The Boston Celtics open their title defense tonight (Tuesday) against the Cleveland Cavaliers as favourites to come out of the Eastern Conference once again next spring in a bid to repeat.

However, at this time of year, experts are pretty unanimous in saying that if the 2009 NBA finals turn out to be a re-match of last June’s, the Los Angeles Lakers will come out on top this time around.
It’s hard to argue with that train of thought when looking at the teams’ respective rosters after the summer.

The Celtics lost the pair of James Posey and PJ Brown and have nothing to show for it in return. They welcome rookie Bill Walker who impressed in the pre-season but is likely to ride the pine.

There was a lot of hype surrounding Darius Miles’ presence in training camp. Many wanted to believe he could fill Posey’s vacated spot. How misguided those who bought into that theory turned out to be (myself included)!

It was just naiveté and trying to soften the blow of losing such a versatile and experienced player as the one who wore #41.

Meanwhile, the Lakers will gladly welcome back rising star Andrew Bynum and, with so much depth at virtually every position, Phil Jackson has decided – at least for now – to use Lamar Odom as a sixth man who can get the most out of an impressive second unit.

Of course, the 6-ft-10 team-oriented versatile forward will also be paired on the court with Pau Gasol and Bynum to make up the most impressive frontline in the NBA.

For the Celtics, the thought of going up against that frontline would have seemed a scary thought last season, even when they had Posey (and Brown, soon after the All Star break) to come in and spare Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins.

It will now be a much more daunting task this time around.

The simple fact is that no single player on Boston’s roster can do all of the things Posey did. Therefore, instead of looking for one player to fill those gaps, the team will have to do it all by committee.

Tony Allen has been touted as the most likely to take Posey’s minutes and, while he can help in some areas – pressuring the ball in particular – they aren’t the ones the two-time NBA champion was most famous for.

At 6’4”, Allen can guard point guards and shooting guards. In fact he did a good job in one of the regular season games against Kobe Bryant. However, he can’t and won’t be matched up with small forwards or power forwards the way Posey was.

Meanwhile, Leon Powe and Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis are undersized interior players with a good degree of quickness and agility but both lack the foot speed and stamina to keep up with the much faster Odom or Gasol.

The alternatives to riding the trio of Pierce, Garnett (both of whom will need to see their minutes cut back now that they are in their 30’s and have been in the league for 10 years or more) and Perkins (who is still recovering from a shoulder injury and is prone to foul trouble) then aren’t very attractive.

Therefore, it might be a good idea for Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers to keep their eyes open and pull off moves similar to the ones they made last season, when they acquired Sam Cassell and Brown.

The Celtics brought those two players in after the All-Star break, which gave the pair enough time to get acclimated to the team’s system but also – and maybe more importantly – had them feeling fresh for the post-season when their experience and savvy proved invaluable at one time or another.

If they look hard enough, Ainge and Rivers should already see a few players who might help ease the loss of Posey. The two that could prove intriguing right now are Robert Horry and Ruben Patterson.

Horry’s name hasn’t been mentioned all that much in the off-season largely because the seven-time NBA champion strongly hinted at retirement last June.

But surely if the Big Three were able to convince Brown to come out of retirement last February, they can find a way to light a fire under Horry and offer him the best chance to end his career on a high: with an eighth championship, one that would place him tied for third place among NBA players with the most rings (behind Bill Russell’s 11, Sam Jones’ 10 and in the company of several other Celtics greats).

Horry would more than make up for the amount of experience Posey brought to the table as he is the all-time leader in NBA playoff games played. As far as being clutch, his ability to make big shots has become legendary and earned him the nickname ‘Big Shot Bob’.

The downside is that he is now 38 years old, has lacked the defensive intensity and sprite he had a decade ago and is injury prone.

Alternatively, the Celtics should keep tabs on Ruben Patterson. He was waived by the Denver Nuggets last week but is likely to be an attractive target for another defensively porous team (the Nuggets may feel they have solved their defensive woes on the perimeter thanks to swingman Dahntay Jones).

The one-time self-proclaimed ‘Kobe stopper’, Patterson plays defense like no other. He can match Posey’s intensity at that end of the floor and, despite being only 6’5”, he has enough strength, agility and quickness to guard shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards with a great measure of success.

Like Horry, Patterson does have a considerable downside too: he won’t compensate for Posey’s ability to stretch the floor on offense as his repertoire is on the low block, posting up and generally in the vicinity of the basket. He has never been known as a three-point shooter (he has converted on 35 of 196 attempts from beyond the arc in 649 career games) and could end up clogging the lane for slashers like Pierce and Rajon Rondo.

For now though, these two seem like the best choices for Boston – should they choose to make moves that is. They already have the maximum of 15 players under contract and could only bring in either Horry or Patterson (or anyone else for that matter) if they can open up a spot on the roster.

The easiest way to do that would be to cut Cassell, whose contract isn’t guaranteed, and keeping him in the organisation as an assistant coach or giving him a role similar to the one Allan Houston has been handed with the New York Knicks.

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