Boston Celtics: Revival time again

The revival of the Celtics began three years ago with a bold draft-day gambit when Danny Ainge traded Jeff Green, the No. 5 pick, for Ray Allen. Kevin Garnett came in next, and a 17th championship arrived less than a year later.

The decline of the Celtics -- evidenced by a languid season, despite a magnificent playoff run -- has forced the organization to face the reality that the marvelous Big Three likely has run its course, and it's time be bold once more -- perhaps as soon as Thursday's draft.

It is the most underappreciated, most difficult part of professional sports: balancing respect and loyalty with the eventualities of age and decline. Being a championship-level team always changes that narrative, and the Big Three was never intended as a long-term solution. When they arrived as a unit, Paul Pierce, Garnett and Allen were charged with a dual mission: to win, and to restore the luster to the franchise.

The Celtics' situation is larger than the missed opportunities of the 2010 Finals. While the Lakers bask in a well-deserved title defense, the Celtics will writhe in the agonies of losing a winnable championship over a handful of critical moments:

• The second quarter of Game 3, when Paul Pierce did not destroy an appetizing one-on-one matchup with Luke Walton while Ron Artest was on the bench in foul trouble.

• In crunch time in the fourth quarter of the same game, when apparently none of the Celtics realized that Derek Fisher, one of the game's great money players, is left-handed, allowing him to drive to his left and shoot jumpers while Boston defenders contested his right hand. That was the worst individual defense the Celtics played in the series, and it cost them the home-court advantage they had stolen in Game 2 in L.A.

• And when the title was there to be won, the Celtics wilted at the finish, possibly because they were exhausted, but definitely because the Lakers' superior team defense -- supposedly Boston's forte -- in the final seven minutes of the final game of the season illustrates what winning a championship is all about.

The case could be made, too, that the Celtics lost the title by giving away Games 1 and 6 without any evidence of a fight.

These details are not unimportant, but the Celtics' questions have consequences that reach far beyond the "what ifs." What if Allen hadn't had the worst week of his career? What if Garnett's knees still had their pre-surgery spring? What if Pierce could have matched Kobe Bryant's aggressiveness in the final quarter of Game 7?

Such reflection is inevitable, perhaps even therapeutic. But the appropriate reaction is to take a longer view and conclude that while 2010 was most likely -- and should be -- the last stand of the Big Three, the experiment was an unqualified success, even in the Finals defeat.

I don't envy the Celtics' front office, for the path that general manager Ainge and principal owner Wyc Grousbeck will now walk is as delicate as rice paper. There is the sentimentality about keeping together the group that finally revived a legendary franchise that had been dead for nearly 20 years. Yet, in one sense, these Celtics will go down in history as the least accomplished of the great Boston teams, at least in terms of number of championships. (All three previous Celtics title runs -- under Russell, Havlicek and Bird -- produced at least two titles.) And there is the cold assessment that the Pierce-Allen-Garnett group can no longer sustain its championship level.

For the first time since the Bird era, the Celtics are a positive part of the conversation. The team has an identity, with identifiable characters, an important component that should never be taken lightly. But Pierce and Allen are free agents, and so, in effect, is coach Doc Rivers.

Pierce has proved he needs serious offensive help; he can dominate portions of a game but no longer an entire four quarters. Allen is respected but painfully streaky, while Garnett is not dominant enough either offensively or defensively to transform a good team into a title contender over 82 games, as he once did. In terms of talent and results, Rajon Rondo was the most important player on the floor throughout the playoffs, and is the best player on the roster.

The Celtics fought hard to return to relevance. But they now face the prospect, if Rivers doesn't return, of pairing a new coach with a core that cannot be expected to mount another championship charge. Grousbeck and his group purchased the team in 2002, and the Celtics hadn't played in the Finals since 1987 (a six-game loss to the Lakers). They weren't in the mix through the high point of the Jordan era, or the Spurs' title runs, or the Shaq-led Lakers. They were the equivalent of the Green Bay Packers: the team dads talked about mistily while their kids played with D-Wade and Kobe on the PS3.

The Big Three legitimized the Celtics and altered their individual narratives. Pierce, Allen and Garnett all were exciting players, but lacked something on their own until they became champions together. And Rivers now commands enough respect that he might have outgrown portions of being the Celtics' coach.

Retaining Rivers should be a priority. In a player's league, he seems to have gained the ears of most of his team, perhaps nearing the level of respect that only exists with names like Jackson, Popovich and Riley. That respect, however, has been built on the strength of veterans who believe in his leadership. Will he have that strength going forward?

As the captain, Pierce must be given the opportunity to retire as a Celtic. But he also must be willing to groom a successor, even if it means he'll be overshadowed for the final few years of his career. There came a time when Russell overtook Cousy, when Havlicek overtook Russell; and in more recent examples around the league, when Duncan overtook Robinson and Kobe replaced Shaq. It is the natural order of a championship ecosystem.

For the front office to be indecisive or sentimental about the roster now will undermine the Celtics' hard-won momentum. (The Spurs, for example, have held on too long; what they've gained in continuity they've lost in competitiveness.) The greatest free-agent class in history is available, and perhaps Dwyane Wade or (gasp!) LeBron James can be convinced to come. The currency of the Big Three has provided the Celtics with the -- ahem -- political capital to attract free-agent players to Boston, something the organization has never been successful at doing.

The Boston argument had long been that heartstrings guided the Bird-Parish-McHale nexus in the late 1980s to disastrous results when they were gone, that the team hadn't prepared for life without them. It is at best a specious argument. Poor management, poor drafting and the twin deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis undid the Celtics more than loyalty to the aging core.

In other words, mission accomplished. The Last Stand of the Big Three was an unexpected, magnificent run that was unsuccessful only by one measure: They didn't win another title. In some ways, what this core has achieved might be more impressive than the Bird revival, when the Celtics were only three years removed from their previous championship. These Celtics restored dignity and respect to a team that had lost its way, and did so by giving the fans of Boston a title run that was a joy to watch. But trying to milk a fourth year out of a two-year window would be a mistake.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.