'Sheed says the Celtics could challenge Bulls' record... could they?

Monday, October 12, 2009

In a recent interview with Tom Halzack of the CT News, Rasheed Wallace claimed the Celtics could make a run at the Chicago Bulls' hallowed record of 72 regular-season wins.

"Oh definitely. Definitely, playing with those three other guys, also combining that with the guys we have on the bench, I think we can definitely can. Me personally, I think we can get that Bulls record. You know we have the talent for it. We have the will for it and…I think we have the defense for it."

[Halzack:] Do you want me to use that?

"You can. Because honestly, I really do feel that. That was a good team. They had some HOFs on there, but we have a few on this team, too."

On the surface, comparing any team to the 1995-1996 Bulls squad would be sacreligious. They had Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and a recent Hall-of-Fame inductee who wore the number 23 (and 45, briefly). They had role players galore, the best player ever and possibly the best coach ever. They didn't only beat teams; they annihilated them. The Bulls won games by an average of 12.3 points, scoring 105.2 points per game while only giving up 92.9.

To say they were dominant is an understatement; the Bulls started the season with 41 wins in their first 44 games and ended it with a 15-3 record in the playoffs. They won their first 37 home games and became the only team in NBA history to win over 70 games. Their point differential was the second greatest in NBA history (behind only the 1972 Lakers), but if you adjust the differential for the pace of play the Bulls' point differential becomes the best in NBA history.

The Bulls nearly swept every major award. They had the MVP, Finals MVP and All-Star game MVP (Jordan), the Executive of the Year (Jerry Krause), the Coach of the Year (Jackson), and the Sixth Man of the Year (Toni Kukoc). The only major award the Bulls didn't win was the Defensive Player of the Year (Gary Payton won it, in case you were wondering), but they made up for it by becoming the only NBA team with three (that's right, three) players named to the All-Defensive First Team (Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman).

Could this year's Celtics possibly contend with that record, with such a storied team? They've gotten off to incredible starts the past two years, only to see stretches of poor play and injuries derail their quest of challenging the Bulls' mark. Now possessing a lot more depth than last year, could the Celtics rewrite the record books?

Why they probably won't

There are too many things that have to go right for a team to win that many games. For a team to reach 72 wins, it takes far more than outstanding talent. There has to be a bill of clean health. In '95-'96, Jordan didn't miss a single game. Neither did Steve Kerr. Pippen only missed five, Ron Harper two and Kukoc only one. Rodman was the only key player to miss significant time, with 18 games missed.

The Celtics had big injury issues last season and, with an aging roster, could face another injury-plagued season. Garnett missed a lot of time last season, and still isn't 100% heading into the season. Ray Allen has a history of ankle issues. Paul Pierce has been durable throughout his career, but he's getting older and seemed to visibly wear down by the end of last year. Kendrick Perkins has a long trail of shoulder difficulties, and Rajon Rondo's ankles have given him some problems in the past. The whole starting five is injury-prone, and an injury to any one of them could mean an end to the C's chances at cracking the Bull's record.

But even if they are healthy, the Celtics will face many other barriers to 72 wins. They aren't even necessarily the NBA's best team; the Cleveland Cavaliers, L.A. Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Orlando Magic could all stake a claim to being better than the Celtics, at least at this point. The cream of the crop in the NBA might be as good as it's ever been, with the top teams heaped together closely, head and shoulders above every other team. The Celtics play those teams a combined 12 times, and all those games will be losable. Not to mention that the second tier of teams, headlined by Denver, Portland and maybe Dallas, will be tough to beat too.

But let's say the Celtics will be the best team in the league, like Rasheed seems to think, and let's say everyone on their roster remains healthy for all 82 games. Even then, 72 wins is incredibly difficult to attain. With an 82-game schedule, lulls are far too easy to come by. Teams don't always lose because the other team is better. Sometimes a team loses because they're tired on the second night of a back-to-back, or because they simply don't bring their "A" game. The Bulls had Michael Jordan and his unrivaled will to win to keep them in check and make sure they brought intensity every night. The Bulls lost back-to-back games only once the entire year, and were able to bring effort basically every night out. Even a team that's far more talented than its opponent can lose on any given night; for a team to win 72 games it has to be able to severely limit the amount of times it doesn't "bring it".

Why they could do it

Intensity shouldn't be a problem for the Celtics. Their own leader, Kevin Garnett, approaches every play with fury, desire and competitiveness. The C's are a veteran-laden team that knows their window of opportunity won't be open much longer. They know they need to bring effort every night, and have been known for their great defense and high effort level. The biggest criticism of Doc Rivers over the past two years has been that he has valued regular season wins too highly and played his starters too many minutes. The C's want to win, and they work to win every game they play.

Health, on the other hand, could be a problem. But Kevin Garnett doesn't have a past filled with injury issues. His injury last year was the biggest of his career, but he has been, for the most part, a healthy player. Paul Pierce, as noted earlier, has been durable his entire career. And Ray Allen has a history of ankle issues, but he only missed one game last year and reportedly returned to camp in the best shape of his life. Kendrick Perkins has repeatedly hurt his shoulder in the past, but returned to camp lighter, more limber and entirely healthy. And Rajon Rondo, despite small ankle problems from time to time, has only missed 11 games in his three years in the NBA.

Their improved depth should help them limit the starters' minutes and, in the case of an injury, provide insurance behind the starters. Rasheed Wallace has been a starter every other year he's been in the league and, despite reports of his demise last year, his numbers were almost identical to his previous two years (seriously, check it out). And he's 6'11" tall with the ability to guard any power forward or center in the league, spread the floor offensively and play selfless team basketball. Marquis Daniels was a starter last year and averaged over 13 points per game. He also has the versatility to play any perimeter position. Big Baby filled in admirably for the Celtics when KG and Leon Powe were hurt, and now he'll likely be the second big man off the bench. And Eddie House set the Celtics' single-season record for three-point shooting. Their second unit could compete with most teams in the league, and will be a huge factor in limiting the starters minutes and keeping them healthy or filling in for injured starters.

The Celtics won 66 games two years ago and 62 games last year, and now they have a team that, on paper, is better than either of those teams. It probably won't ever happen, but if everything falls right the Celtics could theoretically threaten the Bulls' record. Rasheed has "guaran-Sheed" a lot of things over his career and his latest prediction, while not exactly a guarantee, is likely the most far-fetched one yet. It could happen, and the Celtics have a chance to do it. But only if everything works out perfectly and the stars align for the C's.

Me? I just hope the Celtics win another championship. If they happen to win 72 games on the way, terrific. But anything other than a Larry O'Brien Trophy is just gravy.


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