This week in 5-on-5, we address a scattering of Celtics topics with Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston.
1. His interest in Boston is suspect but the C’s will still pursue Dwight Howard, right?
Brendan Jackson: Yes. The Celtics will do what every other team in the NBA will do before the trade deadline. That, however, should not give Celtics fans any hope of Howard shouldering JaJuan Johnson out of the number 12 jersey. There’s almost no incentive for Howard to play in Boston and he’s given no indication that he wants to.
Chris Forsberg: Of course. The Celtics have worked diligently to maintain financial flexibility this summer with the idea that they could make a run at the likes of Howard, Chris Paul, or any other top-tier player that makes it through to the open market. If the Magic decide to move Howard before the trade deadline, it’s unlikely the Celtics could be serious bidders for his service, but Boston’s pursuit of Paul shows how emphatic they are about pursuing cornerstone players to build the future around.
Hayes Davenport: Thinking wishfully, no. I hope Danny realizes that there is no way Dwight Howard will be traded to Boston. Rajon Rondo’s the only really valuable asset, and Otis Smith can get better offers (or what he imagines in his inscrutable brain to be better offers) elsewhere. Plus, if Rondo’s not in Boston, Dwight will not be staying to catch lobs from Keyon Dooling. With this in mind, Danny Ainge should hold a press conference where he calls Otis Smith and tells him that if he wants Rondo for Howard, he can just forget it.
Ryan DeGama: They will make an honorable pursuit and they will come up empty. No matter, the interest in Howard (and Paul before him) is significant because it makes clear the road ahead: Boston’s search for another top-10 player to lead this team back to a title. The real question is whether the Celtics will consider bottoming out and hunting for their next headliner in the draft, or if Boston’s ownership will require competitive teams the next few years.
Brian Robb: They have to, given their void in the middle for next season and beyond. Another successful run team into the playoffs would work wonders as a recruiting tool for Howard, if Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett are willing to return next season at bargain basement prices. With that said, a core of Rondo, Paul Pierce (especially the one that’s shown up the past two weeks) and Howard is nothing to sneeze at. It won’t be Howard’s best option, but probably won’t be his worst either. Ainge and Doc Rivers are obligated to make their strongest pitches either way.
2. What have we learned about this team in Rondo’s absence?
Jackson: They are resilient. If Rondo is the “engine that stirs the drink” then this team can run Flinstones-style for a while. While everyone is riding high off Avery Bradley and E’Twaun Moore’s ability to shoulder the load while Rondo’s out, Rivers has made it abundantly clear he needs Rondo back as soon as possible and AB and Moore shouldn’t get too comfortable.
Forsberg: We learned that Paul Pierce can morph his game to account for the loss of key personnel and Boston can still win games; that Avery Bradley can be a solid role player (and capable spot starter); that E’Twaun Moore has offensive potential off the bench; that the offense desperately needs Rondo late in close games; that Boston still doesn’t have a pure backup ball-handler; and that minor wrist injuries are never minor.
Davenport: Maybe that their defense is better? Rondo is still referred to all over the place as one of the league’s best defensive point guards, but this isn’t the first time the team has allowed fewer points with him off the court. Last year, the Celtics had a better Defensive Rating when Nate Robinson was in the lineup among the starters. Rondo still tends to gamble on steals and he’s not great at defending the pick-and-roll, so he might have been the wrench in the Celtics’ defense machine early on.
DeGama: That Rivers doesn’t have to make a choice between losing games and burning out his starters. Doc can finally lean on his bench to get him through the regular season and still win games. I’m not sold on Bradley or Moore playing a meaningful second in the playoffs, but if they better position the C’s starters for late April, that’s a major achievement and the polar opposite of last season.
Robb: A couple things. First, Pierce running the offense is a great idea. I don’t know whether it was the trade rumors, working himself into shape, or a combination of both but the command he’s showing over all aspects of the team’s offensive game is sensational. Outside of the excessive turnovers, he’s made a complete 180 since the horrific loss to Phoenix two weeks back and that’s important because it can keep Rondo from having to handle the ball 40+ minutes a game. Second, it’s nice to have three 3-point threats on the floor at all times. This is less about Rondo and more about the emergence of E’Twaun, Pietrus and co. but the floor spacing has improved a lot. Without Rondo getting hurt, we probably wouldn’t have seen Moore’s emergence, but now he’s a weapon C’s can use regularly.
3. Paul Pierce has his highest PER (21.04) since pre-Big Three. How is this possible?
Jackson: Couple reasons: small sample size, playing a bigger role with Rondo being out, and, oh yeah, he’s playing out of his noggin’. Aside from the turnovers, this is best Pierce has played in two years. He’s scoring, he’s dishing, hell, he’s even blocking shots. It looks like he finally has his legs under him.
Forsberg: It’s somewhat baffling because, as good as Pierce has been, his field goal percentage is currently the third lowest of his career and his turnovers are a career high at the moment. He’s making up for that by absolutely filling up the rest of his stat line, including the best assist average of his career despite little drop-off in his scoring average. Pierce is quietly generating more offense and that PER should only rise if he limits the turnovers and starts shooting a higher percentage from the field.
Davenport: Rondo being injured is how. Pierce has taken on virtually all of the scoring and distributing opportunities made available by Rondo’s absence. One reason Paul has such high PERs before 2008 was his unbelievably high usage, due to sharing a court with a bunch of Orien Greenes and Michael Olowakandii. Rondo being out means that Pierce is just responsible for more of the offense, and, incredibly, he looks about as good as he did when he was running the break with Raef LaFrentz.
DeGama: Pierce has his highest usage rate in years and his highest efficiency. That is not normal, especially at age 35. As his two-point shooting percentages recover over the next month, we may have to consider the possibility that Pierce is actually having one of his best ever seasons.
Robb: The same reason it’s possible that Ray Allen is shooting 56.4 percent from downtown right now through 18 games. These guys are damn good, and their play is not going to fall off a cliff anytime soon. Coincidentally (or not) Pierce’s numbers exploded with Rondo’s injury, as well as the trade rumors swirling around his head. I won’t speculate about how much these affected the C’s captain, but the fact remains: trading Pierce (or any of the starters right now) would be criminal if the team continues to play this well.
4. Assess Doc Rivers’ performance so far this season.
Jackson: B+. But I’m being really hard. I think it’s been strange to see the inconsistency with minutes despite some players playing well (Greg Stiemsma) in limited time and some players playing poorly in a lot of time (Avery Bradley). But then there are games like last night against Toronto where you see the pay off that comes from waiting out the perfect storm that is Bradley’s development. You also see the player you thought should get more playing time, play uninspired. The truth is that no one knows this basketball team better than Doc Rivers.
Forsberg: Hard to find much fault in what Rivers has done given the injuries and issues (shortened camp, loss of Jeff Green) Boston has dealt with. He’s kept minutes low for the Big Three despite a lack of lopsided wins to really help drive down those totals. Rivers has also leaned on younger players more than ever to help overcome ailments in the backcourt. This is a tough season to manage given the schedule, but Rivers is doing all he can to put his team in position to win games.
Davenport: Solid A. Any coach that can bring a team from losing six of seven straight to winning six of seven deserves at least that. All around the league, Doc’s colleagues are being quit on by teams stuck in losing ruts. Flip Saunders. Stan Van Gundy. Whoever coaches the Kings now. But Doc’s players listen to him, and Doc never stopped caring. He could afford to be bolder with his rotations at times, but a record of 11-10 after starting 5-9 is a testament to Doc’s impact.
DeGama: A declining Kevin Garnett, a hobbled Pierce, an absent Green, failed trades for two major difference makers, no depth with his bigs, and rookies and newbies logging all sorts of minutes. Somehow, the Celtics are over .500 and starting to look more dangerous. Sounds like an A to me.
Robb: B+. A shoddy start with the up-and-down play of everyone over the first 14 games, but Rivers gets a pass given the injuries and shape of his players. The amount of production we’ve seen out of the bench during the past seven games however has been tremendous and we owe a lot of that to Doc. He’s simplified the offense, given the youngsters a chance to play, stuck through them during some ugly performances and now is reaping the benefits with perhaps the deepest bunch he’s had since he’s been here.
5. What’s wrong with Greg Stiemsma?
Jackson: Depression? That is, if you believe everything you read. In all seriousness (as if depression wasn’t serious), he’s most likely doing what all players do: regressing to the mean. Could he be playing more/better? Probably. Should he be the Celtics’ starting center? Probably not.
Forsberg: Despite his tremendous shot-blocking abilities, Stiemsma is still a work in progress defensively. According to Synergy Sports data, he’s allowing 0.97 points per play, which lands him in only the 13th percentile in the league (or “poor” by Synergy grading standards). Those defensive struggles are making it hard for Rivers to keep him on the floor, as he’s struggling to defend both in the post and big men on the pick-and-roll. If the Celtics can be patient with him, he might blossom, but that will mean enduring some growing pains in order to get him valuable court time.
Davenport: Our expectations? Stiemsma’s per-minute rebounding is still okay, but since his 13-point explosion in his fourth game he hasn’t really looked comfortable with the offensive or defensive system. Part of that is just his low usage, but another part of it might be the reason he went undrafted and couldn’t find steady NBA work until he was 26. It only took us one game to dub Stiemsma the second-greatest blond Celtic of all time, and he still might be, but there’s a good chance he’s just a mediocre player. Stiemsma is comfortably the Celtics’ fifth big, and that’s a fine thing to be.
DeGama: He’s probably not a rotation player when his early performances suggested he might be. Damn your filthy lies, Greg. And work hard in practice so you’re ready for your 10-minute playoff cameo.
Robb: We’re finding out why he’s a 26-year-old that had never made it in this league before. Listen, every player has hot streaks and that’s what Stiemsma had going on over the first couple weeks of this season. He was probably in better shape than half the team and league, so his rebounding, blocked shots, etc. looked like a godsend with the veterans surrounding him finding their rhythm. Now I guess the rest of the league has caught up, and Stiemsma is back to being what he really is. A D-League player with some potential. Don’t expect much more.