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Behold the NBAsuperstarus, a most splendid subspecies of Homo sapiens. He is a gifted soul, perhaps energetic and multitalented (like 6' 11" Kevin Garnett), or efficient and charming (like shooting guard Ray Allen), or fierce and explosive (like swingman Paul Pierce). But the NBAsuperstarus often falls victim to the flaw of hubris, believing that he is surrounded by lesser subspecies whose job it is to pay him homage and, most important, to recognize that their team is--all together now--his team.
With that bit of biology in mind, it might be wise for the city of Boston to hold off mapping a route for the 2008 NBA championship parade. True, now that Garnett, 31, and Allen, 32, have joined Pierce, 29, in Beantown, the Celtics--whose 24 wins last season were the second fewest, to the Memphis Grizzlies' 22--have been established by oddsmaker Bodog as 5-to-2 favorites to win the Eastern Conference and 5 to 1 to win it all. Not incidentally, those odds were 40 to 1 and 90 to 1 before the July 30 trade that brought Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Franchise That Auerbach, Russell, Cousy, Bird, et al. Built.
Yet despite the Celtics' rebirth and an accompanying outbreak of civic pride, it is quite likely that next summer the league's latest Big Three will come up ringless, just like other Terrific Troikas of the past (page 70). Predictably, the Great Green Gang of Three has said all the right things about selflessness and commitment: At Garnett's introductory press conference they recalled bonding at a high school tournament in Las Vegas in 1993. After nixing a trade to Boston five weeks earlier--Garnett says that it had nothing to do with the city's reputation for being inhospitable to African-Americans but, rather, with the team's being years away from contention--the 10-time All-Star became open to moving once the Celtics plucked Allen, a seven-time All-Star, from the Seattle SuperSonics in a draft-day deal. Pierce said that the acquisitions make him feel "like a rookie again, like when you first get drafted and you're excited about playing in the league." Allen said it was going to be "a pleasure" and "an honor" to step on the floor with Garnett and Pierce every night.
Yes, things haven't looked this bright since June 1986, when Boston not only won its 16th (and last) championship but also had the No. 2 pick in the draft; when Larry Bird was trim and healthy, current executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge was a frisky young guard and the future, like the past, seemed dotted with shamrocks. But consider the observation of one NBA coach who watched the press conference. "As I listened to Pierce, it was like he was saying, O.K., you're coming to my team now," says the coach. "It seemed like a message to KG and Ray." Perhaps the coach was referring to Pierce's shout-out to Ainge and Celtics ownership for "bringing the players around me necessary for us having a shot at a ring."
As for Allen, the coach thought that his whole demeanor gave the impression of I'm the veteran here. I'll take care of things. "Ray can be a bit of a locker room lawyer," says the coach. "And really, the best player is Kevin. We'll see how he handles that."
Several other coaches and general managers analyzing the trade saw potential conflicts. "Ego and chemistry relative to Pierce is the first minefield for these guys," says a Western Conference executive. A Western coach adds, "San Antonio is good because two of their Big Three, [Tony] Parker and [Manu] Ginóbili, have no doubt that it's Tim Duncan's team. Tim was already established as the main guy when the others came, and for KG earning that respect won't be as easy." And this from an Eastern coach: "None of them have won a thing. So who will point the finger at whom if things start going south?"
Who will be the real Celtics capo? While Garnett is a first-ballot Hall of Famer with career averages of 20.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists, he was sometimes a tepid leader during his 12 seasons in Minnesota, too eager to be just one of the guys even as he demanded it be his team, which of course it was. In an interview with SI last weekend, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor--widely believed to be the driving force behind the trade, not vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale--came close to saying as much when he recalled an April 3 game at the Target Center in which Garnett and the Cleveland Cavaliers swingman Sasha Pavlovic went jaw to jaw and had to be separated. Taylor noticed how the Cavs' young star, LeBron James, took control of his teammates.
"He shouted to them, 'Stop it! We're here to play!' " recalled Taylor, who was sitting courtside. "Here's a guy who's 22 years old, and his command on that team was just as good as a coach saying that, or even better. When I heard that, it was just so obvious how different that presentation was. . . ." He meant how different it was from the emotions that boil over in Garnett in such moments.
Leadership issues bleed into basketball issues. "Paul and Ray are perimeter-oriented players," says an Eastern Conference coach, "and Garnett doesn't get to the line all that much." In averaging 22.4 points last season, 13th-best in the NBA, Garnett attempted only 6.6 free throws per game, fewer than any scorer above him except for Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson (5.5) and--what do you know?--Allen (5.6). "So," asks the coach, "when it's crunch time, isn't Pierce [8.6 free throw attempts in last season's injury-riddled campaign] going to think, Hey, I'm the only one who can get this done?"
Another coach focuses on two more question marks: defense and playmaking. After examining in detail the qualities of title-caliber teams, which this coach does at the end of every season, he believes that a couple of things stand out. "No championship team has had to trap and overexpose its defense," says the coach. "And every one has had a guard who can create [for himself and others] at crunch time and with the shot clock going down. It doesn't necessarily have to be a point, like Parker or [the Detroit Pistons' Chauncey] Billups. Kobe Bryant did it for the Lakers. Dwyane Wade did it for Miami. But Ray is catch-and-shoot and Paul is get-his-own-shot. So I don't see those things with these Celtics."