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Garnett and Marbury: Déjà Vu for the Celts?

I’m an optimist.   Prefer to glean the positives from what might otherwise be construed as a negative situation.

I can’t help it.  Optimism is entrenched in my sports psyche.  It’s the reason I grew up believing every year was THE year for the Red Sox, the reason I stayed sane in New York post-XLII.

So while many view Kevin Garnett’s (temporary) absence and Stephon Marbury’s (probable) arrival as possible death blows to Boston’s chances of a repeat, I see a pair of blessings in disguise — reinforced by a recurring sense of déjà vu.

The knee injury Garnett sustained in a Feb. 19 game at Utah sent shock waves through Celtics nation, and justifiably so.  The fact that he injured the knee on a non-contact maneuver — in this case, going up for an alley-oop — was a major cause for concern.  Ligament and tendon damage can often result from slightly mistimed lateral or vertical movements.  Fortunately he merely strained a muscle behind the knee, an injury he could have played through.  And he tried to.

Needless to say Danny Ainge did not allow that to happen and the team is taking no chances going forward, which means the Big Ticket will likely sit out another eight or so games in addition to the pair he’s already missed.  Does this scenario sound familiar?  It should, as the same thing happened around the same time last year.  On Jan. 25 Garnett strained an abdominal muscle and missed nine games between Jan. 27 and Feb. 19. The Celtics won seven of them.

He returned healthier and refreshed.  You know the rest.

It’s well documented how KG only has one speed: turbo.  To him cruise control is synonymous with being stuck in the breakdown lane.  When you consider that even with the respite he still played 97 games last year (second only to the 100 games he played in 2003-04), it might have been wise to shelf him for a period of time regardless.  That his freakish body has again sounded a faint warning bell might indeed be that blessing in disguise.  It surely was last year.

Unless he reaggravates the injury down the stretch (which would be quite a pessimistic way of looking at things), this mandated down time will end up paying great dividends when the Celtics embark on what’s sure to be another deep playoff run.

As for Marbury, call him what you want — bad teammate, enigma, self-centered, classless — and the New York media certainly has, but the man really has everything to gain from joining the Celtics.  The Celtics, in turn, have pretty much nothing to lose.  If he works out, super.  If not, they can cut ties while assuming minimal financial loss.

Remember Sam Cassell?

While Cassell’s career accomplishments overshadow Marbury’s, speaking purely from a style of play and team chemistry standpoint the two are mirror images of one another.  In their heyday both players were All-Star caliber, shoot-first point guards with a surplus of hubris.

Last March Cassell came into a close-knit and role-defined locker room, ball(s)-in-hand.  The fear was his ego and chucking mentality would be injurious.  After hitting some big shots in the regular season and again in the first round against Atlanta, the chucking became a problem against Cleveland and Cassell played sparingly for the remainder of the playoffs.  He did not, however, threaten the team chemistry.  In that regard he put his ego aside in the name of winning a ring.

Cassell — at age 38 — had nothing to prove except that he could become an auxiliary piece on a championship team.

Marbury, on the other hand, is playing for a lot more.  He wants to win his first playoff series en route to his first title.  At 32, he has a golden opportunity to lock up a final big contract.  A successful run with Boston and he’ll be in position for one last substantial payday.

Above all, maybe, he wants to stick it to New York.  To the front office he believes treated him unfairly.  To the teammates he thinks tossed him under the bus.  To the fans who turned on him.  And to the media, which has been unrelenting with its venom-injected headlines and protracted condemnations of the man they once deemed “Starbury”.

He has a beef to settle with New York, and what better place to do it than the one place that despises anything and everything “New Yaaawk”?

Irony would have it that the Celtics and Knicks have developed one of the coldest rivalries in the league, if you can call it that.  (A rivalry, that is.)  The teams nearly came to blows last season when Quentin Richardson and Paul Pierce were ejected from a game at Madison Square Garden.  Afterwards Richardson fanned the flames with some choice postgame remarks.  They have yet to make amends.

Richardson has had no qualms about voicing his opinion on the Marbury matter as well. This past November he ripped Marbury after the disgruntled star refused to play when the team was shorthanded and calling for his services.

In response to the incident, Knicks president Donnie Walsh formally banished Marbury from the team on Dec. 1.  Add it up and seems like the enemy of Stephon Marbury’s enemy is about to become his new friend.  That should immediately help the chemistry-building process with the Celtics.

Given all that, who really thinks the guy is going to ride into Boston on his high horse and reprise his role as a defiant, obstinate distraction?  Not I.

But take that with a grain of salt.

I am, after all, a self-professed optimist.

NBA Midseason Report

Excuse me for being a hater, but NBA All-Star weekend 2009 was pretty poor.

The skills competition was a snooze — other than Mo Williams guaranteeing victory then not making it out of the first round.  Of note was Reggie Miller breaking the record for number of times in one telecast a color commentator used the word “nonchalant” and its derivatives.  He was irked by the passivity displayed by Williams and the rest of the field during the competition and apparently only had one way to communicate it.  Between Miller’s ad nauseam droppage of the word and the overall bore of the event, most viewers probably wanted nothing more than to “nonchalantly” pull out their hair by the end.

Dwight Howard then appeared to sabotage his own cause in the dunk contest by allowing Nate Robinson to soar over him on his final dunk.  The flush involved Superman taking Nate’s crotch to the back of the head, which evidently won over voters and gave the crown to the short slammer.

The All-Star game itself was scripted worse than an episode of “The Hills”.  There was the token Shaq-Kobe reunion and excessive coverage of their jovial pregame exchanges, followed by Kobe chucking up 10 shots in the first quarter for an early MVP bid, concluding with Shaq running point, busting crossovers and throwing a few down at the end of a 146-119 West blowout of the East.  The duo took co-MVP honors.  (Wait, you mean LC and Spencer both happened to be at “Les Deux” that night?)

So back to the real world (no pun intended) we go, and an ’09 NBA season that has been pretty nifty.

Eastern Conference Overview: The East is more or less set.  Boston (44-11) and Cleveland (40-11) will jockey for home court throughout the conference playoffs.  Don’t be surprised if an April 12 matchup becomes a de facto elimination game for the number one seed in the conference.  Orlando is locked into the third seed and will serve as an added incentive for the Celtics and Cavs to nail down the top spot.  The Magic (38-13) will not be a friendly second-round opponent for either team.

The fourth through seventh seeds will play out, in some order, with the Hawks (31-21), Heat (28-24), Pistons (27-24) and 76ers (27-24).  Only the fourth and fifth seeds will be able to dodge the power trio in the first round, so look for Detroit and Miami to make strong pushes on Atlanta in the second half.  The final playoff spot is up for grabs, as five teams (Milwaukee, New Jersey, Chicago, New York and Charlotte) are all within three and a half games of one another.

Western Conference Overview: It’s a nine-team race in the West, and considering the struggles the Suns (28-23) have endured (they just fired head coach Terry Porter), it’s possible they’ll be on the outside looking in for the first time since the 2003-04 season.  Still, it’s never wise to bet against Steve Nash and “The Big Cactus”.  Don’t count them out just yet.

The Lakers (42-10) will cruise to the top spot and the road to the Finals will again go through Staples Center.  The Spurs (35-16) have a solid grasp on the second seed, particularly given the run they typically go on after the All-Star break.  The Nuggets (36-17) are in position to be on the top half of the playoff bracket if they can hold off Portland (32-20) and Utah (30-23).  As for how the rest of the west will shake out, only time will tell as the Jazz, Blazers, Rockets, Hornets and Mavericks are all separated by just two and a half games. Expect seven of the eight Western playoff teams to reach the 50-win plateau.

Biggest Surprise: Denver Nuggets The script was fitting:  Chauncey Billups returning to his hometown team, the same team he played briefly for early in his career.  The question was would he be able to adjust to a new set of teammates and a new style of play.  After all, he had spent six full seasons as the floor general of an unchanging core group in a Detroit system predicated on defense.  To make such a fluid transition to Denver’s up and down style of play is a testament to Billups’ hardened veteran mentality.

After letting go of Marcus Camby in the offseason and making the Allen Iverson-for-Billups swap in the first week of the ’08 campaign, the Nuggets seemed due for a step back.  Instead Billups has taken the reigns and forged a fast relationship with Carmelo Anthony on the court.  As a result Denver is tied with San Antonio for the second-best record in the West at the break.  The Nuggets’ defense has been bolstered as well.  For the first time in three years Denver is giving up fewer than 100 points per game.  The Nugs are for real.

Most Significant Addition: Mo Williams/Cavs Lebron James may be a leading candidate for MVP this year, but the acquisition of Mo Williams is the reason why the Cavs are on pace for 64 wins.  And it’s because of Williams that Cleveland is threatening to steal home court from the Celtics in the Eastern Conference playoffs.  For the last few years James has craved and practically begged for a knockdown shooter on the outside.  After nearly single-handedly taking down Boston in the playoffs last year, Lebron was finally rewarded with the first legitimate wingman of his career.

Williams is a proactive point guard with an ability to create, but naturally that isn’t what he’s most needed for on a team with James.  It’s his shooting outbursts that have helped propel the Cavs to a real title contender and serious threat to the Celtics in the East.  At the break he was averaging 17.6 points per game on 47 percent shooting, including 40 percent from beyond the three-point arc.  He erupted for 43 points — a career high — in a Jan. 27 game against Sacramento before besting that with 44 in the last game before the break versus the Suns.

Most Significant Loss: Andrew Bynum/Lakers For the second consecutive year the Lakers lost Bynum to a knee injury just as he appeared to be on the brink of something special.  In the last five full games before he went down Bynum was averaging 26.2 points and 13.8 rebounds per game. Now he’ll have to wait and see if an MCL tear will sideline him for the remainder of the season.

Like last year, the impact of his loss won’t threaten the Lakers in their quest for another top seed in the West.  Nor should it greatly hinder their drive to return to the Finals.  The West has depth, but other than San Antonio (whose number the Lakers have had in recent past) there is no team standing in the path of LA.  It is when they get back to the Finals and meet Cleveland or Boston — two of the best defensive and most physical teams in the league — that they will be ruing the day Bynum went down.  Again.

MVP: Dwyane Wade Look, either Lebron or Kobe is going to win MVP.  They are the two best players in the league on two of the three best teams.  I take issue with the nature of the award, which should be given to the player who is most indispensable to his team.  While their squads wouldn’t be sitting where they are today, both the Cavs and Lakers would still be playoff teams this year without Lebron and Kobe.

There’s no way the same can be said of Miami without Dwyane Wade.  The evidence is already there.  With Wade alternating between being injured and playing hurt last year the Heat won 15 games.  FIFTEEN.  With a healthy Wade this season Miami is 28-24 and occupying the fifth position in the East.  The team’s second-leading scorer is a rookie and the bench is a virtual non-entity (all due respect to Daequan Cook and Chris Quinn).  Wade is averaging 28.3 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals per game, meaning he’s accounted for roughly half of Miami’s offensive output.  He takes over close games late more often than anyone else in the game.  Why?  Because he must or Miami will lose.  There is no player more valuable to his team than Wade is to the Heat. The man deserves some votes.

Defining “Dynasty”

With the Pittsburgh Steelers having just captured their second Super Bowl in four years and sixth overall, it seems like a good time to tackle one of the most subjective and contested concepts in sport, “the dynasty”.

How does one define a sports dynasty? Who has rightly deserved the title of dynasty throughout sports history? What does “dynasty” actually mean?

The last question is the easiest to answer. The origin of the word is from the Greek dunasteia, meaning “lordship”.  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a dynasty is defined as:

1) a succession of rulers of the same line of descent.

2) a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time.

Not too much help there, although it’s evident why the notion of a sports dynasty is so debated.  There just isn’t a tangible or relevant definition of the term.  It has been up to the professional leagues, teams, writers and fans to determine what has constituted a dynasty over the years.

When exactly the term entered the vernacular is difficult to pinpoint, but two of the original teams to garner the designation — the Boston Celtics of the late 50s and 60s and the UCLA Bruins of the 60s and early 70s — still come the closest to fulfilling the second definition of the word, “a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time.”

Red Auerbach’s Celtics won 11 of 13 NBA titles from 1957 to 1969, including eight straight.  John Wooden’s Bruins took down 10 of 12 NCAA championships from 1964 to 1975, highlighted by a run of seven in a row.  Those teams — particularly the Celtics — were dynastic in the truest sense of the word, in that they were sports families headed by powerful patriarchs that held their standing over an extended period of time.

Mergers, expansion and free agency have drastically altered the landscape of professional sports since the old school UCLA and Celtics dynasties.  Understanding that, let’s dissect the dynasties of the (semi) modern era. We’ll use the mid-1970s as a jumping off point, considering the ABA-NBA merger took place in 1976, MLB introduced mainstay franchises such as the Mariners and Blue Jays in 1977, and the Super Bowl era was well under way.

In my opinion, there are two parameters that must be met if a team wants to enter the dynasty debate.

1) the team must win back-to-back to titles.

2) the team must win or have won another title within a few years of the successive championships.

In the three major sports there are a handful of squads that have gone back-to-back over the last 40 years, but that was it.  They didn’t win another one before or after the consecutive titles within a reasonable amount of time.  Among these teams are the New York Yankees (’77 and ’78), Detroit Pistons (’89 and ’90), Toronto Blue Jays (’92 and ’93), Houston Rockets (’94 and ’95), and Denver Broncos (’98 and ’99).

It’s an admirable accomplishment to go back-to-back, but there’s an aspect of sustained excellence inherent to the idea of a sports dynasty that those teams didn’t have.  Two in a row without another can still fall in “flash in the pan” territory.  At least in the context of this argument.

As for the teams that are in the running, let’s um, run through them…

The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 70s — the original “Steel Curtain” — set the the standard for Super Bowl dominance.  Led by Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and “Mean Joe” Greene, Pittsburgh won four out of six titles between 1975 and 1980, a mark that is still yet to be met.  Dynasty.

In the 80s, the San Francisco 49ers gave a solid encore performance to the Steel Curtain.  Behind the innovative and groundbreaking West coast offense instituted by Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice’s 49ers snagged four Super Bowls in a nine-year span (1982-1990).  Included in that run was a back-to-back in ’89 and ’90, which solidified the Niner dynasty.

No other NFL franchise has won four titles in one era, but the Dallas Cowboys (’92, ’93 and ’95) and New England Patriots (’01, ’03 and ’04) have each gone three out of four.  Given the parity that started to take shape in the mid-90s and the establishment of a salary cap in 1994, it could be argued that the Cowboys and Patriots were actually the two most dominant teams in league history.  We’ll keep that on the back burner for now.

Jumping to MLB — which saw 14 different champions between 1975 and 1995 — the only dynasty of the last 35 years is undisputed: the New York Yankees of the late 90s.  With great pitching and a young superstar named Derek Jeter, the Yankees won four out of five World Series between 1996 and 2000.  That seven different teams have won titles in the eight years since New York’s run only underscores how remarkable it was.

Finally to the NBA, which has been the most conducive to dynasties throughout the time period in question.  Let’s begin with the present, and a peculiar team that has heard the term thrown around in reference to it on more than one occasion.  That would be the San Antonio Spurs.

Since Tim Duncan’s sophomore campaign in 1998, the Spurs have won four of the 10 NBA titles to be contested.  They’ve won three of the last six, but all in odd years (’03, ’05 and ’07).

Duncan will probably go down as the greatest power forward of all time, but his lumbering style and passive attitude are generally cited as the chief reasons why the Spurs have yet to repeat as champs.  The guy has simply never exhibited the fire and drive needed to go after it, year after year.  It takes a cold-blooded leader to repeat, and Duncan — while many things — is not that.  Spurs proponents would argue that a miracle three by Derek Fisher in 2004 and Dirk Nowitzki’s historic three-point play in 2006 are the only things standing between San Antonio and five straight titles.  And they would have a point, except there’s no room for “coulda, woulda, shoulda” when talking dynasty.

I’ll argue that San Antonio’s three titles combined with those plays merit them the moniker of “team of the decade”, but a dynasty?  No.

This is where it gets interesting, because at the beginning of the decade we saw a bona fide dynasty in the Shaq/Kobe Lakers.  Three straight crowns starting with the 1999-00 season.  A loss in the 2004 Finals to the chippy Detroit Pistons — with the additions of Gary Payton and Karl Malone no less — cost the Lakers their shot at being the team of the decade.  That is unless they grab another one in ’09…

Now let’s trek back to the 80s, a magnificent era that featured what I must deem a “co-dynasty”.  Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics won eight of nine NBA titles beginning with the 1979-80 season.  While LA had the upper hand (winning five rings to Boston’s three and two of the three head-to-head showdowns), there’s no doubt that Magic isn’t Magic without Bird and vice versa.  Same goes for their teams.  The iconic franchises fed off one another, spawned a fervent bicoastal fan base and permanently embedded the sport in American culture.  For that reason the 80s Celtics are the only team to warrant the dynasty tag despite a failure to repeat (they won three of six from ’81 to ’86 and appeared in five Finals during that span).

If we’re talking dynasties and iconic players, the argument begins and ends with one man.  Michael Jordan.  The greatest, most prolific champion of the modern era.  His Bulls three-peated from ’91 to ’93, and again from ’96 to ’98.

He took a break (for reasons still not completely determined) and played baseball for a year and half in between, and his team became mortal without him.  After a truncated return in ’95 and a second straight loss in the Eastern Conference playoffs for the Bulls, MJ made it clear that the glory days were again on the horizon, and he lived up to his word.  When it was over Jordan had essentially gone six-for-six in his prime, a surreal stretch of individual dominance in what was historically believed to be a team game.

The dynasty debate is one of the great ongoing discussions in sport.  While it will continue to live on — in locker rooms, through the media, around the dinner table — the 90s Bulls are the greatest dynasty in recent American sports history.

Any beef?