Christmas is upon us and the 2011-12 season has arrived with it (as a present to all fans). I am excited, very excited for the season. I am, however, only mildly optimistic for the Celtics’ chances of winning a Championship; mildly optimistic equaling a less than 20% chance of winning. Too many other teams have younger star collections of their own, and with the way the condensed schedule will test the legs of even younger players, imagine what it will do to guys who have been in the league for 13+ seasons (four of the Celtics starting five). There is always a puncher’s chance once the playoffs begin, and I’m certain (barring unforeseen catastrophic injuries) that the Celtics will be in the playoffs, so they have a puncher’s chance, especially if their health isn’t an issue. If the starting five is healthy for the playoffs, and the bench coalesces as a nice unit, the Celtics will have a puncher’s chance come playoff time.
Below are my thoughts on the coming season:
At the end of last season, I had the following thoughts about the yet-unsigned Doc Rivers: “Due to Rivers’ reliance on his starters and the general offensive ineptness of the team [they finished 17th in offensive efficiency], I wish that he would be let go [at season’s end]. I want a more exciting and competent offensive coach. My rationale is that, with KG’s authority on defense and a mediocre defensive-minded coach (Ass’t or Head), the team will be fine on defense. I am concerned about their offense, which was stagnant at times, DOA at others.”
My feelings have changed in the ensuing months; a complete 180 actually. I am excited that Doc is excited to be back (for 5 years, no less). I respect athletes and coaches who are excited to be with a specific team. I root for a specific team, so, as a fan, I enjoy their enthusiasm for that team. And, Doc, facing what will most likely be growing pains in the coming seasons, seems genuinely excited to be the coach of the Boston Celtics.
In the NBA, successful teams become championship contenders when all players buy into their coach’s systems (if that coach is a good coach); think: Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, Jerry Sloan’s pick-and-roll, Gregg Popovich’s inside-out approach, Rick Carlisle’s heavy use of zone D last season (don’t laugh, most teams scoff at using zone, but he had the length down low and speed up top to utilize it), and Doc Rivers’ Ubuntu – that accounts for 17 of the last 21 Championships. It’s not enough to have one or two or three great players. Those great players, and all their teammates, need to buy in entirely to a good system that works with their talents. There is nothing more telling of a .500 team than that the team and its coaching staff does not share the same vision. There is little accountability, ball hogs and stat stuffers run rampant, and coaches cannot seem to bring together a unified vision of success. If anything, championship teams are always on the same page with the same goal in mind.
Doc has his system: balanced defense with precise rotation and accountability and an offense built on getting his three stars the ball in their preferred locations. This teamwork on D and sharing of the ball on O came to be known as Ubuntu. Ubuntu worked in 2008, and would have led to Championships in 2009 and 2010 if not for injuries to KG and Perkins. But, the Celtics have changed. No more Perkins. Everyone’s a few years older. The bench has completely changed three times in the past three years. Ainge is anything if not aggressive as a GM, and no player can guarantee they’ll be here tomorrow. The psyche of the team has changed, even if Doc and the Big-4 won’t admit it publicly. For a team built on chemistry, Doc needs to build that chemistry quickly. Luckily, chemistry was Doc’s best class in high school. He took malcontent (Big Baby) after malcontent (Nate Robinson) after malcontent (Sheed) and forced them to buy into his system, as best he could. If health were never an issue, this team would have won the 2008, 2009, and 2010 Championships.
Now that the Celtics signed Doc for five more seasons, Doc will need to do the following in order to keep the Celtics in contention: limit the starters’ minutes while not undermining what makes the Cs successful (precise ball movement/screens and defensive rotation); force Rondo to shoot 1,000 jump shots and 2,000 free throws every day until he becomes better than league average; very quickly incorporate all new players into the Celtics’ way of life and rotation; inspire the team on a daily basis to fight, fight, fight. From the most recent reports, he seems to be doing just that.
As for the lineup:
Predicted 2011-12 Depth Chart (from 5/27/11 article Celtic Change):
PG: Rondo / Delonte West / Bradley
SG: Allen / Anthony Parker / Wafer
SF: Pierce / Josh Howard
PF: Garnett / Green / Kwame Brown
Actual 2011-12 Depth Chart:
PG: Rondo / Keyon Dooling
SG: Allen / Bradley / E’Twaun Moore
SF: Pierce / Marquis Daniels / Pavlovic
PF: Garnett / Brandon Bass / JaJuan Johnson
C: J. O’Neal / Chris Wilcox
Things obviously changed due to the lengthy lockout and the new collective bargaining agreement, which didn’t necessarily help an over-spending luxury tax team like the Celtics. It was nearly impossible during the ensuing days post-lockout to imagine what Danny Ainge was going to do, or be able to do, to rebuild the team’s depth chart. In my book, Ainge did a terrific job (B+). He brought in a new supporting group for relatively little money, and he kept all his cap flexibility for next season (only Rondo, Pierce, and Bradley are guaranteed). Considering most top-level free agents are forcing trades prior to free agency, who knows who will be around to sign in 2012 (here’s a list), but Ainge stuck to his original goals while still improving the overall roster of the team for this coming season.
This Year’s Squad:
- Rajon Rondo – His on-again, off-again trade rumors are understandable, and he’s handled them maturely. I understand why Ainge would want to trade Rondo for a scoring threat at PG. The team needs additional scoring, and Rondo’s offensive output varies from inconsistent to nonexistent. Rondo is an amazing pass-first PG (perhaps the best pure PG in the league), but the Celtics are aging and the Big-3 cannot create their own shots night-in, night-out. The Celtics need a PG who can create his own offense when the team’s offense stalls. Saying all that, I still am very happy that Rondo stayed in green. I root for the Celtics as an organization, but I also root for the players as I grow to admire and appreciate their effort and respect for the team’s history and the game. Rondo is a gamer and a Celtic. Chris Paul, who Rondo was baited for in a trade, openly said he didn’t want to play for the Celtics. Fine, Chris Paul, then we don’t want you either. Rondo needs to work to develop a jumper and a free throw shot, but besides that he’s well-rounded and a tough leader.
- Ray Allen – Still one of the best pure shooters and 3-pt assassins in the league. But, the team has to work harder at setting solid picks to get him open, and it wouldn’t be a horrible thing for Allen to spend a little time harnessing his one-on-one game to ease the scoring load off Pierce.
- Paul Pierce – The Captain is back. He’s still the team’s only one-on-one isolation scorer. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on him to score, so I hope his injured heel recovers completely.
- Kevin Garnett – KG wasn’t going anywhere, and it’s good to see him back and fully healthy. This may be his one last hurrah overall (it is his 16th season), so I hope he leaves it all on the court.
- Jermaine O’Neal – As I predicted, he returned to play 18 mpg and collect $6.2 million. Problem is he may be required to play 20+ mpg. Will his body hold up? I think not, which necessitates a trade deadline move to shore up the C position. But, for now, I’m happy he’s back. He’s a good player and locker room presence. Here’s hoping his knees hold up until reinforcements are brought in.
- Avery Bradley – Bradley should be ready for more minutes, but it’s impossible to know how he’ll produce. It’s time to see, for better or worse. Problem is that if he doesn’t produce on the floor, he loses all his trade value, and his only value so far has been as an additional chip in a trade package. The Celtics don’t often play their young guys, but with the condescended schedule they won’t have much of a choice.
- Brandon Bass – The sign-and-trade of Big Baby for Bass was Ainge’s best move of the off-season. I have desired Bass for two years, and I am shocked Orlando traded him for Baby. Bass is physical down low and can hit an open jump shot at a better rate than Baby. He’s also a more consistent rebounder. He’ll fit in nicely playing alongside or backing up Garnett. And, he’s signed for two years at a very reasonable price of $4 million per year (though he can opt out). Baby wanted more than that and got it from Orlando. When I look at this sign-and-trade, I think, “What was Orlando thinking?” That’s a good sign for the Celtics.
- Keyon Dooling – He’s a terrific pick-up for the trade exception they earned by trading Marquis Daniels last season. Dooling can back up Rondo at PG and create his own offense with the second unit. Solid pick-up. However, his output will always be compared to that of Delonte West last season, since he, in essence, replaces West in the lineup. Can he give the team the defensive toughness West gave to the back-up PG and SG spots? I believe he can, while upgrading West’s offensive contributions. And, it’s telling that Doc has a man-crush on him.
- Marquis Daniels – Speaking of Daniels, he’s back. And, count me in as one who believes this is a terrific pick-up for the money. He may be injury-prone, but when he’s on the court he’s tough, intelligent, and knows the system. No one gets to the basket like he does on cuts, and he’s a terrific finisher around the rim. He’s a lunch pail guy, a Celtics guy, and Doc trusts him enough to throw him in any situation. Daniels is the team’s James Posey, which is why Ainge avoiding going after James Posey.
- Chris Wilcox – I like the Wilcox signing. He’s a tough guy down low and should play a lot of Center for this team. He’s also excited to be on a playoff-bound team for the first time in his career. Fans can easily compare him to Reggie Evans or Chuck Hayes or the like, but Wilcox is a good signing for the money.
- Sasha Pavlovic – I wrote the following back in May: “If the Celtics run out of salary cap space and need to resign one of their own guys to soften the cap hit in lieu of signing Przybilla or (Josh) Howard, I believe it will be Sasha.” Perhaps he can contribute throughout the season, backing up the backup at SF. He was once the second-best player on a Cavs team that made it to the Finals.
- JaJuan Johnson – I love the Johnson pick. He has experience (4-year college grad) and talent. He’s mature and has extreme length. He’s an explosive leaper with shot-blocking skills. He can score with either hand. He rebounds. He should fit right in and learn from the vets. It’s great to see that KG has taken him under his wing. If anything, Rondo was given another running partner on the break. Let’s see how many minutes he’s given this season. He’ll have to prove himself to Doc in practice, especially on the defensive end, before he sees any floor time.
- E’Twaun Moore – They didn’t draft a Euro to stash in Europe, like I thought they would, but they did draft a tweener guard who may spend some time in the D-League. With the 55th pick, it’s terrific to get a 4-year college grad from a winning program. The guy has skills, and has seemingly earned the respect of his teammates. If Moore can deliver come game time, then his selection may be the steal of the draft.
Injured (Out for Season):
- Jeff Green – I was very excited to have Green back on a one-year deal, until his unfortunate health scare forced him to miss the season. Best of luck to him health-wise. This is a blow to the team, but how much of a blow? A lot was expected of Green, performance-wise, whether it should have been or not, but there was no guarantee he was going to be anything other than the player he was last season. He has the size and athleticism to be a difference-maker, and another year in Doc’s system would have improved his chances of making a difference. Now, we fans wait until next year, when it looks like he’ll be back in the mix, perhaps with an entirely new team around him.
Possible Late Additions to Roster:
- Greg Stiemsma – The question here is, “Can he provide the team with what Semih Erden provided the team?” I liked Erden quite a bit. He showed a lot of heart playing with an injured shoulder and he produced as well as one could expect, if not better, when he filled in as a spot starter. Can Stiemsma do the same? If he makes the team, he will be expected to play a few minutes, being the only true C behind O’Neal. He’s known for his defense, which is good. But, the Celtics struggle on offense and it’s not known whether he can provide any measure of an offensive game in the post.
- Gilbert Brown – The unsigned player of Pittsburgh has been practicing with the team during the pre-season, but it’s unknown if he’ll make the roster. He’s 6’6”, 215lb, which is good size, and he plays with energy, but will Doc even trust him enough to warm the bench. The team could take a flier on him until someone better becomes available.
- Glen Davis – Many fans will write eulogies of Big Baby’s time on the team, praising him for what he delivered or chastising him for what he did not. I believe it was time for a parting of the ways, and receiving Bass in exchange was a steal on Ainge’s part. Baby had some special moments in Green, and I thank him for those, but it was time for both sides to move on. No tears shed here, unlike with the Perkins trade where I actually cried at work and stepped out for a drink.
- Delonte West – The Celts went with Dooling. Will I miss West? Yes. Do I believe Dooling can fill his shoes and perhaps be a better offensive contributor? Also yes.
- Von Wafer – Sent as part of the trade that brought Bass. Can’t complain. I’d rather see what Bradley has to offer than give those minutes to Wafer.
- Troy Murphy – In my opinion, Ainge’s choice to re-sign a player from last year’s team in order to round out this year’s squad came down to Pavlovic or Murphy. Can’t fault Ainge for choosing Pavlovic, even though Murphy would have brought that elusive height the team is lacking. Murphy never seemed happy last season after signing with the Celts, and he didn’t perform well when on the court, so no one can be saddened by his not returning.
Missed Out On:
- Chris Paul – A few years back, I would have traded the entire team outside of the Big-3 for Chris Paul, but this year I was against it because of his deteriorating knees and his unwillingness to sign an extension. And, I will once again state that if Chris Paul doesn’t want to play for the Celtics (which he let be known), then I, as a fan, don’t want him on the Celtics. He let it be known that he’d rather play for the Clippers (and Donald Sterling, by association). Really??? The Clippers??? Good luck playing for the Clippers, where he’s one knee injury away from becoming a forgotten great. The Clippers, as they’re currently constructed, have absolutely no chance of getting past the Lakers, Mavs, Thunder, or Grizzlies during the two seasons in which they’ll have Chris Paul. And, then, you can bet that Chris Paul is as good as gone.
- David West – I had been pining for David West to be on the team for years, but there was always one (good) problem, the team had Kevin Garnett. West was unnecessary. This off-season, West would have been a fantastic pick-up, but the team didn’t technically need him considering they had already went out and grabbed Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox, both PFs. And, kind of along the lines of Chris Paul’s desire to avoid playing for the Celts, West (apparently) chose to go to the Pacers as opposed to accepting a little less money to play for the Celts. Really??? The Pacers??? Good, young team or not, the Pacers are no Celtics, and their squad doesn’t have 4 All Stars and 3 Hall of Famers. Good choice, Mr. West. Enjoy backing up Tyler Hansbrough.
Never Approached (Went Another Way):
- Joel Przybilla – I wish they were able to get this guy, and they still may come January. He has the perfect nasty streak that this team lacks without Perkins in the lineup, and he’s a rebounder, which they desperately need. He’s an injury risk though, and is actually waiting until the new year to sign with a team (due to his latest leg-related surgery).
- Josh Howard – The Celts could have used him, but they picked up Daniels instead. Look, they’re both injuries waiting to happen, so I can’t fault Ainge for going with the guy who already knows Doc’s system.
- Kwame Brown – Once the options became limited, I thought Ainge would sign Brown, but he went to the Warriors for more money than the Celts had available.
- Anthony Parker – Once again, Ainge decided it was better to bring back Daniels.
The Celtics will finish 3rd in the Eastern Conference behind both Miami and Chicago, but ahead of New York, Orlando, Indiana, and Atlanta, though they’ll be closer to the second pack than the first. The Celts have the same starting five from last season’s playoffs, but an improved bench, but is that enough for us to believe they can make it to the Finals? The Heat and Bulls basically stood pat, while possibly becoming slightly better with their additions of Battier and Hamilton, respectively, but it is not the top two teams that I fear from the position of a fan – they’re inarguably better teams with younger superstars, and losing to either of them wouldn’t be an embarrassing disappointment. Losing to the upstart young-ens would be a disappointment. The Knicks and Pacers have become decidedly better, and though they still have glaring holes, they have another season together to work out kinks before the playoffs start. The Magic and Hawks are veterans of the playoffs at this point, and their rosters suggest that they’ll be about as good as they were last year. The Magic’s success depends entirely on the destination of Dwight Howard come playoff time; if he’s on the Nets, then the Nets will be more dangerous than the Magic. This Celtics squad could easily lose a playoff series to the upstart Pacers (or Knicks) if health and focus come into question. I’d hate to see that happen.
Once again, the Celtics will have to find a way to battle through the regular season, attempting to avoid any serious injury, to set themselves up for a deep playoff run. Ainge has five months to either shore up the bench or blow up the team. All will be dependent on how they’re playing. Trying to predict what Ainge will do in that scenario is a ludicrous notion; he’s liable to do anything. I’m hoping everyone stays healthy and Ainge isn’t forced to do anything drastic. Shore up the bench with a scorer and a big man and, in my opinion, this team will be set come playoff time.
Can this opening day roster, at full health, win the East and make it to the Finals? There is a puncher’s chance. And, at this late stage in the era of the Big-3 that is all for which we fans can hope. Go Celtics!