When Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen found themselves traded to the Boston Celtics to join Paul Pierce in 2007, nobody knew how long the experiment would last. With Garnett at 31 years old, Allen at 32 and Pierce at 30, the clock on this Big Three experiment wasn't supposed to have very long on it.
Maybe it would only last three or four seasons before they couldn't compete for titles anymore and then the Celtics would move on. Nobody really knew. We just knew they were going to be the best bet to take down the tough Detroit Pistons at the time and hold off a Cleveland Cavaliers team that starred LeBron James, fresh off an NBA Finals appearance. The door in the East was wide open and the Celtics were determined to walk through it and make themselves comfortable.
That's exactly what they did. In their first year, Doc Rivers preached Ubuntu, they became a cohesive group almost right away, and looked for more veterans throughout the year to sprinkle onto the roster to prep this team for a run at the NBA title. Kevin Garnett and assistant coach Tom Thibodeau transformed the team into a stifling defensive unit. Paul Pierce was the main offensive weapon, Ray Allen was around to keep the defense honest, and Rajon Rondo was soaking in every bit of wisdom he could possibly be given by his teammates.
In the process, the Celtics met expectations in the first year by beating the rival Los Angeles Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals in six games. It no longer became the idea of one title, but multiple titles entered the conversation. But the injuries that often come with aged veterans hit the Celtics the next season when KG went down with a knee injury that started to show the whole fragility of the core moving forward.
Boston bounced back in 2010 with a disappointing regular season that saw them capture just the 4-seed in the East, but they turned in an incredible playoff run that had them up 3-2 on the Lakers once again in the NBA Finals. But Kendrick Perkins hurt his knee and the Celtics couldn't recover against the Lakers, losing the final two games of the season and a second NBA title together.
It was a blown chance that I'm not sure we could have expected them to recover from. From that point on, the Celtics were just trying to figure out ways to turn the team over to Rajon Rondo while pacing themselves through grueling regular seasons. They flirted with another NBA Finals appearance in 2012 when they were up 3-2 on the hated Miami Heat before LeBron James found the extra gear that made him a champion and made the rest of the East a stepping-stone.
This past season, the Celtics could never find their groove and when Rondo went down with a torn ACL, this era of the Boston Celtics was finally destroyed. Allen had already bolted for the Heat and the Pierce-Garnett combination just couldn't give them enough every night.
Months later, Doc Rivers has been traded to coach the Los Angeles Clippers. Now we find ourselves six years past the initial experiment and Garnett and Pierce are headed to Brooklyn. The weird part of all this is the idea of Celtics' loyalty. Allen was crucified in the media and with the fans when he decided to go to the "rival" Miami Heat. He was no longer a true Celtic player because he chose to leave.
But what do we make of the rest of them? Pierce technically doesn't have a choice in the matter, but you would have to assume an agreement on acceptance between Garnett and Pierce had to have occurred for KG to waive his no-trade clause to allow the trade to the Nets to be finalized in July. Rivers wasn't Red Auerbach or K.C. Jones, but he had become beloved by the community and the fan base after a rocky start. Is he still a "true Celtic" in the fans' minds?
In one way or another, it feels like the Celtics' Big 3 and great coach have chosen to leave their loyalty at the door for a chance at revisited glory elsewhere. This didn't seem like the way this would end. It was naive to assume in today's sports world they'd all walk out together into the sunset and not put on another jersey. After Paul Pierce signed a four-year, $61 million deal in 2010, he tweeted:
Yep its official gonna retire a celtic— Paul Pierce (@paulpierce34) July 15, 2010
If anybody was going to be the guy from this group to retire as a Celtic, it was going to be Pierce. But something changed. Allen and Rondo found themselves in trade rumors over the years. Kendrick Perkins was dealt for Jeff Green, shaking the core and taking away a five-man unit that seemed emphatic on relying on each other.
The fairytale propaganda of loyalty died somewhere between Danny Ainge trying to figure out how to keep treading water and the weight of father time and injuries pulling them under. Whether loyalty is smoke and mirrors in trying to mask cohesion as a unit or it is something that can just fade over time in sports, the Celtics can no longer lean on it as a rare quality of their organization.
At some point everything's time has come and things have to change. Every component isn't always ready to admit the time for a makeover. But it still has to happen. Loyalty isn't easily sustainable. Eventually the experiment is over and you have to find something else to do.