Before game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, I asked Doc Rivers if he was comfortable with the lack of production he’d gotten from his bench. My question was prompted by the sporadic offensive output the bench had provided through the postseason, but Rivers was quick to note that he didn’t expect any offensive production from his bench. He just needed them to defend and bring energy.
On one hand, his response felt like a deflection designed to protect his bench from criticism. That’s fair. The team had been ravaged so thoroughly by injuries, there were games that could turn based on whether Mickael Pietrus or Marquis Daniels could muster the mojo to put up eight points. Everyone on that bench was miscast by the end of last season. These were not guys who reminded anyone of Vinnie Johnson on those Pistons teams of the late 1980s.
On the other hand, there was a structural flaw in the team that placed too great a burden on the starting five. And it wasn’t confined just to the 2011-12 season. How many times in the past three years did the Celtics starters hand a lead to the bench at the beginning of the second quarter only to see it squandered? More pernicious than that, how many times did Rivers have to cut short one of his starters’ rest or deny it to them entirely, just so there was someone on the floor who could provide spacing, scoring and shot creation for a nondescript group of bench players?
It’s impossible to quantify how many extra, inappropriate minutes the Big Four played, but for the third year in a row, Boston’s offense declined, falling to an efficiency rating of 98.9, seventh worst in the league. And for the third year in row, a championship-quality starting five faded down the stretch of an elimination game.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to see the starting five, the one that, per Basketball Value, posted a 92.96 defensive efficiency rating and a ridiculous 112.54 on the offensive side, fresh for big games in May and June? Imagine that lineup, a full 19 points better than its opposition per 100 possessions, at full strength in the fourth quarter.
(There’s no easy way I know to figure out the productivity of a 5-man unit by quarter and workload but my assumption is that what I’ve observed — a tired group that often struggled to put up 4th quarter points when burdened with long minutes — would be backed up by numbers that could account for time-of-game production).
Failing some sort of precipitous offensive decline for one of the Big Three (Rondo, Pierce, Garnett) the Celtics offense should improve. And it may be a major improvement. This is not something I expected to be predicting this summer, having written thousands of words the last two seasons on how Boston’s offensive problems would eventually sabotage its title runs.
Rivers may not be so inclined, but once Avery Bradley is back he could theoretically pull his entire starting five towards the end of the first quarter and replace them with:
Jason Terry - PG
Courtney Lee - SG
Jeff Green - SF
Jared Sullinger - PF
Chris Wilcox - C
That’s hardly a murderer’s row on either side of the ball but that lineup could hold its own long enough to keep the veteran core’s minutes down. And am I the only one who thinks that lineup might actually prove dominant against many teams’ second units?
I’ve drifted into speculation here. There will likely be no wholesale changes between the starters and bench. But even piecemeal substitutions — Lee in for Bradley, Green in for Pierce or Terry, a skilled pick and roll player capable of finding his own shot, in for either backcourt spot, etc. — should keep the starters fresher without the need to sacrifice wins in the process. That’s the first time we’ve been able to expect that in the last few years and it very well could be evidenced in a renewed Celtics offense.