But the price paid for these honors is of course time it takes to have made them. The clock has been rapidly ticking away on these veterans, and the same fate that set on Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley 10 years ago seems to be only a couple seasons away for KG, Ray, Pierce, Timmy and Manu. Though not all members of both teams are in the twilight or perhaps past their primes, the key members that led both the C's and Spurs to all those titles are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginning. So the questions begs; who's closer to the end, the Spurs or the Celtics?
Why is this even a question?
Even with advancing age, these two teams are, to some extent or another, title contenders. The Spurs finished with the best record in the West last year and the Celtics with a fantastic 56-win season and the third best record in the East. Though not as dominating as in years before, both laid down efficient defense while providing a surprising offensive punch.
The question of who's closer to irrelevance isn't just a matter of these proud vets finally hitting a wall that thousands of other men collide with eventually, but more importantly a question of who will fall out of contention first. With such a fate, one of these great teams will have their runs of dominance ended, with the rosters being disbanded. One of these two, or perhaps both, will have their final run of relevance come this year, and even as a Laker fan who has wished nothing for more than a Tim Duncan torn hip flexor or a major knee injury for KG, it will be sad to see these once-mighty NBA warriors go into the Atlanta studio to partner up with EJ, the Jet, Chuck and Shaq.
The answer to "why is this even a question" is relatively simple - whoever ages fastest will be relevant for a shorter period of time. This is a question because both these teams are filled with player who helped define their era of basketball. In Tim Duncan and his Spurs falling, so goes with it the steady and unyielding excellence that came along with their championship dominance. In Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce falling, so goes with them what they have come to symbolize; three men who after finding individual success that so distinctly defined their era of NBA basketball, came together after so many title-less tiresome years and with a commitment to defense and self sacrifice, found that the truest success was possible.
How will this play out?
The average age of the Celtics starting lineup is 32.6, which is obviously offset by the 25 year-old Rondo. The Spurs come in with an average age of a startling 28.4 years for their starting 5. Though a 35 year-old Tim Duncan, a 34 year-old Manu and a 29 going on 36 year old Tony Parker bring up the average a bit, the additions of rookie Kawhi Leonard (traded for fellow youngster and now Indiana Pacer George Hill) and second year man Tiago Splitter have given the Spurs an influx of youth they have called upon for so long.
The most important things for both teams is that they make it through this crunched 66-game season intact, as healthy as possible. In order to do so, both squads must have not only a deep rotation, but one with enough youth to endure scenarios like 9 games in 12 nights or back to back to back contests.
Looking at the Celtics roster, the supporting cast for their Big Three is thin. Their main contributors would be starters Rajon Rondo and a fat guy who looks like Jermaine O'Neal. Their bench is headed by Keyon Dooling, Brandon Bass, second-year guard Avery Bradley, journeyman Sasha Pavlovic and rookies JaJuan Johnson and E'Twuan Moore. Bass and Dooling can provide valuable minutes while healthy. Jeff Green, one of the team's most important contributors (not just off the bench) was recently ruled out for the season after having open-heart surgery. Bradley, Johnson and Moore all could provide some meaningful play, but considering a truncated training camp coming into a league where adaptation is already difficult, I don't know how much they can be counted on.
The Spurs' ancillary players include a 37 year-old Antonio McDyess, a washed up Richard Jefferson, the glass-man TJ Ford, Matt Bonner, an ACL-less DaJuan Blair, and youngsters James Anderson, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal and Kawhi Leonard. However, in spite of some similar problems between them and the Celts, the Spurs have less apparent problems with their personnel. Jefferson and McDyess, while not at all the dynamic players they once were, have proved to be relatively reliable health-wise. Blair, Neal and Splitter were given prominent roles by Popovich and seemed to succeed in them. Leonard, a rookie attained in a draft-day trade for backup guard George Hill, is a wild card, but seemingly would fit right into the Spurs' culture from the looks of his collegiate career.
Even with the advanced attrition of skill on Tim Duncan when in comparison to any of the Celts' nucleus, the supporting players around the Spurs are in much better shape than the Celtics.
How will this affect the season?
The Celtics are either older vets or injury-prone. The problem with that sentence is that I could be talking about both their starting rotation or their bench. The lockout-shortened season is even more rigorous than a the marathon-like pace of a full 82 games, which is not at all what these Celtics are built for. Teams with young legs and deep rotations are the crews that will do best in 2011-2012 - basically the antithesis of the C's. I still believe that the team can compete for a 3 or 4 seed in the East, but a catastrophic injury could be forthcoming for Boston.
The Spurs on the other hand seem a little better equipped. Blair, Neal, Splitter, Leonard and Bonner are young and most importantly, skilled enough to play the minutes they'll be called upon for. Aside from Timmy's and Manu's advancing age, this is the type of team that's pretty well constructed to handle this anomaly of a season. I think we'll see the Celts fade into irrelevance more quickly.
Actually, I'm not that sad. Screw em.
Player(s) to Watch: Brandon Bass and Tiago Splitter
Bass only makes this section of the post because of Jeff Green going down with a broken heart. He'll be the only reliable scorer coming off Boston's bench and will certainly find himself playing heavy minutes because Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal are ahead of him on the depth chart. Boston's hope is that Bass will able to play as efficiently as Glen Davis has the past few seasons, except without the immaturity of a 13 year-old.
Splitter is penciled in as the incumbent starting center. Tim Duncan's production took a huge dip last year, and there's no reason to think that it will remain static. While there's a lot more depth on the Spurs' roster than the Celtics', rebounding and tough defense is a must from the Spurs' Brazilian creampuff.
Best they can do:
Spurs: 46-20, 1st in the Southwest, 2nd in the West
Celtics: 47-19, 1st in the Atlantic, 2nd in the Easy
Lowest they can go:
Spurs: 36-30, 4th in the Southwest, 7th in the West
Celtics: 33-33, 3rd in the Atlantic, 8th in the East
Spurs: 39-27, 3rd in the Southwest, 5th in the West
Celtics: 39-27, 1st in the Atlantic, 4th in East
Like this series? Check out the other Burning Questions leading up to the 2011-12 NBA season:
NBA Season Preview: Burning Questions for teams you don't care about
#20: Can Sacramento keep their Kings?
#19: Will the Rockets finally make a blockbuster trade?
#18 - Will we be able to see Mark Jackson make “Hand Down, Man Down” pantomimes in the Warriors’ huddle this year?
#17 - When Will Joe Dumars be Fired?
#16 - Dwight, Deron, CP3: Who gets traded?
#15 - Did the Cavs take the right guy with the number one pick?
#14 - Where do the Blazers go from here?
#13: Will the Mavericks title defense resemble that of the 2006 Miami Heat?
#12: Who is Ricky Rubio?