The Celtics are trying to rebuild with youthful athleticism, yet their immediate future depends largely on a 28-year-old veteran who's recovering from right-knee surgery. Last October director of basketball operations Danny Ainge acquired Raef LaFrentz from Dallas in a five-player deal, hoping the versatile power forward would help Boston duplicate the Kings' fluid style. But after the Celtics' doctors saw an MRI that showed the tissue degeneration in LaFrentz's knee, the trade was held up while Ainge considered sending him back. "It was 5050," says LaFrentz. "They knew it was a problem that would have to be taken care of."
After watching LaFrentz struggle through 17 games, Ainge gave him the go-ahead to have surgery last December, over the objections of coach Jim O'Brien. (The dispute was among many factors that led O'Brien to quit in January.) But Ainge was willing to sacrifice last season to have LaFrentz healthy this year. "His glute and quad were each atrophied three inches on his bad leg," says Ainge. "Raef needed long-term rehab to build back the muscles."
Though the 6'11" LaFrentz was still feeling pain during training camp, his rebounding and shot blocking convinced new coach Doc Rivers that he can ignite the Celtics' fast break. (In 2001-02 LaFrentz ranked second in the NBA with 2.73 blocks a game.) The Celtics are also counting on LaFrentz and his backup, Tom Gugliotta--another veteran with a history of knee trouble--to pass and score from the high post, which will help jump-start the half-court offense. "Our smalls [Paul Pierce, Ricky Davis and Gary Payton] can post up and our bigs can shoot, so we're going to be inverted a lot," Rivers says. "Raef's ability to shoot or pass from behind the three-point line should really open things up." --I.T.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Celtics
They're among a half dozen teams fighting for the last playoff spots in the East, but I don't see how they've improved for the short term. Is Gary Payton going to lead their young players, or is he just going to be a pain in the ass?... It doesn't make sense to commit to young guys then bring in someone like Payton. He couldn't accept his role with the Lakers last year when they were trying to win a championship, so you know he won't be happy on a team that's fighting to win 35 games. Payton is going to have the ball, Paul Pierce needs the ball, and Ricky Davis can't play without the ball.... Davis has been a disruptive guy everywhere he's been, and I don't think he's worth the trouble. It's hard to convert guys who have been in losing situations their whole careers--it's all they know.... Pierce is still their primary low-post player and one of the NBA's dominant scorers, a highly competitive guy and a tough matchup. I would always want him on my team. They underestimated the strength of his partnership with Antoine Walker; since they traded Walker they haven't been able to find a scorer to complement Pierce.... The best of their young players is Al Jefferson, who for a high school kid has an excellent feel in the low post. They have high hopes for rookie Tony Allen, but I question whether their other first-rounder, 6'4" Delonte West, has enough talent or size. Then there's second-year man Marcus Banks. He's O.K. as an on-the-ball defender, but as a point guard he can be totally out of control.... All of Doc Rivers's teams play hard. He's enthusiastic, he allows players some freedom, and he'll get them up and down the floor. But they won't be physical.
Mark Blount's 56.6% career field goal shooting ranks first on the team alltime (minimum 2,000 attempts), ahead of Cedric Maxwell's 55.9%.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003--04 statistics
Record: 36-46 (8th in East)
Points scored: 95.3 (8th in NBA)
Points allowed: 96.7 (20th)
Coach: Doc Rivers
(first season with the Celtics)
GARY PAYTON [NEW ACQUISITION]
G MARCUS BANKS
F WALTER MCCARTY
NEW ACQUISITION (R) Rookie (stats for final high school season) *PVR Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 86)
JOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES