The Celtics’ starters carry a huge annual burden, one more difficult every year with their advancing age. More than ever, Boston needs a productive bench.
Doc Rivers is on record criticizing last year’s bench as immature and incapable of bailing out the starters. This year, he’s seen mixed returns, with a strong performance from Brandon Bass and good overall energy, but recurrent problems scoring the ball.
In this week’s 5-on-5, we dish on the state of the Boston reserves with the help of both Chris Forsberg and Greg Payne of ESPN Boston.
1. Is Mickael Pietrus more important to the Celtics than Marquis Daniels?
Greg Payne: Not necessarily, mainly because I think Daniels is still a better overall playmaker than Pietrus. I think Pietrus is a better energy player, which Boston needs, and he’ll probably knock down more big shots, but I’m actually interested in seeing a lineup featuring both Daniels and Pietrus. I think Daniels will be able to help create shots for Pietrus, and I’m optimistic that they’ll be able to work well together on the other end of the floor, guarding the wing positions.
Chris Forsberg: If Daniels could ever put it all together — and stay healthy — he’d be the more important piece because of his versatility. Alas, it just never seems like it’s going to happen here, so Pietrus’ defensive intensity seems to make him more important at the moment. Daniels is a great story coming off spine surgery, a miracle that he’s even playing. But his inability to be a consistent offensive threat (he’s one of the league’s best cutters when he wants to be) and a decline in his defense this season thrusts Pietrus ahead on him in order of importance.
Ryan DeGama: Let’s not mix words here: Daniels has been awful this season. He’s made three shots all month, is shooting 27% from the field and is rocking an abysmal 5.60 PER. Over the short term, Pietrus should get all his minutes. Over the long term, I also prefer Pietrus’ long-distance shooting, energy and defensive credentials to Daniels’ mid-range slashing game and injury history.
Hayes Davenport: Yes. Pietrus is a better overall defender and provides an actual shooting threat. Daniels’s greatest strength is his ability to quietly subsume himself into the C’s system – he knows where he’s supposed to be on offense and defense, and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes when he gets there. But he actually might be a worse shooter than Rondo. He’s built an affordable housing community of bricks in his time with the Celtics. Give me Pietrus, but there’s room for both of them on the bench, if only to keep Avery Bradley from seeing the floor ever.
Brendan Jackson: Daniels was a healthy scratch last night against the Mavericks meaning he could have played but didn’t. It’s obvious that Daniels hasn’t been playing well but there doesn’t really seem to be any clear indication as to why he’s not playing well. Conversely, Pietrus played great on both sides of the ball in his Celtic debut. Luckily, both have six fouls to give which may come to mean a lot if the Celtics play Miami or New York in the playoffs.
2. Chris Wilcox has been a non-factor so far. What do you expect going forward?
Payne: The Celtics aren’t exactly bristling with productive big men, so I’m inclined to think Wilcox’s lack of playing time should be attributed to him not fully grasping Boston’s offensive and defensive schemes. The whole bench is still adjusting, so I’m willing to give Wilcox the benefit of the doubt for a few more games, but he needs to be an athletic, energetic big man that Doc Rivers can rely on moving forward.
Forsberg: The curse of the mid-level strikes again? (Scary that Rasheed Wallace might be the best of the recent bunch). I do expect more out of Wilcox, eventually — it’d be hard to give as little as he has. If the Celtics can ever settle their backup point guard situation and get someone willing to run and find him in transition, Wilcox could thrive. That said, that’s not happening even when Rajon Rondo’s on the floor with him and Wilcox just appears a little lost at the moment. He needs something to stoke his confidence.
DeGama: He looks lost so far but unless he’s hiding some sort of injury, you have to assume that’s a temporary situation. Part of the problem might be that he’s getting so few minutes he can’t find a groove and part of it may be that the guys around him aren’t clicking as a unit yet. But I’d still like to see more energy and hustle plays out of him, particularly on the glass, where he could make an impact out of sheer willpower.
Davenport: I actually have a glimmer of misplaced hope for Chris Wilcox. He’s a much better rebounder than he’s been so far this season, and unless he’s been infected by whatever anti-rebounding contagion is ripping through Boston right now, he should get better. I’m hoping he just got fat over the offseason and that he’ll eventually get used to playing in an actual defensive system. Still, he will never be able to score baskets, so there’s a hard ceiling on my optimism.
Jackson: Not much. He mentioned this week that he’s just trying to “find himself”. Regardless of Wilcox’s ability to find himself in time to help the team, it looks like the Celtics have found themselves out of the MML. Making matters worse, some guys who signed for the veteran minimum around the league are playing outstanding for their respective teams (e.g. Reggie Evans).
3. Is Keyon Dooling the answer at the backup 1, backup 2, or neither?
Payne: I think the Celtics envision Dooling as a combo-guard (like Delonte West), and I think if he looks for his shot more, like he did against the Mavericks, he can be successful. But, personally, I’m interested in seeing a lineup with Dooling and Daniels in the backcourt with Pietrus playing at the three. I think with a lineup like that, Dooling can bring the ball up and still look for his own offense.
Forsberg: I’m not sure even Doc Rivers knows that answer. Right now he’s trending towards the backup 2. But I think the Celtics had the hopes that he would be a backup 1 with potential to shuffle to the 2 when Rondo was on the floor. That just hasn’t worked out. If the Celtics had a viable option at backup 1, it would be simple enough to move Dooling to the 2. Alas, neither Bradley nor E’Twaun Moore seem ready for that role. Yet again, Boston is stuck in TweenerLand with all these more-2s-than-1s combo guards.
DeGama: I pine for few ex-Celtics, but would love to see West in Boston instead of Dooling. That noted, I like Dooling better than Nate Robinson, Stephon Marbury, Gabe Pruitt, Lester Hudson and Eddie House. So, he’s fine for now, particularly if he takes shots away from some of the other bench guys. He may be fine for later too. Of all the guys Danny Ainge signed this offseason, Dooling worries me the least.
Davenport: Dooling’s a capable fill-in, not the answer. The only thing he’s the answer to is “Who is the only person to ever punch Ray Allen?” Dooling’s a decent shooter and a slightly-below-average distributor who’s regrettably been burdened with the role of number-two scoring option among the bench players. It’s not that Dooling is bad, it’s that he’s not good enough to meet those unfair expectations. Fun trivia: Keyon Dooling’s best rebound rate over the last six seasons is way lower than Nate Robinson’s worst.
Jackson: He’s probably the answer to the backup one but the answer just might not be very good. Dooling seems to be the only bench guard capable of initiating the offense and confident enough to take a perimeter shot with the shot clock winding down.
4. Is Avery Bradley’s on-ball defense enough to get him run in games that matter?
Payne: Bradley’s defense has sparked the Celtics before, and it wouldn’t shock me if Rivers continued playing him the short minutes he’s been getting this season. I think it’ll actually be important to play Bradley during the important games in the regular season to better gauge how much he can be relied on come playoff time. I’m not talking major minutes, but short spurts where he can inject some energy into the club through his defensive intensity.
Forsberg: Yes. We know Rivers is willing to reward inspired defensive play with court time regardless of situation (well, maybe not crunch time, but you get the point). Just don’t expect playing time in large doses given Bradley’s underdeveloped offensive game. It will be interesting to see how Rivers’ rotation develop with Pietrus providing gritty defense (especially if Daniels can ever get back to last year’s level). The Celtics remain adamant that Bradley needs court time to flourish.
DeGama: Yes, but any big moments Bradley has are going to be of the Nate Robinson playoff variety. That means he’ll spend enormous amounts of time on the bench cheering, have one impressive eight-minute stretch, and then somehow we’ll remember that, instead of the fact he’s not really an NBA player yet. The difference between Bradley and Robinson, by the way, is that Avery is worth developing, so we can live with his mistakes this year. We just can’t count on him for anything substantial.
Davenport: No. Avery Bradley’s on-ball defense is so exclusively on-ball that it’s actually hurting this team more than it helps. He basically glues himself to his man on the perimeter, which looks helpful because it’s so “intense,” but it actually leaves him way behind on rotations because he has zero idea what’s going on elsewhere on the floor. Throw in his total offensive incompetence and you understand why opponents go on huge runs for the 5-10 minutes he’s in the game. Free E’Twaun.
Jackson: Hell yes. Last night’s game mattered, no? Bradley, Dooling, and Pietrus induced at least two 24 second violations on the Mavericks in limited time by providing constant pressure on the wings. Bradley’s offense is also slowly moving out of the “inexcusably bad” level and into the “semi-capable area”. Give it time. Bradley will be okay.
5. Are the Celtics closer to a .500 team than we realized?
Payne: No, despite their record right now, I’m not sold on this team remaining mediocre for the entire season. Ray Allen, Paul Pierce (not lately) and Rajon Rondo have already proven they can get it done offensively from a personal standpoint, so now it’s just a matter of blending things together better. I think once that happens, things will turn around. I really think the C’s need to break out in transition more. I know that’s tougher for an older team, but Rondo proved on Wednesday that creating easy baskets goes a long way towards changing the tone of a game in a team’s favor.
Forsberg: Yes. Nine games is 13.6 percent of the season; No need to qualify it any more — the Celtics are a .500 team that hasn’t beat a quality opponent. I think we all expected them to slide back a little bit in a condensed, game-heavy season, but from what we’ve seen so far, there’s no reason to think this Celtics team is anything more than a middle seed poised for a second round knockout in the Eastern Conference. That can change, but this team desperately needs to find a spark to rekindle what they’ve had in recent years.
DeGama: Yes, but I’m cheerfully fatalistic about it. This team is better than it has shown but whether you want a rebuild for next year or a reload for a title run this year, you pretty much have to accept that the current roster isn’t good enough. Ainge has already tried to make two big moves this season and I’d now bet on a major shakeup before the trade deadline.
Davenport: Yes, and this bench is the reason.
Keyon Dooling: -13
Chris Wilcox: -16
Marquis Daniels: -21
Avery Bradley (in only about 9 minutes per game, God help him): -31
All the starters’ numbers are overwhelmingly in the positive. The bench is not keeping them in games. Why has Doc started playing five-reserve lineups this year? He never used to. What is it about these players that gives him the confidence? Throw Bass in that lineup and you have zero players who can capably create offense, zero plus defenders, maybe .75 rebounders (so far), and two guys who really can’t score even with help. Please give these men a starter, Doc. How much harder do they have to beg?
Jackson: Much closer. This is the first time in a long time that the Celtics have consistently looked more like the inferior team than the superior team. They have not won a meaningful game this season and as Doc says, you are what your record is. Unfortunately for the C’s, they’re looking up to .500 right now.