Though unpopular owner Paul Gaston recently agreed to sell the
Celtics for an NBA-record $360 million, his previous decisions
may haunt the franchise for years to come. By refusing to retain
free-agent forward Rodney Rogers last summer because of
luxury-tax concerns, Gaston forced G.M. Chris Wallace to look
elsewhere for a scorer to take pressure off Paul Pierce and
Antoine Walker. Wallace admits that the resulting five-player
trade, which brought underachieving Vin Baker to Boston, was "a
calculated risk," because the four years and $32 million left on
Baker's contract gives the team a third player at maximum salary
and restricts its ability to make a major trade until at least
the 2005-06 season.
Seattle knows that it's no good relying on the 6'11" Baker: The
Sonics were 26-29 with Baker in the lineup last year and 23-4
when he was out. Will his inside game complement the Celtics'
three-point shooting? Or will he ruin the Celtics' chemistry in
much the same way as Anthony Mason disrupted the
perimeter-friendly Bucks last season?
After five seasons in Seattle, three of them unproductive,
Baker, 30, is elated to be heading to New England. (His hometown
of Old Saybrook, Conn., is two hours from Boston.) In August he
checked into a hotel near the Celtics' practice facility and
spent seven weeks working himself into shape. "This is the
biggest season of my career," he says.
Baker's arrival coincides with the end of the honeymoon for
coach Jim O'Brien, who guided the Celtics to the Eastern
Conference finals last year but couldn't get his squad past New
Jersey. Now, not only must he rejuvenate Baker, but he also must
find a way to survive without a true point guard to replace
Kenny Anderson, who had his most useful season before going to
Seattle in the Baker trade.
O'Brien will depend on a trio of hybrids at guard--Tony Delk,
Shammond Williams (who arrived with Baker from Seattle) and
rookie J.R. Bremer--with just 68 career NBA starts among them.
All O'Brien asks is that they escort the ball safely upcourt
before handing it over to Pierce and Walker, who have missed
only 21 games in their combined 10 NBA seasons. As good as
Pierce is, though, the onus is on Walker, who raised his game to
another level while leading Boston to the conference finals last
season. This year O'Brien says he wouldn't be surprised if
Walker's numbers reach MVP heights.
"This is the first time since I've been here that we can look at
[championship] number 17 as a real possibility," says Walker. To
do so Boston must attack this season with a sense of urgency.
Who knows how long Baker will remain interested or how long the
East will remain the conference of parity? --I.T.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER SCORING MACHINE Pierce put up career numbers last season, averaging 26.1 points, 3.2 assists and 6.9 rebounds.
Last season Paul Pierce (210) and Antoine Walker (222) became the
first teammates to each hit more than 200 three-pointers.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Celtics
"They are going to be weaker. Kenny Anderson gave his best
performance in four or five years, and he's gone. His backup,
Erick Strickland, is gone, sixth man Rodney Rogers is gone, and
I have doubts about the replacements.... Anderson gave them
veteran leadership, he was able to blend in and be unselfish, he
could run the offense under pressure, and he rebounded well for
a point guard. Their only true point guard is J.R. Bremer, an
undrafted rookie from St. Bonaventure, and you can't ask him to
run a playoff team. Tony Delk and Shammond Williams are going to
struggle at that position, even if all they're asked to do is
bring the ball up. Strickland would have been better than any of
the guys they have now.... This season I'm telling our guys to
deny the ball to Antoine Walker, make him work hard bringing it
up and push him out whenever you can. If he isn't handling the
ball then who is?... I even think they're going to miss Vitaly
Potapenko, a big, strong guy who could bang and hold the fort.
Vin Baker is going to have to play mainly at center, and he's
not strong enough. Baker's problem is that he thinks he's
working hard when he really isn't. He's going to have to adjust
his game offensively; Paul Pierce is more effective in the post
than Baker is.... They're looking at a weaker bench, which means
their defensive intensity is likely to suffer. They'll struggle
on back-to-backs, and Walker and Pierce aren't going to want to
practice because they'll be working so hard during the games.
They need something from Kedrick Brown, but he was in junior
college two seasons ago, and he's a year away.... Pierce is one
of the top five scorers in the league, but he's an arm-waver on
defense. Let's give it to assistant coach Dick Harter, who
turned a bunch of average or poor defenders into a good
defensive team last year. He has a much tougher job this time."
2001-02 record: 49-33 (second in Atlantic)
Points scored: 96.4 (12th) Points allowed: 94.1 (9th tie)
Coach: Jim O'Brien (third season with Celtics)
STARTERS PVR* 2001-02 KEY STATS
SF Eric Williams 125 6.4 ppg 3.0 rpg 1.5 apg 1.04 spg 37.4 FG%
PF Antoine Walker 12 22.1 ppg 8.8 rpg 5.0 apg 39.4 FG% 34.4 3FG%
C Vin Baker 81 14.1 ppg 6.4 rpg 1.3 apg 0.65 bpg 48.5 FG%
SG Paul Pierce 5 26.1 ppg 6.9 rpg 1.88 spg 44.2 FG% 40.4 3FG%
PG Tony Delk 158 9.5 ppg 3.2 rpg 2.1 apg 38.4 FG% 31.3 3FG%
BENCH PVR* 2001-02 KEY STATS
Williams 187 4.4 ppg 1.3 rpg 1.7 apg 0.42 spg 42.0 FG%
C Tony Battie 193 6.9 ppg 6.5 rpg 0.91 bpg 0.81 spg 54.1 FG%
Brown 261 2.2 ppg 1.7 rpg 0.5 apg 0.62 spg 32.9 FG%
Bremer (R) 295 24.6 ppg 4.7 rpg 3.1 apg 1.87 spg 41.3 FG%
F Walter McCarty 330 3.8 ppg 2.3 rpg 0.7 apg 44.4 FG% 39.4 3FG%
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 92)
VIN BAKER'S PROBLEM IS THAT HE THINKS HE'S WORKING HARD WHEN HE