While we are still three games short of the totally artificial 20-game assessment mark, there seems to be enough information in this month of mediocrity to allow some analysis and conclusions. Fourth in their own division and seventh in the conference, their break-even record is well earned and appropriate. At present this team is not ready to compete for a Championship. Wait, back away from the ledge, there are some reasons for optimism.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s start by taking a look at where we stand, and how we got there. Then we can look at where improvement is possible, or even likely. Finally we will peer into the glass ball and try to divine just how this will all play out.
This first month has proven to me that the day of the Big Three is over. Pierce and Garnett are no longer superstars, probably weren’t last year and certainly Ray Allen wasn’t. What Paul and Kevin have done, and Ray wasn’t willing to do, is to take a ego-step back (rather realistically mirroring their declining skills) and adjust to a reduced role and a reduction in minutes to squeeze the most of their fading abilities and flagging energy.
It hasn’t been perfect and each has hurt the team with some humbling failures when over-reaching their new limits. But they are making the adjustments and learning what still works and what athletic feats they can no longer count on their bodies pulling off. Pierce is using screens to get the separation he used to impose with his strength and crafty agility—more threes, less one-on-one. Garnett is using up-fakes and footwork to get off shots where in years past he simple elevated over the defense. Neither can do it as often, as well, or as long; and both are learning to contribute offense while not slacking on defense. The minutes are critical, and I suspect the missing half of a back-to-back will also be necessary. They have always modeled unselfish play, now they are also showing how to excel as role players. It is remarkable, and fortuitous, that they are not following the copout of fading stars—giving poor effort on defense while saving their energy for offense. Once again, an important aspect to model for a team increasingly made up of youngsters and emerging players.
Pierce and Garnett have been prone to flurries of turnovers this first month. They are both smart players and it has been evident that they are using positioning and anticipation to compensate for declining skills. It is reasonable to expect that this same understanding will help eliminate the turnovers as they continue adjusting to not overreach their lessened capabilities. It will be critical that other players emerge to assume more of the mantle of responsibility so that Paul and Kevin don’t feel forced to exceed their limits.
Which brings us to what I think is the most critical element of the ultimate outcome of this Celtics’ season. This won’t be a team of superstars and bit players. If this squad is going to be great it will be because the supporting cast steps up into prominent roles. If Pierce and Garnett give us 28-30 minutes of very good play at SF and center, what, or who, is going to provide an equal (or preferably better) contribution for the remaining minutes (and those games off that I think are key to getting the most out of our aging stars). Strangely the best (most likely) answers are two players that improbably underwent cardiac surgery this past season.
Let’s take Pierce first because we have never had an acceptable substitute in the five years of the Big Three run. Meet Jeff Green, controversial lightening rod of the Perkins’ trade, breakout star of the preseason, and consistently inconsistent in this first month. Almost certainly Green fosters the most polarization in the Celtics’ fan base. I’m a supporter but freely admit that he’s done little to merit optimism. I would suggest that if the Celtics are playing in June, Green will be outperforming the game but fading Pierce.
If anything Garnett is even tougher to replace. I think he has been the most talented player of his generation; and you don’t replace that—however a serious complement and augmentation is critical for the Celtics to excel. I had pretty high hopes for the combination of Wilcox and Darko to give Boston 20 quality minutes at the center position. Darko’s wrist, and ill mother, have left us with only Collins to share the duty with Wilcox. This will remain a weakness. One we will dream of Danny Ainge solving—but starting quality centers are a rare and expensive commodity, so this is likely a pipe dream.
If the paint is to remain a weakness, it is critical that the Celtics’ perimeter defense excel to reduce the pressure on the rim defenders. This is why I feel Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley are vital to racheting up the defense that has been so inconsistent thus far. While I appreciate the offensive punch that Jason Terry provides, I believe his defense is such a liability that he will best serve Boston as a substitute playing mostly against second-line players. It seems funny to see guards as the key to paint defense but that is my conclusion. Courtney has not shot well thus far but several years suggest this is not likely a long-term problem. Avery Bradley may require some time to regain his form and stamina but I expect him to vault into being a major contributor.
Actually the Garnett/Wilcox tandem would be pretty adequate if they were sharing the front court with a dominant power forward. However that is probably the weakest position on the Green team with no star-quality players in hand or on the horizon. I still see Brandon Bass as an upgrade over Big Baby, but he’s been slow to pick up the defensive rotations and hasn’t developed the anticipation that comes from truly understanding what the defense is trying to do and how the opponents are trying to break the scheme. Watching Bass I am reminded of the comments Bradley made recently about Doc’s incredulous reaction at him not seeing what Doc sees as the ten-man ballet develops. I actually think that Sullinger will rapidly surpass Bass in seeing the court as a whole, but as a rookie he is maxing out on the absorption overload at this point. The good news is that by June Jared will be a seasoned veteran of one year. The bad news is that he will still be earth-bound and undersized.
I remain optimistic. History says Lee’s and Bass’s shooting will improve. Tincture of time will turn Sullinger into an experienced contributor. The return of Bradley will make guard play a strength. The progress, hopefully, of Jeff Green will make small forward a much stronger position for Boston in the spring than it has been in November. The recipe for success is to dominate the 1, 2, and 3 positions and fight the battle of the big men to a draw. The past five years the Celtics have thrived on a relentless half-court defense. If they return to dominance in 2013 it will be due to engaging their depth to deliver relentless pressure at both ends, instantaneous transition from defense to offense to defense, and deft dispositions to create and exploit mismatches.
Fighting to a draw in this first month is a victory of sorts—for years the goal each off-season has been to find three role players to add to Rondo and the Big Three. Contrast that to this year when climbing back into competition meant finding eight string contributors to join Rondo in a shift to up-tempo ball. Improving by one win a month seems quite doable, and would end in a regular-season record in the mid-50’s, about what most predicted. It would also leave them peaking going into the playoffs—a pretty good recipe for playing into June.
Boston, and all points beyond