The Celtics got back into the win column last night against the Raptors, although their record remains a not-so-sterling 5-8. All week, league observers have been pontificating on what’s wrong with the C’s and whether Danny Ainge should attempt to make major changes in his roster.
With the assistance of Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston, we do the same.
1. What’s the biggest problem so far: rebounding, offense, or defense?
Brendan Jackson: Rebounding. The following will tell you everything you need to know about how little the Celtics hit the glass: 18 and 24. Those are their league rankings for defensive and offensive rebound rate. In past years, the Celtics’ lack of success hitting the offensive glass was explainable given the way their defense was built schematically: retreat to live another possession. This season, however, a greater emphasis seems to have been placed on offensive rebounding but the results are mediocre: the C’s are 14th in defensive efficiency.
Hayes Davenport: Defense. Without a major personnel change, the Celtics were never going to be top-tier scorers or rebounders. They’re a defensively oriented team. That’s their whole thing. But this year, that defense has fallen off a cliff, and their record has responded accordingly. Of those three arenas, defense is the one where the Celtics have gotten dramatically worse, so that’s the biggest problem of the season.
Chris Forsberg: Rebounding. The offense, while not scoring a lot of points because of the snail-pace and turnovers that have plagued the team, should get better and we have to assume the defense will as well. But it’s not likely the Celtics will morph into a dominant rebounding team and that could hurt them down the line. Kevin Garnett’s defensive rebounding rate is off 7 percent early in the year and he’s still easily the best rebounder on the team. One encouraging thing there is Brandon Bass has been better on the boards than expected, but Boston needs more from a healthy Chris Wilcox on the glass (at both ends of the floor).
Ryan DeGama: The defense is the biggest problem but it’s also the biggest outlier from past seasons and the one most likely to resolve itself over time. Two months from now, we’ll likely be focused on the structural problems with this team, which involve an inability to get buckets and clean the glass. There’s no likely internal improvement that would push these things to an acceptable level without roster changes.
Brian Robb: The offense. Over the past couple of games, the defense has started to improve as the bench players have become acclimated with Doc’s system. The rebounding has also shown signs of life after the team was blasted by Ainge on-air last week. The offense, on the other hand, has continued to regress, and there are no real solutions on the current roster for the main problem in that area: shot creation. The Big Three-era Celtics have always been a turnover prone team and never will be a good offensive rebounding squad. The high percentage shooting days of old are gone for many veterans, leaving the C’s scrapping harder than ever for points.
2. Do you see any path back to contender status for this 2011-12 Celtics team?
Jackson: Sure… if other teams get bit by the injury bug. Right now, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose are both missing time due to injuries of the weird/uncertain timetable variety. There is a chance the Celtics not only get it together but stay healthy the rest of the way. Unfortunately, the Bulls and Heat aren’t their only competition in the East. It’s far from a guarantee the C’s could get past the Sixers or the Pacers, let alone a fully healthy Chicago or Miami.
After all this, two things are fairly certain: 1) there isn’t a trade scenario that would make the C’s favored title contenders while also preserving cap room for next season; and 2) the C’s have only the slimmest of chances to get back to the Finals.
Davenport: There’s always a chance, but the odds have gotten small enough that they probably can’t be accounted for when the front office makes decisions. Miami and Chicago are pulling away, and the Celtics are being leapfrogged by the East’s rising powers like Philadelphia and Indiana. And that’s just the East. So while they have time for a dramatic turnaround, I wouldn’t advise mortgaging the future to make way for a potential championship this year.
Forsberg: Depends on what your expectations are. This team will likely improve enough to make the playoffs as a mid-to-low seed in the East, but it’s still hard to imagine them making too much noise given their struggles against elite teams thus far. It’s still early and much could change before May, but it remains hard to be overly encouraged just yet.
DeGama: No. The run is over, but with increased chatter the C’s may return Garnett and Ray Allen in some discounted form, it may only be over with the Big Three as lead actors. There may yet be a championship run with Allen, Garnett and Paul Pierce on the roster, but playing revised roles. It feels like we’ve been bidding farewell to this core for the last two years but maybe the long goodbye will get even longer.
Robb: Basketball-Reference’s playoff probabilities gives the team a 0.2 percent chance of winning the NBA Finals, so it’s too early to say never! Then again, the C’s have a much higher chance of landing in the lottery right now, so it’s important to be realistic. It would take a perfect storm of epic proportions (combined with a timely buyout pickup or two) to get the C’s within a sniff of even the Eastern Conference Finals. The Big Four would all have to play well for an extended stretch and that’s something they haven’t been capable of doing so far this year.
3. How long should Danny Ainge wait before pursuing core-shaking moves?
Jackson: He probably already is. To that end, Ainge can still work the phones while waiting to see if this team can get anything together. Like every other team, the deadline for pulling the trigger is March 15th.
Davenport: With perfect hindsight? 18 months ago. Today, he should probably at least wait until the core raises its trade value a bit. Pierce and KG probably haven’t maxed out their current production capacity, however reduced it turns out to be; when they both get back into game shape and teams have a better idea of their championship odds, the offers Danny gets should improve. Ray, on the other hand, may be sitting at the peak of his value right now.
Forsberg: The summer. Just not sure I see a way for this team to improve midseason. If it’s cap flexibility Ainge craves, he can wait for Allen and Garnett’s deals to expire after the season, then consider the amnesty clause on Pierce. If he’s looking for young talent, the Celtics are likely going to have to take back money in return to make salaries match and that complicates matters. The Celtics might just have to let this last rodeo proceed and hope they rekindle that spark in the postseason.
DeGama: He’s not waiting and he shouldn’t be. While the chance of scoring draft picks and young talent is slight, I’d argue that with the big summer prizes effectively out of Ainge’s reach (including Dwight Howard, who wants nothing to do with Boston), it would be worth taking on bad salary in 2012-13 if it got Boston a jump start on the rebuilding process and the obligations didn’t extend beyond next season.
Robb: The offseason. Barring the Celtics keeping up a sub-.500 pace for the next month, there’s no real need to make any foundation-shaking deals, save for a home run return. The C’s are what they are, a seasoned squad capable of going a round or two deep in the playoffs, but likely not much more. Boston will want to keep their significant cap space until the offseason. Blowing it up right now will do nothing but further alienate the fanbase.
4. Should Paul Pierce be untouchable given his history with the Celtics?
Jackson: No. Sorry. It’s just that no one is untouchable if the right trade presents itself. I doubt it will happen but if the Clippers want to trade Blake Griffin, Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes to the C’s for Pierce, I think Ainge should at least take the phone call.
Davenport: Probably, if only to avoid alienating a huge chunk of the fan base. I don’t necessarily buy that the Celtics “owe” Pierce anything beyond the ~$140 million they’ve paid him and the talent they surrounded him with: he asked to be traded when the team was bad, didn’t he? But the front office serves the fans first, and the fans want to see Pierce retire as a Celtic.
I’m wondering, though, how many of those fans have ever considered what Pierce wants. Would he rather spend the next two years on a floundering former superpower, or compete for a championship while giving Boston the gift of some cap space to sign young talent? Pierce said LAST YEAR that if the team enters a rebuilding phase he might opt out of his contract. Should the Celtics wait for that to happen? Or should they get value for him now?
Forsberg: Untouchable? No. Will Ainge have to be 1,000 percent certain he’s fleecing the other team? Absolutely. Pierce hasn’t talked on the matter yet, but I’d have to assume that, if the Celtics bottomed out, he’d love the opportunity to chase a championship with a contender rather than plod through a first-round exit. That said, the more ideal path is probably for him to finish his career in green, so long as it works for both sides.
DeGama: This may paint me as some kind of disloyal monster but I don’t think Ainge should give any thought to Pierce’s legacy or tenure with the Celtics. GMs who let that kind of thing influence their thinking end up making bad moves. Or no moves. Ainge should evaluate a potential Pierce move the same way he did with Kendrick Perkins, another player the fans didn’t want traded. Actually, he should probably evaluate a Pierce deal a lot better than he did the Perk deal. But the point stands.
Robb: No, but he’s as close to untouchable as any player can get. For an organization that values history and loyalty, Pierce has provided plenty of both over the last 10-plus seasons. Remember how upset the Boston fanbase was when Perkins was shipped off? Sending Pierce away would create even more bitterness. The Truth still has plenty of basketball left in him, and could be valuable bridging the gap to the next Celtics generation. If you’re in Ainge’s position, you have to listen to offers, but that’s where it should end unless a franchise building block becomes attainable.
5. Suggest one thing Doc Rivers could do to get more out of this roster.
Jackson: The funniest editor in the world would have worded this question: 5. Suggest one thing Doc Rivers could do to get Moore out of this roster. Despite going 0-3 against Toronto, the C’s would be doing a lot of good if they brought this guy along quicker. It’s pretty obvious Moore isn’t afraid to play in this league and if he survives any midseason trades, he’ll likely be a big part of the rotation going forward.
Davenport: We’ve made a few suggestions on this site, but I’ll go with bringing Ray Allen off the bench. I don’t think the starters could withstand losing Pierce from the offense; he’s the only real creator of offense on the team. But moving Allen to the bench would spread the floor for the reserves, and ensure that at least one of the team’s top four would be in the game at all times. The switch from Allen to Mickael Pietrus among the starters, meanwhile, shores up the defense and still gives them a shooting threat. Runner up: playing Greg Stiemsma.
Forsberg: Buy a time machine? (Hi-yo! I’m here all week). No, time should cure a lot of what ails the Celtics. I really do believe they will be playing more inspired ball by March and April. Will it be inspired enough to do more than advance to the second round of the playoffs? That’s the tough part. I think too many things have to go right for that to happen. But the best bet here is to stay the course and hope the Big Three turn back their own clocks when it matters most.
DeGama: It’s pretty clear the Celtics aren’t maximizing what they can get out of Rondo with all these lumbering seniors around him. I know it’s early to make major changes but the Celtics have nothing to lose. The numbers damn them. The schedule damns them. Nobody expects a title run. So, why not see if a bold rotation move opens up some new options?
Robb: Unleash the youngsters. It’s a familiar refrain, but a warranted one this season, with many of the starters slow to round into form. Chances are the team will need every member of the roster to play significant minutes at some point this condensed season, so I’d really like to see what they have, particularly JaJuan Johnson. Rivers has done a better job of letting Stiemsma and co. off the leash, but it needs to happen more consistently, both to preserve the veterans and to get the youngsters more comfortable and confident.