Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The value of the NBA veteran

Published by on 23/07/2008

The day the Boston Celtics signed P.J. Brown, was the day they became legitimate title contenders. That may sound like an overstatement, but for a team with championship aspirations, a strong veteran presence can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Up until that point the Celtics did not resemble a championship-caliber team. I recall a game back in February earlier this year, the Suns versus Celtics in Phoenix. After a tight first half the Celtics were steam-rolled in the second and despite the final margin of 8 points, they were never in it. Sure, team’s lose on the road and even suffer the odd heavy defeat, but this performance had a deeper meaning. I remember thinking at the time, unless they acquire veterans who possess deep playoff experience, their impressive 2007/08 campaign would ultimately fall short.

The Phoenix loss exposed two key weaknesses for Boston, a lack of depth and a lack of veteran leadership. Sure, the ‘Big 3’ of Garnett/Pierce/Allen had all reached conference finals individually, but more often than not their teams landed in the lottery. The Phoenix defeat indicated a desperate need for added muscle upfront, as they simply couldn’t handle the size and skill-set of Stoudemire and O’Neal. Apart from Garnett, the Boston front line consisted of the inexperienced Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe, Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis and Brian Scalabrine. Together with their lack of a true back-up point guard, it was obvious that the roster in its current form was not going to get it done in late May/June.

Fortunately for the Boston Celtics, GM Danny Ainge had a plan. Enter P.J. Brown, who despite a long lay-off was a sure bet to be the first big off the bench come playoff time. P.J. Brown is the ultimate professional who leads by example, but more specifically, it was his steady defence they coveted. His impressive performances in the playoffs proved his worth and then some.

You don’t have to look far to see the true value of a veteran come playoff time. For the Spurs in 2007 and the Heat in 2006, their championship victories would not have been possible if not for the timely contributions of their veterans. For the Spurs it was Bowen, Finley, Horry and Barry, and for the Heat it was Payton, Mourning and Posey. All made crucial plays during the championship games. Also, with Boston’s Finals opponent the Los Angeles Lakers, you cannot go past Derek Fisher as a major reason for their remarkable turnaround this year. His steady presence in the backcourt solidified their team and instantly took the pressure off Kobe. This allowed Bryant the freedom to play off the ball and, crucially, trust his team-mates.

The P.J. Brown addition to the Celtics was a stroke of genius by Danny Ainge, and quite possibly the final piece to their championship puzzle. The signing of Sam Cassell was also a shrewd move. Despite his inconsistent play, his championship experience gave added confidence to the team.

Make no mistake, while the superstars soak up all the attention, it is the presence of veteran players like P.J. Brown, Sam Cassell and James Posey (only 31 but plays like a seasoned vet), that solidifies a team and makes an NBA Championship reality rather than a dream.