Stop me if you've heard this one before. Fresh off the sting of a coach giving up on them mid-season, the Celtics go on an improbable run to put themselves in position to battle for the playoffs. That was the 2000-2001 season, and in the next two years the team made surprising runs in the playoffs before getting whooped by a far superior Nets team. The end result was a battle tested team of veterans that had little left in the tank for the future.
A lot of people, myself included, wonder what would have happened if the organization had simply listened to the players and coaches and kept the team together with Kenny Anderson running the point and no Vin Baker on the blocks (or was it on the rocks?). On the other hand, I could just be wearing my rose colored, 20/20 hindsight goggles again.
So what can this year's team learn from recent history? For one thing, don't undervalue the importance of playoff experience. While the achievement rings a bit hollow in sneaking into the playoff race sporting a sub .500 record, you can't get this experience watching ping pong balls. This is a young team of gifted players that will not realize their full potential until they are tested in the playoffs.
Another lesson the Celtics need to learn is to not sacrifice the future for one high-risk shot at the present. Trading Joe Johnson for Tony Delk and Rodney Rodgers was a real gamble that sort of paid off short term, but cost us long term, quite possibly prompting a bigger gamble on Vin Baker. The current team has a strong nucleus of young players that will only get better as they mature. Trading for a veteran this off-season may be the best bet, but if it costs us young, talented players (like a Jiri Welsh, Marcus Banks, or Kendrick Perkins) then the cost may one day prove to be too high.
Finally, maybe there is some real value in keeping a good thing together. Ainge has overhauled the roster and assembled a cast of players that better fits his now-infamous vision. He also has a very flexible roster of shorter-term contracts (Paul's and Raef's excluded) and 3 first round draft picks. But rather than move those commodities, it would be interesting to see what can be done by simply letting them grow with each other and perhaps adding to the mix without taking away key players. Unfortunately, we are most likely witnessing Mark Blount's last days as a Celtic, just as he is blossoming as a legit force in the paint. However, the team should get back a healthy Raef next season and could package Yogi Stewart's expiring salary with a draft pick to bring in some help.
This team has some building blocks that could translate into contending for a championship in the future. Paul is a star in his prime that still can learn a trick or two. Jiri Welsh is fast earning a reputation as a defensive leader and all round contributor, not unlike Eric Williams before him. Atkins is the best pick-and-roll point guard they've had since Kenny Anderson. Banks and other young players could earn some valuable playoff playing time early enough in their careers for it to pay dividends for this team in the future.
On the other hand, like the teams that couldn't get past New Jersey in the playoffs, this team is still fatally flawed and at least a piece or two away. Mark Blount may have recently surpassed the levels that Tony Battie reached at his peak, but his departure would leave a void in the paint. Walter McCarty would be a fantastic role player off the bench, but is currently relied upon to start. Ricky Davis may be the most explosive offensive player this team has seen in recent memory, but how long can a platoon of Welsch and Davis work? And 3 draft picks are no guarantee of future success, as the class of 2001 showed us.
Nobody needs to remind Danny Ainge of Boston's glory days, and few are more familiar with where the team stood when he arrived a year ago. If this team is going to contend for a Championship in the near future, Danny's vision better include an eye on the rear view mirror.