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What Boston’s New Bench Can Do For Its Offense


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.

  • skeeds

    It's a breath of fresh air to be able to wonder with excitement about such a thing as offensive production! Our first 4 players off the bench, even the unproven Sullinger, have one thing in common. Their offensive versatility is their biggest asset.
    Three of them are combo players too. This is a key asset for a slow offensive team. Between the 4 of them, there are 8 potentially exploitable matchups. Someone's gonna find himself in a favorable position. Slow 4's or undersized 3's for Green, Small 1's or slow 2's for Terry, and so on. I'm excited to see how Doc works this out. He's shown some creative spark with the impossible combinations he had to put on the floor late this season.
    Is it October yet???

  • R

    I love this team

  • CG12

    It is difficult to overstate just how important this depth is. The last couple of years the C's haven't had any guys who could come in and make plays on the offensive end. When you have a unit of 5 placeholder-type guys, you end up with sludgeball, and long Js being jacked up at the end of the shot clock. They at least used to have guys like Eddie House, Big Baby, Leon Powe, even Sam Cassell and Starbury, who could come in and make something happen. Sasha Pavlovic, Pietrus, Dooling, Stiemsma, Marquis, etc. etc. were/are solid players who could be counted on to play D, but when it came time to get a bucket, we just didn't have the horses. This bench is so much stronger it is insane. Every guy in the second five brings some legit skillz on offense (except Wilcox, unless you count dunking alley-oops and putbacks).

  • Luke Walton

    Who knows.

    People, and I'm talking bob ryan and dan s, were excited back in the day about quinn buckner and later ray williams. Buckner blew and williams disappointed. Then Derek Smith overachieved. So you just don't know until they get out on the court.

    Perhaps most interesting of all is that the vaunted 86 bench really didn't start coming around until after xmas.

  • smalltownID

    Excellent post Luke. Obviously it looks good on paper. I have a feeling in 9 months people are really going to be bagging on Avery Bradley. Obviously he took a HUGE step from his abysmal (and I mean abysmal) 1st half of the season. In my mind he still isn't an obvious starter in the NBA. He had a stretch of consistent offensive production for almost a month but he is far from proven offensively. I mean lets be honest guys, he did things offensively for the majority of the year that would have made TA proud. Take his D to the bank. Jeff Green, who knows, could be a mirror of last year with Jeff/PP and Ray/AB or he could appear lost for 3/4 of the season. The only guy I would take my money to the bank on is Jason Terry. I like C.Lee's potential. I like our bench and it is exciting but not every one of these guys is going to play up to the potential of our collective minds. The nice thing, much less than that still might make them a top 2nd unit in the league.

    • CG12

      Going to have to disagree with your feelings on Bradley. He has holes in his game, especially his handle for someone who is nominally a PG, but the shooting we saw later in the year is for real. The book on Avery up to and through college was that he was great on the catch-and-shoot. It just took him a while to shake off the jitters and rust from not getting any burn. Remember he is still very young, not yet 22. When he got minutes to find his confidence and rhythm, things came together. He will never be Ray Allen – more of a corner 3 guy – but the shooting from distance, pushing the ball in transition, and razor sharp cutting are all things I expect to continue and even get better. AB is the real deal.

      • smalltownID

        I do have confidence that he will be fine in his role as a starter because of his defense. I just think ppl are only remembering the late season run he had and totally forgot his early season antics. I can't forget them and I suspect he will probably be somewhere in the middle of the jekyll and hyde of last year. Especially coming off an injury and working back into a different locker room. I agree it will probably be easy for him to cut to the basket w/Rondo dimes & that will help on the offensive end. Not sure how 40% on 3's is the "real deal" but I guess that is spectacular to you. His FG% is up though compared to what it was. Tough to know everyone's perspective on him but I get the feeling that people have a much higher perception than his overall production last year and that it is unlikely he will return to his late season form for a while. I'm excited about him, I'm just not all in on the kid yet and I wouldn't be surprised if C's fans are disappointed in what he brings to the table in a shortened season next year.

        Best sign to me is he appears to be at his best in clutch situations. We really need that from our role players with a declining core. He can suck every regular season if he is pertinent come playoff time as far as I'm concerned. Much like Pietrus' late game rebounding.

        • CG12

          If a guy can play all-defense level D and shoot 40% from 3, he will be a very good player in the league for a long time. Look at the all-time 3-point shooters. The best shot 40% for their career. James Posey shot 35% for his career and shot 38% his one year in Boston. So, yeah, I will take 40% any time. I see Avery as a 13/4/4 guy. Combine that with his D and you have a very nice young player. Not an all star, but a very good role player, which is quite a find at 19 in the draft. Especially after how his first 1.5 years went. It isn't the biggest sample size and the shoulder surgery is concerning, but I do think the guy we saw for two months is who he will be in the NBA.

          • skeeds

            It's the offensive consistency that we need to see before marking down Bradley as a future star. Yes, the amazing athleticism, the ridiculously fast reflexes and pure speed on the floor are fantastic. But the fact that he's only 21 cuts both ways. He has much room to improve in every other category, but all of those physical traits will steadily decline through his career, as with any other guard. Even Wade, who is built like a bear, has slowed down quite a lot since his "flash" days. Guards cannot thrive on speed and hops alone.
            If he's able to perfect his defensive technique, (a la Tony Allen), and put together a respectable and stable offensive vocabulary, he's in all star territory. If not, he could end up being a Matt Barnes in 3-4 years…
            The fact that he seems to have relentless energy and a solid work ethic makes me very optimistic about him though.

          • sightline

            There are pluses and minuses for a reason. Avery can hold the best sooting gaurd to a low point total, and that is a plus in his column.

    • Zach

      Those hops and speed are no fluke, nor is the natural shooting stroke. He will be good – an almost all star held back by his lack of handle and b-ball moves/footwork (which should improve)

  • smalltownID

    It would heal a portion of my heart if this unit comes close to expectations from the scarring when we lost Posey, Powe, Semiautomatic, House, Steamer, Delonte, etc.

  • Batman

    Am I wrong to think Terry is the best bench player we've had in the Big 3 era?

    • Anthony

      IMO, best bench player gotta go to Posey…. versatile players that can D 3 positions, big time shot maker, and excessive man-love… all attributes of a great 6th man.

    • CG12

      Agreed. Posey was nice, but didn't have the raw skills that Terry has.

      • Anthony

        I'm looking forward to see what kind of offense Jet will be bringing off the bench as well but Posey was able to sub in for Ray, Paul, and KG. The fact that he can D-up Kobe, DWade, Lebron, Bosh, etc. man-to-man, speaks for itself. He's nowhere near the scorer that Jet is but he's also no slouch, with 42/38/81 shooting percentages. He's also a pretty decent rebounder.

  • smalltownID

    Hopefully Jeff Green will be in the discussion after this year.

  • Rolltide3332

    AB is not getting enough respect for his most impressive attribute…..his D. When he got hurt, he was playing, arguably, the best defense in the league at his position. He is still very young and his offense is just starting to gel. I can’t wait until he gets back to form and newcomer the all star he is capable of becoming.

  • Morpheus

    I see AB having a similar career to John Starks, with better defensive attributes.

    • smalltownID

      I saw Starks as a true pg with a strong handle. Interesting comparison.

  • sightline

    Our starting 5 can compete with Miami, but probably not beat them. So it was obvious that a heathy productive second unit could turn a game 7 loss into a game 6 win. Smart moves from the front office. The second unti is so important, but salary cap restrictions, injury and 2 heart conditions robbed us last year. This year it looks like there will be no break for the opposition, when the starters get back on the court they will have to use a lot of energy to get back into the game when our second unit outscores theres. Looking at the team, only LBJ can break us, and thats debatable.

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