Gary Payton is 42 years old. He's well traveled throughout the NBA and around the globe. And if there's one guy who knows a thing or two about role players helping teams win championships, it's him. It's not too long ago that he was one of them.
"The Glove" is of course best known for his time in Seattle, a 13-year stretch in which he made nine Western Conference All-Star teams and nine NBA All-Defense first teams while scoring almost 20,000 points in SuperSonics green. But he also reinvented himself post-Sonics with an interesting second act, floating from contender to contender as a modest supporting actor on four other NBA teams between 2003 and '07.
Payton spent time in his later years in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Boston and Miami, making the playoffs with all four teams and finally winning his only championship ring with the Heat in 2006. He knows how to be a small piece of something big. It's how he made his living in the latter part of his career, fading into the background and letting the stars take the spotlight.
He knows you need more than just the big stars. And that's why he's not so sure about the new incarnation of the Miami Heat, reloaded with the arrival of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade down in South Beach.
"Well, they have three great stars there," Payton said this week in an interview with Business World. "But like what I?ve said, you?ve got to have more than just names."
Throughout his time in Seattle, where he played until 2003 when he was traded to Milwaukee for future Celtic Ray Allen, Payton himself was a name. A big one, too. He and Shawn Kemp led the Sonics to eight consecutive playoff appearances in the 1990s, including a trip to the Finals where they took on Michael Jordan's Bulls.
But in act two, he found a new role. He took a backseat in Los Angeles to Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, hoping to finally bring home a ring. He came up short. He tried supporting Paul Pierce in Boston, then Wade in Miami. He was 37 when he finally won a championship.
Payton learned firsthand the value of hard work paying off. He knows that titles aren't won overnight.
So he knows that even though the Heat are loaded with three of the game's biggest stars, there's absolutely nothing that's guaranteed.
"You?ll never know what will happen this season," Payton said. "You still have a great team in the Orlando Magic. You have a great team in the Boston Celtics. The Celtics are the defending Eastern Conference champions, so [the Heat] have to go through them. I just want to see what happens [with the Heat] just like everybody else."
We all want to see what happens, of course. Put three stars like that together, and anything is possible. But Payton's point, and it's one that he's reinforced through two decades of experience in the NBA, is that he's putting his money on the proven commodity. And he's putting it on the true team, well assembled from the biggest star to the last guy off the bench.
That team is the Celtics. They're more than just three stars — just as the Heat in 2006 had role players like Antoine Walker, James Posey and Payton himself, the C's of today have plenty of supporting pieces. They've got savvy veterans like Shaquille and Jermaine O'Neal. They've got flashy youngsters like Glen Davis and Nate Robinson. The Celtics are deep, they're dangerous and they're team-oriented. They play together and they win together.
Gary Payton didn't become who he is today by spewing nonsense. He knows what he's talking about, and in this case, he knows a real favorite in the Eastern Conference when he sees it.
The Celtics are the team to beat in the East. The Heat will spend all of next season trying to beat them.