When last season opened, every prediction involving the Celtics included an addendum: "if they can stay healthy." A team dominated by three players 34 years old or older and a fourth, center Jermaine O'Neal, just past his 33rd birthday was bound to run into medical issues eventually.
Injuries indeed played a factor in Boston's inability to get past the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, but it was not the veterans who were ailing.
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen all suited up for that Game 7 in South Beach. Jeff Green, 25, and Avery Bradley, 21, were not. Green missed the entire season after having surgery to fix an aortic aneurism, and Bradley was felled by an injured left rotator cuff that eventually affected his right shoulder as well. Allen did miss time late in the regular season and early in the playoffs with bone spurs in his right ankle, but by the conference finals he appeared to be at least adequately mobile. Pierce was mostly healthy, if ineffective, and Garnett recaptured the dominance of his youth.
"It was kind of ironic," said Danny Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations. "We went out last year and tried to build some depth around our older guys, and the guys who got hurt and we didn't have in the playoffs was our 21-year-old and our 25-year-old."
The ability of any roster of players staying away from injury trouble cannot be predicted, which is why Ainge is more bullish than some might expect about keeping the Celtics' core from the last five years intact. The three-year, $34 million deal the team reportedly agreed to with Garnett over the weekend and a two-year, $12-million deal reportedly offered to Allen made clear that the Celtics are not uneasy about leaning on their seasoned stars once again.
After introducing the next generation of Celtics in a news conference Monday at the Jackson/Mann School, Ainge expressed the team's desire to re-sign Allen and power forward Brandon Bass. Syracuse center Fab Melo, who was introduced with fellow 2012 draft picks Jared Sullinger and Kris Joseph, apparently was told that jersey No. 51 was unavailable, which may have been a hint that 32-year-old reserve Keyon Dooling is not entirely out of Boston's plans. (Melo settled on No. 13.) Mickael Pietrus, 30, has repeatedly addressed his wish to play with Boston next season, and the team is still high on Chris Wilcox, 29, who missed the end of last season with a heart ailment.
This hardly is the youth movement Ainge anticipated going through by this point when he brought in Garnett and Allen in 2007. Fans might clamor for new, young stars, but the reality is that none are realistically available to the Celtics. Many of those that are available come with so much baggage that they present risks that are different, yet no less worrisome, than the possibility of injury for Garnett, Pierce or Allen.
"These guys have proven that they can still play," Ainge said. "Then you look at the alternatives. The reason we haven't made trades isn't because we haven't looked into possible opportunities to retool our team for the future. Those opportunities aren't there, and our guys continue to show how good they are on the court, so we're going to let them play because that's the best alternative for us, for the Celtics, for Celtics fans and for the organization."
There are those who will fret about the ages of the stars no matter what, and fans will cringe any time one of the veterans hits the parquet with a slightly harder than normal thump. Ainge might even be one of them.
With Garnett, Pierce and possibly Allen, the Celtics will begin next season believing they have a chance. That is more than could be said for a squad that consisted of Pierce, Rajon Rondo and a bunch of younger, unproven players. Ainge is looking to give the Celtics another shot at a title — if they can stay healthy.