Sunday afternoon in New York the Boston Celtics will open the abbreviated 2011-2012 NBA season with a game against the New York Knicks. Despite the best efforts of team president Danny Ainge, the team was unable to reshape its roster on the fly by adding another superstar to its rapidly aging core.
As a result, the team that takes the floor on Christmas Day will look strikingly similar to the one that flamed out so spectacularly against the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs back in May. For many of the more, shall we say, "seasoned" fans of the NBA's most historic franchise, these events seem like a flashback to the last time the team stuck with a hall of fame trio until the bitter end.
During the 1990-1991 NBA season, the Celtics were gearing up for what many considered their final run as a championship contender. Larry Bird was struggling through chronic back and heel problems, Kevin McHale was coming off the bench thanks to his increasingly creaky ankles, and Robert Parish was just plain old. Meanwhile, all around them the league was getting younger and better. The Chicago Bulls, led by Michael Jordan, were poised to break through and win their first NBA Championship, Patrick Ewing and the Knicks were starting to come into their own, Charles Barkley was becoming an MVP candidate with the Philadelphia 76ers, and teams like the Sonics, Trailblazers, and Rockets were all improving as well.
The team came flying out of the gate, sitting atop the Eastern Conference well into January before reality set in. Bird found himself on the injured list with heel and back problems, McHale would miss 20 games with various ailments, and the teams bench never materialized as hoped. As a result, the team finished in second in the East and earned a date with the Indiana Pacers in the opening round of the playoffs.
The series was expected to be a walk in the park for the C's, but what ensued was a bitter, physical, nasty series that concluded with Larry Bird's final shining moment in a Celtics uniform, climbing off the trainers table after a nasty fall to rally the team in the deciding game. The struggles against the Pacers were a precursor of things to come as the team struggled to generate offense against the two time defending champion Detroit Pistons in the second round, bowing out in six games.
Just like that, it was over. Bird retired after the excruciating 91-92 season, McHale would follow suit after the 92-93 season, while Parish would linger in the league until 1997. As a franchise, the Celtics would dive into the most pronounced tailspin it's long and storied history. Only after Danny Ainge swung a pair of blockbuster deals for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen did the franchise regain its pride.
Fun Fact: A great way to win a bar bet is to ask someone who claims to be a Celtics fan to name all the teams that Parish won NBA championships with. Few remember that Parish finished his career as a seldom used backup on the Chicago Bulls title winning team in '97.
The window to win a title with a core of Garnett, Allen, and team mainstay Paul Pierce (then 31, 32, and 30 years old respectively) was expected to be very limited. As a result, the franchise ran the risk of being back in the same position it was 20 years earlier. Ainge, a member of those Larry Bird era Celtics from the late 80's, swore that he wouldn't make the same mistake that legendary Celtics coach and later GM Red Auerbach made by hanging on to Bird, McHale, and Parish until after their primes had passed. Despite his best efforts to hold true to his word, the team suddenly faces the very real prospect of history repeating it self at the end of this season.
The injuries are already beginning to pile up. Through no fault of his own, key reserve Jeff Green will miss the entire season thanks to a (thankfully) non-life threatening heart problem, KG sprained his wrist on the first day of training camp and is playing on a pair of knees that have seen more mileage than almost any player in league history, and most recently a heel problem for Paul Pierce that may cause the captain to miss the opener on Sunday and then some.
Unfortunately, the injury problems are probably only going to get worse as the season progresses. Those drinking the "this team has enough for another run" Kool-Aid believe that the shortened season will benefit an older team like the Celtics. The reality though is that the schedule is incredibly compacted, with 20 sets of back to back games. For a team that struggled mightily on the back end of those consecutive nights, that's bad news.
This team will still win its share of games during the regular season, just as its counterparts did during Bird's final year of consistent play, but the presence of young athletic teams like the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, and Oklahoma City Thunder will make a serious run at a championship an unrealistic dream. There will certainly be no quit in this group of proud warriors, but without a major shake-up in the roster, it might just be that time has passed them by.
As the saying goes: Father Time is undefeated.