Avery Bradley returns today and, shoulders willing, he should have a significant impact on the Boston defense, which is currently a mediocre 13th in the league at 102.1 points allowed per 100 possessions. Allow for some incremental improvement from some of Boston’s chronic underperformers (a list that includes Jason Terry, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green and Courtney Lee) and it’s easy to imagine the Celtics climbing back into the top-5 defensive teams in the league.
However, I don’t think Bradley — even if he picks up where he left off last year — is enough to make this team a threat in the Eastern Conference. As constituted, there are too many barriers in the way of another deep Boston playoff run.
Doc Rivers has taken some heat for his rotations but I’d argue the problems are ultimately tied to the quality of the players, not how they’re used. Hit the jump for some thoughts on where the Celtics stand as we head into 2013 and possible directions for the roster:
Since 2007 Boston’s Big Three have done the heavy lifting, their efforts supplemented by role players who provide one or two NBA-level skills in short bursts. That’s the right move as long as your stars remain stars but over the last five years Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have slipped.
Garnett is now a 30-minutes-a-night player and cannot be consistently effective against elite competition when pushed beyond that number. He’s a limited star in the context of a series against Miami or OKC or any other title contender the Celtics could imagine themselves battling in the spring. Pierce has a more specific problem: LeBron James. Pierce’s offense vanishes when forced to expend the energy necessary to contain James — not that it’s even possible to do that. Still, the mere act of trying limits Pierce’s impact, a deadly flaw for a team that struggles to score.
As a result of the issues with Garnett and Pierce, the C’s need better than average production from their bench or the opposite of what they’ve received so far.
Depending on how you look at it, the Celtics made either a strategic or tactical error in their approach to countering Miami’s small lineups. Buoyed by the success of the small lineup last spring, the C’s loaded up on wings and re-signed the undersized Bass. After 30 games of ineffective play out of the lot of them, Danny Ainge appears to have concluded that Boston’s small lineup success was a mirage and Doc Rivers apparently agrees. Rivers recently installed Jason Collins (0.08 PER) as starting center despite the fact that he’s one of the worst players in the league.
Did Ainge err by loading up on smalls or did he err by loading up on the wrong smalls? The answer appears to be both which leaves the Celtics with an imbalanced roster for the task ahead of them. This group of players can’t get through Miami and they’re too small to effectively handle bigger teams like the Lakers or Grizzlies over a long series. Unless you’re counting on incredible turnarounds from:
Bass (11.23 PER), Terry (12.29), Green (11.44) and Lee (9.08) have all underwhelmed. It’s hard to imagine that all four will continue to play as poorly as they have but it’s equally unlikely they can make the necessary leaps to support Boston’s fading stars through the playoffs. Even at their upside potential, none can go toe-to-toe with stars on other teams and that’s what they’ll have to do in order for Boston to make any noise.
Of the four, I’m most comfortable with the battle-tested Terry as a scoring option off the bench and the other three on one-way flights out of town. This holds particularly true for Green, who looks like the Celtics’ version of Carl Crawford, except without the history of dominating performance before he arrived in Boston.
With the Celtics’ choice to go small in roster construction, Miami is insulated against the kind of physical pounding the C’s threatened when they went big with Shaquille O’Neal two years ago. The C’s have the potential to create havoc at the guard spots with Bradley harassing Dwayne Wade and Rajon Rondo doing multi-category damage but they do little more than break even at the center spot and if James plays a lot of PF, they give away acres of ground there too.
The Knicks share some of Boston’s age-related problems but Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler are both young enough to produce for long minutes in the postseason. Even the path through the first round could be messy should the Celtics draw Milwaukee, Chicago or Atlanta. If the East isn’t deep, it’s still deeply problematic for the C’s.
Despite all this, I think Ainge did the right thing inking the guys he did and building up moderately priced depth. He had almost no flexibility last summer and still managed to add rotation players who are legitimate assets, even if they’ve depreciated through the first two months of the season.
As we’ve seen in recent years with Ainge’s actual and almost moves, every option is on the table until the trade deadline on Feb 21. Having secured a roster full of useful pieces, the Celtics now have to make decisions about whether to:
–Pursue a dark horse shot at a title with the addition of a (more than likely) league average big;
–Seriously reshape the roster in pursuit of a title by moving Bradley and/or Jared Sullinger for a second-tier star; or
–Reset for the future, which could involve shipping out someone like Pierce for younger talent (although that might be a non-starter with Pierce/Garnett something close to a package deal at this point).
Personally, I would prefer the Celtics didn’t send warriors like Pierce, Rondo and Garnett into the playoffs with the current supporting cast. That will almost certainly lead to another down ending, with KG dodging post-game questions and an exhausted Rondo sitting at the podium explaining how the C’s again fell short.
If you’re of the very reasonable mindset that it’s too early to cash in chips on the 2012-13 title hunt, I’d submit that the goal must be finding another star. Not a good player, not a very good one. A star. The C’s need Pierce, Rondo, Garnett and someone else. Jeff Green is never going to be that guy, no matter how much they pay him. Avery Bradley will deliver star performance on only one side of the ball. Jared Sullinger’s considerable talent is trapped in a bus driver’s body.
Two of the key variables that will inform Ainge’s decisions are:
–The availability of talent around the league.
–The perceived value of Boston’s roster pieces.
We’ll be looking at both of these areas in the coming days.