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Boston's surprise trade could lead to another NBA championship

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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BOSTON -- In a room full of some 500 hoops analysts, it took longer than one might expect for the trade that triggered local shockwaves to be analyzed.

This was the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, after all, the annual meeting of the NBA's number-crunching minds and the perfect place to discuss whether Boston's decision to retool its championship-caliber roster at the February trade deadline made even the slightest bit of sense. And that was Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren up on the stage midday Friday, the mid-30s whiz-kid-turned-analytics-celebrity who certainly had a voice in the trade that sent Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic.

Jeff Green's a versatile player who's expected to play a crucial role in the Celtics' 2011 championship run. (Getty Images)  
Jeff Green's a versatile player who's expected to play a crucial role in the Celtics' 2011 championship run. (Getty Images)  
Some 15 minutes into the interactive part of the program, the question that had been so strongly debated in Beantown cabs and bars for more than a week was finally discussed by a more relevant spokesman.

"The mandate from our owners was very clear," Zarren began. "We want to win a championship this year. In this city, we're very lucky to have a tradition where that's what it's about. If we're not hanging a banner, it's not a good year. And so we think that we're a better team this week than we were a week and a half ago. That's just how we feel. For a bunch of reasons, we like the guys we got.

"Not to say we won't miss Perk. Of course we'll miss him, but we wouldn't have done the trade if we didn't think it was better for us this year. It was an agonizing trade to make, but I think it makes us better."

A home game in March against Golden State does not a verdict make, but falling to an inferior foe could certainly have qualified as an indictment. Instead, Green and Krstic showcased what they can bring in a 107-103 win that made Boston 4-1 since the trade.

Green had his best game of his four in Celtics green, scoring 21 points off the bench in the sort of athletic, versatile way that Boston general manager Danny Ainge envisioned when he did the deal. Krstic was efficient and opportunistic early as a starter, finishing with 11 points and six rebounds while offering the sort of subtle offensive addition that Perkins never did.

As David Lee was reenacting his Knicks days with a 26-point, 12-rebound outing, it was tempting to wonder about the missing man in the middle. But no matter how many times the tale was told about Perkins' absence from Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals and how he could've been the difference-maker at the end, the more recent truth was that the Celtics had been thriving without him for quite some time.

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They went 33-10 without him this season before he returned from offseason knee surgery in mid-January, downing Miami, Chicago, Orlando, the Lakers and the Spurs in the process. That was the crux of the Celtics' logic, the evidence collected that helped raise the collective confidence and lead to such a bold move.

Of course there's business involved here, most of all the fact that Perkins was likely to be lost as an unrestricted free agent this summer and Green could be kept because he will be restricted. But Zarren spoke for the Celtics front office when he declared this had more to do with basketball than business, and the move suddenly looks even smarter in light of recent medical developments.

Robinson underwent arthroscopic knee surgery Friday and will miss four to six weeks, while Perkins is out for at least two more weeks with a sprained right knee. The Celtics have concerns of their own, though, chief among them the two O'Neals -- Shaquille and Jermaine -- and the postseason-worthy size that they bring. Shaq has missed the past 12 games with an inflamed right Achilles, but is expected to be back on Wednesday against the Clippers. Jermaine has been out since Jan. 10 with a sore left knee, with no timetable set for his return but an in-house expectation that he'll be ready for the postseason.

Medical charts aside, this is a trade that will be judged more by DNA than X's and O's. The Celtics' makeup is so rare, the team so uniquely unified, that altering that chemistry in any sort of significant way comes with a risk. And Perkins, without question, was a big man who was beloved by teammates and fans alike.

Yet if the early signs are any indication, these new-look Celtics won't struggle in that regard. Green wasted no time in attempting to click with his new teammates, inviting Ray Allen to dinner via text message on the day he first joined his new team in Los Angeles. Allen cancelled his prior plans, then joined Green and Krstic for a sushi dinner that doubled as a crash course on all things Celtics.

They discussed the expectations of coach Doc Rivers, the intensity and approach of Kevin Garnett, the professionalism of Paul Pierce and the unselfish style of Rajon Rondo. Green is no fan of sushi, but he played the team role and tried it anyways. In truth, it wasn't about the food at all.

"It was a big thing for me to try to pick his brain, to see how he goes about things and try to latch on to that," Green said. "It was me just trying to get a quick first step on how things are ran here."

The first steps are going just fine, of course. It's the sprint at the finish that will be worth analyzing.

"That's going to be the determining factor [on the perception of the trade], whether we [win the championship] or not," Allen said. "We'll talk about it in July."

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