SHORTLY AFTER THE CELTICS WON the NBA championship in 2008, forward Paul Pierce was asked whether Lakers rival Kobe Bryant, then considered by many to be the best player in the world, was truly the world’s best.
“I don’t think Kobe is the best player,” Pierce said. “I’m the best player. There’s a line that separates having confidence and being conceited. I don’t cross that line, but I have a lot of confidence in myself.”
Though one of the best players in Celtics history and one of the top players in the NBA, Pierce has never been considered the world’s best. But in that interview and during the last five seasons, Pierce has acted out that bravado to the Celtics’ benefit. He’s not alone in his egotism.
When Boston traded for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007, point guard Rajon Rondo was the misfit. A second-year player wasn’t supposed to meld with three perennial all-stars. But that was just the kind of challenge the stubborn Kentuckian liked. Rondo helped lead the team to the 2007-2008 championship, and he’s turned himself into one of the league’s best players despite weaknesses shooting the ball. Rondo said recently that he’d like to be the best point guard in Celtics history. That may be boastful, but it’s not far-fetched; he may be the most exciting player in sports.
Case in point: When Rondo went to Rivers last season and asked him to insert second-year player Avery Bradley into the starting lineup over Allen, Rivers listened. Bradley flourished in the role. Rondo acts like the smartest guy in the room because he often is.
Rivers is a players’ coach, but there’s a misconception that he’s too tolerant. Players who cause problems — Glen “Big Baby” Davis is a noted example — find themselves elsewhere. It is now known that Allen was unhappy with losing his starting job, but it didn’t become a story during the season. We’re in the midst of dissecting what went wrong with the Red Sox, ego by ego, but during this highly successful Celtics run, egos have been front and center. It can be argued that the Celtics have succeeded because of their egos and not in spite of them.
Rivers is a master at accommodating individual needs. Having covered this team for seven seasons, I’ve witnessed behind-the-scenes moments that would drive most coaches crazy. Getting Garnett to acquiesce to a simple media availability or a team photo can be like pulling teeth. Ask him to sign 100 basketballs and he’ll sign 30. Rondo is similarly hardheaded. And Pierce, who used to speak to the media before games, has gone behind the wall, too. But one look from the coach and whatever needs doing gets done.
The commonality among these players is that they don’t compromise on success. Garnett, Rondo, and Pierce are the best at their craft because they work to get the most out of their supreme talent. They have every right to believe in themselves. Before he left for the Miami Heat in July, Allen was the same way. The Celtics weren’t supposed to make it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season. With a core group of players in their prime, the Heat should be the better team. Yet the Celtics took the eventual champions to a deciding game because they believed they belonged there.
It’s a fine line. Too many egos can ruin a team. Just ask Bobby Valentine. But handled the right way, they can be a catalyst to something better. The Celtics are pinning their hopes on several additions this season, but the heart of the team is the same. You better believe they like their chances.