All the buzz these last few days has been about the superteam Pat Riley's formed in Miami, with LeBron James joining fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to build a formidable Heat juggernaut for the future. But is three guys enough to be the best? Or will the Celtics' starting five still be the best in the game?
After the Celtics clinched the Eastern Conference title on their home floor on May 28, Doc Rivers stepped up to the mic at center court and triumphantly reminded the TD Garden faithful that his starting five had never lost a playoff series.
They still haven't.
When Kendrick Perkins went down early in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers last month, his Celtics led three games to two. They were on the verge of shocking the world and knocking off the defending champions. They never got that chance.
When Kevin Garnett went down in the spring of 2009, his injury was the one thing keeping the C's from repeating as champions. Without him, they advanced to the second round and took a 3-2 lead against an Orlando team that would eventually reach the NBA Finals. Then they floundered.
But with Perkins, Garnett and the rest of their current starting five all alive and kicking, the Celtics have been untouchable. They've played seven playoff series, and they've won all seven. In their one Finals with a healthy starting five, they beat the Lakers in six and captured their 17th banner.
The Celtics have spent over a decade molding this starting five. They selected Paul Pierce in the first round of the 1998 draft, No. 10 overall and just one slot behind another future Hall of Famer named Dirk Nowitzki. They got Perkins with the No. 27 overall pick in 2003, swinging a draft-day trade with the Grizzlies. Three years later, they made another steal with Rajon Rondo, getting the No. 21 pick from the Suns and landing a future All-Star.
On draft day in 2007, the Celtics traded for Ray Allen. A month later, they landed Garnett, as well.
It's now been three years, and the Celtics haven't changed a thing about the starting five they built that summer. They've gone to great lengths, in fact, to keep it intact. Pierce has a new four-year contract and will be paid handsomely until he's 36 years old. Allen, similarly, will be making the big bucks until he's just about 37.
Ainge has stuck with this group because they're proven winners. They don't have the star power of Miami, the youth of Oklahoma City or the defending champions' belt currently worn by the Lakers. But they've proven their mettle as champions, and when they're healthy, no one can take it away from them.
The Heat may someday lay claim to the title of best starting five. But let's wait until they get five players on the roster before we say anything rash.
The Thunder are growing — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are legitimate stars. The supporting cast around them still needs to ripen.
The Lakers are a candidate. But is Derek Fisher still a starter in the NBA? Talk about a weak link.
The Atlanta Hawks are right there — like the Celtics, they've kept the same starting five intact for three years and watched it grow. And with Joe Johnson coming back, they still have their leader in place. But have the Hawks won anything? And will they, ever? Maybe not.
The Magic, Jazz, Spurs, Mavericks and Nuggets are all solid, but all have their weak links.
There's no one quite like the Celtics. They've got their captain (Pierce), their defensive backbone (Garnett), their shooter (Allen), their enforcer (Perkins) and their playmaker (Rondo), the guy who makes it all happen.
With those five all still together, the Celtics are mighty hard to beat.
No one ever has.
NESN.com will answer one Celtics question every day in July.
Friday, July 9: Will Danny Ainge make a splash in free agency?
Sunday, July 11: Can the Celtics rebuild their bench?
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