on the court, and the way that those abilities allowed them to perfectly complement one another, although those things obviously played a large role. The Big 3 also embodied a certain way of being, a certain approach to the game and what it is to be an NBA player in this day and age, that inspired their teammates and gave them an edge over almost any opponent they might face.
Ten years ago, "I Am A Celtic" would not have been a slogan that could be proclaimed with a deep sense of concurrent pride and respect. Thanks to the Big 3, "I Am A Celtic" is a profound statement, fittingly attached to a group, and a season, that deserve a lasting spot in our collective memory. Whatever happens this summer, the 2012-2013 Celtics have a lot to live up to.