Pierce declares Celtics as 'team to beat'

The Boston Celtics open training camp next week with a new roster and the same confident attitude. Forget that the Los Angeles Lakers are the NBA’s reigning champions. Paul Pierce(notes) is already predicting another title for the Celtics – provided, of course, they stay healthy.

“Before the season even started last year, I was asked, ‘What is going to stop y'all from winning it all?’ ” Pierce said in a phone interview on Thursday. “The first thing I said was, ‘If we’re healthy, we’re going to win it all.’ And I’m going to say it again: ‘If we are healthy, we are going to win it all.’

“I honestly believe that. I think we’re the best team in the NBA, healthy.”

Pierce was speaking from New York where he was promoting the launch of his new “The Truth on Health” youth initiative. The program includes a web-based club, FitClub34, that provides children with resources to become more active.

Poor health doomed the Celtics’ own hopes last season. All-Star forward Kevin Garnett(notes) missed 25 games, including the playoffs, because of a right knee injury that eventually required surgery. Role players also were in and out of the lineup as Boston went on to lose to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Pierce said he barely watched the Lakers beat the Magic in the NBA Finals. After the series was over, he tweeted, “Looked like a German shepherd vs. a poodle. That's OK the Rottweiler Celtics will b back in 2010.”

“It wasn’t really interesting,” Pierce said of the Finals. “I watched when [the Lakers’] Derek Fisher(notes) hit the three, and then I was like, ‘I don’t need to watch no more.’

“It would have been tough for us to beat Cleveland, to be honest with you now that it’s all over. Even if we had beaten Orlando, it would have been really tough to beat Cleveland with the injuries we had.

“But … we still feel like we are the team to beat. … I just feel like Kevin would have given us a chance to win it all. Without Kevin, it’s tough.”

Garnett has resumed practicing with the Celtics. He played “a couple days” last week, Pierce said, but is still working his way back from the injury.

“It wasn’t like he was out there [screaming] and dunking,” Pierce said. “No, none of that. But he was out there on the court.”

Stung by James Posey’s(notes) departure last season, the Celtics improved their depth over the summer by signing forward Rasheed Wallace(notes) and guard Marquis Daniels(notes). Wallace can back up Garnett, or, if needed, start in place of him. The Celtics also hope Daniels can give Pierce, who turns 32 on Oct. 13, some rest. The 37.5 minutes Pierce averaged last season were his most in three years.

Are the current Celtics better than the 2008 NBA championship team?

“We’re more talented now,” Pierce said. “It’s hard to say if we’re better. We’re definitely more talented and we had more depth than when we won it all.”

Pierce understandably views Orlando and Cleveland as Boston’s biggest threats in the East, but he also likes the Celtics’ chances against either. “The one thing we got over them right now is our chemistry,” he said. “We’re bringing back our same starting five.”

Rajon Rondo’s(notes) improvement over the course of last season also strengthened the Celtics. Still, that didn’t keep Rondo’s name from surfacing in trade talks over the summer.

“A lot of guys lose confidence when you hear trade rumors,” Pierce said. “They don’t think they’re good enough. They think they’re expendable.

“Rondo’s got to understand that’s part of the business. I was making All-Star teams and still hearing trade rumors. It just goes with the territory. You got to have thick skin in this business.”

During their offseason workouts, the Celtics could look up at their 2008 championship banner in the rafters of their training facility. But instead of using that as motivation, Pierce said they have their eyes focused on the future.

“All that we did in 2008 is over with,” Pierce said. “[That] doesn’t mean nothing with this team. We need to go out there and prove something. Rasheed is here to win a championship. That’s why he came, and that’s all we talk about. We’ve stopped talking about what happened in 2008.

“When someone brings it up, I don’t want to hear it. That’s in the past.”

And if health issues remain a thing of the past, too? Pierce and the Celtics could have a legitimate shot of living up to his title prediction.