After the Celtics' Game 7 loss to the Lakers in the NBA Finals, I spotted Doc Rivers heading toward the Staples Center loading ramp, taking the first few steps on a long journey toward the uncertainty ahead. On his way out, some degenerate Lakers fan who had managed to penetrate league security confronted Rivers and launched into a profanity-laced diatribe as they gloated over L.A.'s 16th title.
True to form, Rivers didn't justify this outburst with a response. (After all, it was the first time the Lakers had ever triumphed over Boston in a Game 7.) Rivers paused momentarily, shook his head, and kept walking -- kept trudging toward the unknown.
Moments earlier, Rivers had revealed that Rasheed Wallace was probably going to retire. ('Sheed, at that very moment in fact, was waiting outside the referees' locker room to inform them of the same news -- or better yet, maybe to curse them out.) But Wallace wasn't the only question mark for Rivers and the Celtics as they sifted through the wreckage of a surprising but ultimately disappointing run to the Finals. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, two-thirds of the Big Three, were free agents. Rivers himself was contemplating leaving the bench to watch his kids play basketball after years of coaching somebody else's.
Rivers told me that night that he honestly didn't know what he was going to do, and he was telling the truth. It took a few weeks, but Rivers decided to come back and take at least one more crack at a championship. To no one's surprise, Allen and Pierce followed suit. Soon, Jermaine O'Neal and Shaquille O'Neal were on board, and Rivers felt a little better about combating the talent that had been assembled in South Florida -- and yes, elsewhere.
"I'm thinking about the East, but I'm thinking about the whole," Rivers said. "And there's no doubt you think about the Lakers. We would love to get back to them, but it's going to be hard to get back to them. We've got to figure out a way of doing that."
On paper -- paper other than their birth certificates, that is -- the Celtics are better than they were a year ago. One of the O'Neals will replace Kendrick Perkins at the start of the season, and the other one will replace Wallace. Once Perkins is back, the Celtics will be deeper and bigger than the team that fell short against Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the Finals.
Kevin Garnett has looked healthier in preseason than at any time last season -- "night and day," Rivers said -- and Rajon Rondo leads a brigade of agitators that might just have the right personality to mess up the premature coronation in Miami.
The only obstacle for the Celtics is the age and health of their core; Rivers just got it out of the way and predicted during training camp that there will be injuries to overcome. Last week, the perpetually hoarse Rivers had surgery on his vocal chords and thankfully received a positive result after a biopsy. It was the first challenge of many, the first step on a new journey toward the unknown.
Predicted order of finish (2009-10 records):
1. Celtics (50-32)
2. Knicks (29-53)
3. 76ers (27-55)
4. Raptors (40-42)
5. Nets (12-70)
|Jermaine O'Neal is an old 32. Is is still effective? i (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: Um, age and injuries. Eighty percent of the starting lineup on opening night will be 32 or older -- and Jermaine O'Neal, who like Garnett came into the league as an 18-year-old high-schooler, is an old 32. Another potential pitfall: Whenever Shaq is on the floor, opponents will go straight after him on pick-and-rolls, putting immense pressure on the Celtics' guards. By the time the Big Shamrock makes it to the foul line and back, someone will have a layup. One of Rivers' biggest challenges will be to maintain the defensive principles installed by former assistant Tom Thibodeau and tweak them to account for O'Neal's lack of mobility.
X-factor: Avery Bradley. The Celtics' first-round pick has been limited all preseason because of an ankle injury. If he can get healthy, Rivers will need his pressure defense on the second unit as he tries to divvy up Tony Allen's duties by committee.
|Raymond Felton is serviceable enough point man to get the Knicks to postseason play. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: Oh, plenty. Measured by opponent field-goal percentage, the Knicks were the worst defensive team in the NBA last season and haven't added any players who are likely to change that. They subbed out David Lee, one of the league's best rebounders, for Stoudemire, who inch-for-inch may be the league's worst. Other than Stoudemire, there's no obvious option when a basket is needed late in the clock, quarter or game. So despite my optimism, things could turn ugly in rather spectacular fashion unless the Knicks find another shooter -– either on their roster or someone else's.
X-factor: Anthony Randolph. All hail the Warriors for including Randolph in the Lee sign-and-trade, because he'll finally get a chance to blossom. But D'Antoni has limited patience with players who possess raw talent and make poor decisions, so there will be some growing pains.
|There is considerable concern that Elton Brand is not the Elton Brand of old. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: With an undersized frontcourt, the Sixers could get mauled around the basket. This weakness will mute the improved shooting they'll get from frontcourt floor-spacers Spencer Hawes and rookie Craig Brackins. With no go-to perimeter scorer and no low-post game, the Sixers will struggle to get consistent production in their halfcourt offense. They have to hope they're athletic and aggressive enough to attack the basket, get to the foul line and remain competitive while Turner goes through his anticipated growing pains.
X-factor: If he surprises and makes strides in the Rookie of the Year chase, Turner could transform the Sixers from a mismatched collection of athletes into a borderline playoff team.
|Linas Kleiza will have plenty of opportunities to jack it up in Toronto. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: Is it possible that the Raptors could be even worse defensively after recording the worst defensive efficiency rating in the league last season? Without Bosh, the answer is yes. Johnson is a willing defender, but is too frail to match up with more hefty power forwards. Same goes for first-round pick Ed Davis.
X-factor: The Raptors hope this player isn't on the roster yet. With numerous movable contracts and the Bosh exception, Toronto will be in the mix as we get into December and closer to the trade deadline for a star they can begin building around again. And since free agents don't want to go to Toronto, that's their best chance of getting back on track.
|When unproven and unprepared rookie Derrick Favors is your X-factor you're in trouble. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: The Nets are good at coming up with pithy slogans and they have to be considering they're beginning a two-year layover in Newark after years of suffering at the Meadowlands. This year's slogan should be, "Is Carmelo here yet?" Anthony would change everything if the Nets were able to push their pursuit of the Nuggets' disgruntled star to the finish line. But in his absence, this looks like a team capable of no better than a 10-15 game improvement over last year's 12-win train wreck. And considering how much tougher the East will be, that may be an optimistic assessment. Get ready for a lot of incredulous tweets from @AverysVoice.
X-factor: Dare we say Anthony? No, let's go with Favors. Has tremendous upside, but it's going to take some time.