“No. 1, the one spot no one talked about all year, was the small forward spot. We need a small forward who can defend, who can make shots and give Paul (Pierce) a blow. I thought Paul, all year, had to guard the best guys all game.
Whenever we took him out, we went small. We put Ray Allen in at small forward, which is a tough matchup. You could see it in the Orlando series. You were almost scared to take Paul off the floor because when you did, Ray Allen was now guarding the Turkoglus or the Rashard Lewises of the world. They went straight to the post, just like every other team did.”
-Doc Rivers on WEEI 5/18/09
I was startled initially upon hearing this observation from Doc in his interview a few weeks back. Sure I thought a backup small forward was a need but the team’s number one priority? My gut reaction would have easily been that another capable backup big man or point guard would be just as pivotal to this team’s success next season.
With that said, given a few weeks to digest the remark further, I have come to grips with how on target Doc’s assessment here is. Paul Pierce looked rundown towards the end of the past season and understandably so. A lot of the added scoring burden fell on the Captain in KG’s absence and the wear and tear of 12 years in the NBA became painfully apparent during the postseason.
The problem for Doc was as he explained in nice terms above was that he simply had no one on his bench he could trust to play the 3. Tony Allen battled a thumb injury midway through the year but even when he was in there, TA was too small and far too inconsistent all year long for reasons I touched on last week. Bill Walker showed some promise but was too young and inexperienced to be counted on to log regular backup minutes.
The loss of James Posey to free agency really created this void from the onset of the season but the Celtics starting five played so well during the first half of the year, it didn’t really matter. Through 47 games this season, the Celtics were 38-9. Even more impressively, 26 of those wins were by double digit margins. Those dominating wins gave Doc the leeway to rest the aging Pierce despite having no real backup for the 3 spot.
The Captain averaged only 36 minutes again through the month of January during this past season, 2 minutes below his average court time over the same stretch of games in 2007-08 when the team had Posey to back him up. The lack of a legitimate backup had no bearing on this team as Pierce’s minutes were decreasing anyway and the team’s flaw was not exposed.
The tune changed once KG went down in February unsurprisingly. The loss of the power forward shook the C’s front line but the aftershocks from the injury made their way through the rest of the team’s lineup. With no KG in the lineup, a lot of the additional burden would be placed on Paul Pierce for this team to compete and with no more easy wins on the horizon thanks to KG’s absence and a rash of other injuries towards the end of the year, Doc found no place to give the Captain any rest.
Paul’s minutes skyrocketed at the end of the year as he averaged over 40 during the months of February and March while the team jockeyed for the 2nd seed in the East. Doc couldn’t afford to run his Captain ragged at that point in the year if he wanted him playing his best ball during the postseason, but he quite simply had no choice in order for the C’s to be able to compete on a nightly basis.
This added exertion led to an inconsistent postseason for number 34. The heavy minutes and scoring accountability appeared to take its toll on the Captain, as his play went up and down more times than a rollercoaster against Chicago and Orlando. The final chapter came in the form of a 16 point 2 rebound performance in game 7 against Orlando as Paul and his teammates were run out of the Garden in the 4th quarter by the Magic.
That effort right there was the exclamation point to Doc’s argument. Paul Pierce does not deliver that kind of performance in a game 7 unless he’s tired or hurt. In this case it was both. Doc is right. This team needs much more depth so it can handle injuries. It needs bench help it can trust. And that crusade must start with finding someone to backup Paul Pierce.
Given the team’s salary limitations, finding an individual to fulfill this role is no easy task. Based on Doc’s criteria above let’s make a little checklist for what this backup swingman would be expected to do.
1. Play good defense
2. Make some shots
3. Respectable size for a small forward (6’6” or above)
4. Have enough of an basketball IQ and awareness so that Doc can trust them enough to leave them on the floor in place of Paul/Ray for a significant period of time
The last requirement there is essentially the most important one. Ray Allen is 33 and Paul Pierce is 31. They are not getting any younger. The person the Celtics bring in this offseason must be able to step in for 15-20 minutes a game competently for one of these guys in order to maximize the production the C’s can get out of them during the stretch runs when the team needs it the most.
There are clearly some bigger names out there this offseason (Grant Hill, Trevor Ariza, etc.) who could fill this role but let’s face it, those are guys are likely to stay put where they are (Hill) or force the Celtics throw a truckload of money at them (Ariza) to get them here. Given the C’s cap situation and variety of other assorted needs, I would find it unwise for the C’s to throw most if not all of their mid level exception at a player like Ariza.
That leads us to search the bargain basement racks to find the man to backup The Truth. Last week, I went through the list of free agents searching for a low cost player that may have fallen through the cracks. It has to be assumed any veterans playing for small money must have some flaws in their game, but the C’s have shown a habit of getting the most out of these kinds of players. (Eddie House anyone?)
As I perused through these players, there was one guy who caught my eye. It was a guy who could come cheap. Someone I knew had some size and could play some D. I did some investigation and the harder I looked, the better the fit appeared to be.
I will give a full report of my look at this potential find later today, but in the meantime I’m open to other ideas. Who is out there in free agency or the draft that could fill this crucial role on the C’s and help keep the Championship “window” open another year or two?