Injury-Depleted: Celtics Thinning Front-Court Leaves Semih Erden with Big Role

Fourth-string centers often don't even exist.

The Denver Nuggets, for example, list three centers on their roster. One of those players is Chris "Birdman" Anderson, who is a classic center the same way I am an NBA-caliber point guard. In other words, not at all. The Toronto Raptors -- not that I consider them an actual NBA team -- list only two centers. One of them is Andrea Bargnani, who (besides his height) is the antithesis of your average center. Reggie Evans often mans the middle for the Raps, so I will count him as a center, too, but they certainly don't have a fourth-stringer. Really, they don't even have a third-stringer.

You probably know why I'm discussing fourth-string centers. Unlike most teams in the NBA, the Celtics need one. Badly. Their first three centers are all destined to spend a lot of games in street clothes.

Semih Erden started last night, as the bruised and battered trio of Kendrick Perkins, Jermaine O'Neal, and Shaquille O'Neal all nursed injuries. While Erden didn't embarrass himself by any means, he also proved (once again) that he isn't a championship-level big man.

If you trust PER, Erden (8.1 PER) is the third-worst Celtic. The two players below him, Avery Bradley and Von Wafer, are end-of-the-bench guys who rarely enter games. For a reference point, Mikki Moore's PER while he was in Boston was 9.3. Trust me, it's never a good thing to wade below the Mikki Moore line.

There is also another stat which tells Erden's tale in a way the naked eye cannot: for the season, on an 18-4 team, Erden has registered a -67 in the plus/minus column. His overall plus/minus is the Celtics' worst, and if you gauge Erden's per-minute plus/minus, his -.284 is worse than only Luke Harangody's. The players he keeps statistical company with are all garbage-time players, yet Erden has been thrust into a larger role. For the Celtics, that is not good.

It's weird that advanced statistics say Erden is somewhere between poor and pitiful, because he doesn't really look all that bad. Off the top of your head, name one thing he's terrible at. It's tough, right? A simple glance doesn't reveal Erden's shortcomings. He normally seems in good position, at least offensively, and his skills -- while raw -- seem serviceable. He's a lot tougher than, say, Patrick O'Bryant, and his hands are certainly nowhere near Kwame Brown territory. So why does his presence on the floor make the Celtics worse?

Look at last night, for example. Erden didn't seem to do much wrong. He made both shots he attempted, got to the free throw line six times, and posted only one turnover in 17 minutes of play. He even added a nice block and a few rebounds. Yet he posted a -6, the second-lowest number of any Celtic. Why?

I re-watched last night's game, and Erden's flaws become more evident when you focus on them. He isn't clueless defensively, but he's often a step slow on rotations. He isn't helpless offensively, but there's still a certain weakness to his game. He doesn't exactly fit the "big, soft European" stereotype, but he still struggles when receiving the ball in the paint. There was one play, which actually resulted in two Erden free throws, when he caught the ball with almost nobody on him. Rather than powering up for a dunk, or at least an easy layup, Erden softly rose for a left-handed baby hook shot. Because of the weakness of the move, Jrue Holiday -- all of 180 pounds -- was able to force an Erden miss. Erden received two fouls shots for his efforts, but his weak shot attempt revealed one of his flaws.

Another flaw of Erden's raw game is a tendency to foul. A lot. Erden will keep his hands straight in the air, like any coach will tell players to do. But he initiates contact with his body, often because he's a step slow in the defensive schemes. Erden fouls at the obscene rate of 9.8 times per 48 minutes (by my own calculation), sending opponents to the line and helping to put teams in the bonus. 

The foul rate wouldn't be so bad, if Erden could only rebound. So far, he hasn't. If true Celtics fans had to name one big man who refused to rebound, it would probably be Mark Blount. Blount never met a rebound he liked. But Blount, in all but a year and a half of his Boston career, actually had a higher rebound percentage than Erden's current numbers. Last year, we all droned on and on about Rasheed Wallace's laziness. But Sheed's defensive rebound percentage (19.0%) was better than Erden's (15.5%), and Sheed's total rebound percentage (11.2%) was very similar to the Tall Turk's (11.5%).

Yesterday was Erden's first NBA start, but it almost certainly won't be his last this season. Shaq's injuries have become nagging, and Jermaine O'Neal's injuries are worse. Shaq wanted to get a shot yesterday to play through the pain, but he is cutting back on anti-inflammatory medicine; he has used too much of it already this season. And Jermaine? Well, who knows when he'll be back, and who knows how much production he'll be good for when he does return. His knee could prove to be a problem all season.

With those two guys as fragile as paper mache, Erden's name will be called for big minutes periodically throughout the season. If he doesn't improve, and quickly, that spells bad news.

There is hope, at least. None of Erden's shortcomings are incurable. He's an agile big man with a high basketball IQ, and as such I suspect he will improve drastically from his tepid start -- if not this season, than in the future. He's a more than capable passer, moves his feet well laterally, and seems to have a greater grasp of Boston's system than most rookies ever do. Additionally, I'm sure some of his struggles are due to a shoulder injury (which Doc Rivers admits will require surgery at some point).

But for now, relying on Erden could cause trouble. As much hope as I have for his future, the Tall Turk isn't ready yet.

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