Each Thursday this season, CelticsHub will be joined by the esteemed Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston to tackle five questions on the state of the Celtics.
We start this week with our responses to the Celtics’ slow, then hot start.
Brendan Jackson: Temporary. The Celtics’ defense has fallen victim to new personnel and a small sample size. It’s obvious the bench guys have yet to get completely acclimated to the Celtics team-oriented defensive concepts. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the C’s defensive rating when they have their starters intact. Due to various injuries, the Celtics’ normal starters have only played a combined 29 minutes together this season and have posted an impressive 96.36 defensive rating. This would be good for 5th in league just ahead of Miami. Small sample sizes go both ways but considering the Celtics have posted an overall defensive rating that’s been top five in the league during the Big Three era, I’ll err on the side of the defense getting better.
Hayes Davenport: Neither: they’re over. Chalk the first three games up to lack of practice — in a teamwork-driven system like the one in Boston, players need time to refamiliarize themselves with their roles. They’ve done that now, and since the Hornets game, the Celtics have played four terrible NBA teams and made them all look like terrible CYO teams. Plus they’ll be adding Mickael Pietrus as their most capable bench defender in a matter of weeks. They may not end up being the Russian Front on defense they were the last four seasons, but they’ll certainly be top ten.
Chris Forsberg: Given that the Celtics have never ranked worse than fifth in the league in points allowed per game during the Big Three era, you’d have to think the problems are temporary. That said, the amount of points in the paint this team is allowing (whether off bad defense or fouls drawn) is alarming — especially considering the last four games have been against some of the worst teams in basketball (Wizards twice, Pistons, Nets).
Brian Robb: It’s still unclear. The defensive trends are moving in the right direction against inferior competition, but the defensive rebounding and forced turnovers, two areas that the C’s have excelled at over the past couple seasons continue to remain mediocre. Clearly it’s a small sample size thus far, but these are two areas Boston must improve in to return to an elite defensive team.
Ryan DeGama: I expect the C’s will again find their way into the top five teams in the league in defensive efficiency. However, unless that’s built on the efforts of the entire roster, it’s a deceiving statistic. The starters can’t repeatedly shut down the opposition only to see the bench give up leads only to force those same starters to work twice as hard to pull out the game. More than ever, contributions from guys #5-10 are crucial this season if the Celtics want to be fresh for the playoffs.
Jackson: All good things will come to end. It’s nice to see that Rajon Rondo really gets everybody good shots but Wednesday night’s game against the Nets is a perfect example of how invaluable Ray Allen is to the Celtics’ offense. He’s almost always the first option coming off a screen. Even if he doesn’t get the ball, he causes the defense to shift in a way that frees up others. Given his age and the crammed schedule, Allen is likely to start missing games some time this season and with him go those offensive benefits. Couple that with the fact that the C’s don’t really have a bonafide, one-on-one scoring threat outside of Pierce and you’re looking at some stagnation and regression.
Davenport: No, but I think other teams will get better rather than the Celtics getting worse. The Celtics are currently outproducing the Thunder, Bulls, Nuggets, and Lakers, and I don’t see them remaining in the four-spot any more than Philadelphia staying in the three. Still, they’ve been performing at an encouragingly high level thanks to Allen aging in reverse and Brandon Bass (Boston’s first real scoring bench forward since Eric Williams), and Pietrus can only help. Barring injuries (hah), this could be their best offensive team since 2009.
Forsberg: If the defense returns to familiar levels and the Celtics are able to get in transition more often, the offensive efficiency is potentially sustainable. But it’s hard to imagine that Boston can continue to shoot this many jump shots and still be as efficient overall (especially once we’re deeper into this condensed schedule). The Celtics also need to generate more post offense in order to allow for higher-percentage attempts in the halfcourt offense.
Robb: I don’t see them as a top-10 offensive team, but I think 11-13th range is quite reasonable. A lot of the jump is thanks to incredibly hot shooting from downtown thus far, along with consistent points from midrange that Bass has delivered. The shooting percentages will come back down to earth, but if the C’s can continue to manufacture some points from their bench unit had a reasonable rate, the C’s will have their best offensive in at least three years.
DeGama: The offense is still too heavily based on jumpshooting and Kevin Garnett’s passing fetish has become a real problem. So, I’d expect them to slip back to the middle of the pack, which is just enough of a fall to submarine their playoff hopes. Bass was a step in the right direction but not a bold enough one. Of course, the trade deadline is still a ways off.
Jackson: Fool me once… I’ll believe it when I see Rondo consistently do what he’s doing for an entire season. Luckily, I’m an optimist and I think he will do that this season. His attitude and overall demeanor seems more focused and confident. It’s no longer his intent to demolish every opposing point guard. He now just wants to let his game do the talking and shut the rest of us up. Right now, my ears hurt.
Davenport: Yes. I’m allowing myself to be fooled again. Here’s why: so much of Rondo’s success seems to hinge on what he believes he can do, and I think he believes he can shoot right now. He’s doubled his three attempts (and his three-point percentage), his free-throw rate and free-throw percentage are up, and his boosted his attempts from almost every part of the court. Since shooting is the only part of Rondo’s game that he’s really missing, I think he’s on his way to becoming the complete player we’ve been waiting for.
Forsberg: No, Rondo’s numbers simply suggest he is reverting back to 2009-10 Rondo, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Injuries hindered Rondo last season – far more than he might have cared to reveal. If Rondo can keep his field goal percentage near the level it’s currently at (.544) and still get to the free throw line as frequently (5.7 attempts per game), he’s got a very good chance to post career highs in key offensive categories.
Robb: Not yet, the consistency is still not apparent. For as terrific as he was in the first three games, Rondo has still come through with a couple of passive efforts, like last night’s performance against New Jersey (8 points, 0 rebounds). The next thing I want to see Rondo improve on is to cut down on the reckless turnovers (4.4 per game). That’ll show me he’s stepping it up to another level.
DeGama: I don’t think he has the focus or the skills to be the kind of player the Celtics need him to be at this point. He certainly seems like he’s a notch better than last season but remember how it started? With talk of Rondo setting all kinds of assist records. Then came the post-all-star decline. Rondo is a very good player but with the Big Three aging, the Celtics need him to be a very great one. This is probably the last season we’ll hope for that kind of transformation.
Jackson: Yes. Although, it may very well be the STIEMCLEANAH!!!! which ultimately wouldn’t be so bad. In a perfect world, O’Neal would get the start because despite how awesome Greg Stiemsma has been this season, he still has trouble guarding physical players in the post. The road to the Finals may now go through Miami rather than Orlando but the Celtics likely need another big (Joel Przy-”Ghost Face Killah”-billa anyone?), just not a starter.
Davenport: I think he might be, and I think he’s Kevin Garnett. As weird as it sounds, all signs point to Garnett being the best option: I don’t trust O’Neal to be walking in April, Doc has already expressed his intention to give Garnett extended center minutes, and Bass has been an unqualified success in lineups with the starters. Garnett’s already playing about half his minutes at center right now. As long as the Celtics never match up with Orlando or the Lakers, he projects to be the best man in the middle.
Forsberg: No. Precautionary or not, it’s still somewhat concerning to see O’Neal miss his first action of the regular season in game 6 of 66. I think the Celtics will keep their eyes out for serviceable 7-footers (the more reliable the better) hoping to land one via trade or buyout in March (and bumping O’Neal to a backup role, which would actually limit his own wear-and-tear, but still allow him to thrive offensively with more touches with the reserve unit).
Robb: Yes. I hope Danny Ainge learned his lesson last year on messing with his starters’ chemistry halfway through the season. While the C’s could (and should) be open to midseason pickups of the free agent and trade variety, I don’t see anyone out there capable of entering the starting five, barring the C’s trading a significant piece of their own.
DeGama: I’ll say yes, but I’ll say it with disappointment in my voice. Unless you’re sold on Stiemsma as not only contributor but starter, the Celtics don’t have a reliable protector of the rim or shotblocker. And when O’Neal goes down with his annual injury, they’ll lose the little toughness they have in the middle too. Rondo for Chris Paul would have been fun but the position most in need of an upgrade is the center spot.
Jackson: Sure. Actually, they have a better chance of making the Finals without making a trade given that all of their tradeable assets are huge parts of the team. Even if the C’s trade Rondo and Garnett to the Magic for Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard, they are looking at an early playoff exit. If getting the best semi-available player doesn’t put you over the top, just don’t do anything. That is, unless of course you don’t think you’re going to get to the top anyway. In that case, do whatever you want.
Davenport: No, probably not. Bench depth has been an increasing necessity with each passing year, and I don’t think a second five of Keyon Dooling, Mickael Pietrus, Marquis Daniels, Chris Wilcox, and Greg Stiemsma is going to keep the Celtics in games (again, I think Bass could be forced into a starting role by playoff time). An above-average swingman or big would have a major impact on this team’s prospects, but a player like that would probably cost this team a piece of its future, and that’s something Ainge doesn’t seem to be willing to deal.
Forsberg: No. Unless you mean the 2012 Atlantic Division championship. Boston will be in the mix in the Eastern Conference, but they’d need near-perfect health — and maybe a little bit of luck — in order to compete deep into the playoffs. We’ve already seen the Celtics struggle with New York and Miami — two potential playoff squads in the East — so there’s simply not enough confidence at the moment to think they are capable of the season’s ultimate prize.
Robb: Yes. I would say it’s far from likely, but we have to remember this team is not a finished product yet, with Pietrus waiting to fully heal and join the squad. With improved bench depth, and the C’s core four appearing not to show any kind of a significant dropoff thus far, you can make the case this team has a shot with its current roster. A lot will have to go right, but the window is still open….as long as everyone stays healthy.
DeGama: Point: Chicago is better than the Celtics. Miami is way better. The west is filled with teams that would give the Celtics major problems in a prospective Finals series. Counterpoint: Nobody thought Dallas could win last year either. That’s the C’s model for this season: a wing and a prayer and a ferocious self-belief.