The Celtics roller coaster ride of a season has come to the kind of shuddering stop that all such entertainments must come to at last. We passengers raise the safety bar, stagger disjointedly down the walkway, and find the first handy trash receptacle to vomit into. "That was terrible! Let's do it again!" We should be so lucky as to have another ride in 2006 as enervating and dispiriting as we had in 2005. I say the knot of nausea in my stomach that was Game 7 does not cancel out all the vertiginous joy of this team's slow rises, or the pure drama of their atom-scrambling falls. I say load this coaster up again, but faster. Give us the triple corkscrews, the loops, the aged scaffolding creaking beneath us as we speed past the edge of control. Give us one more turn with Paul Pierce at the controls, for better or worse.
The Celtics won 45 games this year. I'll take it, considering this is an organization that has been run like a salvage yard for the decade prior to Danny Ainge's arrival. Most of the useful parts are now in other people's hot rods. (see Pistons and Suns) They were eliminated in the first round. So what? How did the expectations get ramped so high toward the end of the season for a team so green that they make the "Baby Bulls" seem more dated than leg warmers? The biggest reason was because the team showed steady improvement throughout the season, albeit running a new offense with new personnel (many new to the NBA) playing for a new coaching staff and in a building renamed every day.
Only the Heat and Suns shot better from the field than the Celtics, and only those teams plus the Kings and Mavs scored more points per game. That, combined with holding opponents to a very respectable .444 shooting, gave Celtic fans reason for modest optimism heading into the postseason. After a jittery turn early in the season as his Mr. Hyde persona, Paul Pierce had a finish to the season that was nothing less than revelatory. After so much positive change, maybe a little positive consistency would be just the kind of "change" we need this offseason.
Look at the team's improvement offensively, as the fat was trimmed from the roster and the core pieces began to "get it". Points per game per month in regulation:
The first game of April saw Toine's knee get hammered and some of the potency of March was lost, but the fluidity of the team offensively during that stretch was really remarkable. I see no reason why we can't use Marcus Banks and Delonte West next year to quicken the tempo even further.
The returning players have some stability to look forward to: they know who the coach will be next year and they understand the demands of the offense. There will be no excuses for not running, for anyone. Al Jefferson will be in the kind of shape that will allow him to run for follow up jams and quick post ups, and that presence combined with improved ball movement will get Paul the kind of looks he hasn't seen since he was a rookie. We can squeeze even more possessions out of each game and shoot even higher percentages, translating to another Atlantic Division title and 5-10 more wins.
You might ask what evidence do we have that Paul "gets it"? Why not trade him for a few character guys and move on? There is overwhelming evidence that Paul is adapting to this new system quite well. Does he need to transition better? Yes. Could he control his flares of temper? Yes. Is he one of the most versatile and talented players who has ever worn Celtic green? Yes. Look at the remarkable show Paul put on after he had a half-season in Doc's system and finally bought into the philosophy.
After Ground Hog Day: 54-119 from three point range:
.454 241-504 from two point range:
.478 239-286 from the foul line:
.836 1.54 points per shot
Then against Indiana:
40-66 from two point range:
.606 59-68 from the foul line:
.868 1.72 points per shot
To put that into context: Yao Ming 1.79 PPS this post-season, Amare Stoudemire 1.70, Shaquille O'neal 1.38. Had the rest of the team managed more than 1.05 PPS against Indiana, or better than 43% from the field, then Paul's detractors might have a case. As it is, they don't. Paul tried to lift a team that was not seasoned enough for the postseason, while still playing within a system that only netted him 13 shots a game. He did as well as he could to satisfy both roles.
Paul has shown an offensive efficiency that is beyond remarkable for a shooting guard this year, and I can see no reason why he won't be even better with another year in the offense. The facts are that he is the best rebounder in the league at his position, that he has great anticipation on defense allowing him to be perennially in or near the top ten in steals, that he had more go ahead buckets in the final minute than anyone in the NBA last year, and that he has proven in 37 playoff games that he is a remarkable big game player. The facts are that his Game Four at Indiana was the most dominant playoff performance a Celtic has delivered since Larry Bird's semifinal Game Seven duel with Dominique Wilkins. It wasn't just the statline: 30 points 7 rebounds 8 assists 5 blocked shots (an NBA first in the playoffs). It was, as Jimmy Rodgers noted of Bird's performance, that everything he did was significant and affected the outcome.
Having said that, we should trade Paul. We should get as much as we possibly can for him because this is about the Celtics first, and with the state of free agency today there are no players who are going to play their entire career with one team. Some guys will play past their prime on the team that drafted them, but eventually even Garnett, Duncan, Kobe and Iverson will try on different colors. We need to trade Paul before he passes into his NBA dotage, hobbling around screens for fade aways, using his body and savvy against younger players in the paint, deferring to less knowledgeable teammates who can still elevate over the defense. That is what Seattle is trying to avoid with Ray Allen, no matter how brilliant he was this year. They want Ray gone rather than have to pay him. That is the business.
Yet, to trade Paul this offseason would be remarkably bad timing, leaving Danny Ainge's VisionCoaster unable to climb the hills it needs to while we are waiting for Big Al to learn how to operate the controls. Big Al's playoff experience this year was more valuable by far than anything he would have learned by having the team on his shoulder's as they struggled to surpass the Bobcats and Hawks. Al is the future, but Paul still has his best basketball ahead of him. If we trade him this offseason, I just don't believe we can get equal value in return. If we do, great, but I won't believe it until it happens. His replacement will have to shoulder even more pressure than Paul does, because fans will expect the trade to be justified on the floor. However, trading Paul is a good idea. Maybe even next year, as his value goes up with a better Celtic team around him and as Jefferson's game matures, but right now it would be a "bonehead move" on the part of the organization. A jerk of the elbow we don't need.
We are building a brand new ride which will give us a view from the top, but we need a player like Paul to cushion that transition. No matter what you think of Paul you have to admit one thing, this season was one heck of a ride. As soon as my nausea subsides, I'd like to go again.