Ok, 4-7 is the not the record many fans envisioned (or wanted) at this point in the season. In fact, for a perennial playoff team over the past few seasons the record is downright disgusting. The Celts are behind both the Cavs and Bucks, and currently sit at 10th in the Eastern Conference. They’ve lost to every playoff-caliber team they’ve played (and the Hornets), and they’ve beaten only the lowly Wizards, Nets, and Pistons. Is all lost? I know that some fans believe it is, but there are other fans adamantly hopeful about the Celts’ possibilities come this May-June. I am neither hopeful nor pessimistic, as watching the Celts play each game this season has left me equal measures apathetic and sad; apathetic because the team plays apathetically, and sad because I am reminded of the fall of the original Big-3 back in the late-80s/early-90s. We fans cannot forget the slow death of Celtics basketball as the 1990s rolled around, and the 21-year drought between championships.
Before the season (just a few weeks back), I gave the Celtics a ‘puncher’s chance’ to win a championship this season. Much like Rocky against Apollo, this team is the underdog going up against the more talented, athletic competition. They still have that puncher’s chance, but they’re certainly facing an uphill battle, and they’re not helping themselves considering this early hole they’re digging (which corresponds to the early hole they’ve been digging themselves in the first quarter of almost every game).
There are key issues that the Celts will have to remedy in order to keep alive this puncher’s chance going through the next 1/6 portion of their schedule, which doesn’t get any easier with games against OKC, ORL, IND, PHO, and NYK, including three back-to-backs. They’re somewhat lucky that the Eastern Conference is top-heavy, allowing them a good shot at slipping into the lower levels of the playoff field even if they finish right around .500. If healthy when entering the playoffs, I’d still give them a puncher’s chance against the field. If they miss the playoffs entirely, staying behind the likes of the Cavs and Bucks, I’d be very, very surprised (barring injuries). However, it is too early to be discussing what will happen in May-June. We’re only eleven games into this season. Here are the issues the Celtics need to deal with to increase their chances of making a championship run.
- Rondo is absolutely the wrong PG for this team. [I know this is a BIG issue to lead off with!] He plays at a different speed than all of his teammates, and this is not a good thing. He wants to race down the court on the fast break, but his teammates aren’t able to, so he often goes it alone, missing at the rim and getting ravaged physically. He is not a finisher at the rim on par with Rose or Westbrook, and at the line he’s hitting only 59% of his free throws, so his absorbed fouls on the fast break rarely bring the team more than one point. The Celtics will not win games on these single points racked up by Rondo on the fast break. The Celtics win and lose as a team, a half-court team. With the pace and spacing that the Celts use on offense, they need a PG that can knock down the outside shot (anything outside of 16 feet). Rondo still hasn’t developed a consistent jumper, though it has gotten slightly better this year, and he has no three-point shot to speak of. The perfect PG for this current Celts team would be Steve Nash because of his veteran savvy, short-term contract, and what he can do on the court. This team needs a PG that controls the half-court, being able to hit open shots and create their own offense. For as much as Rondo drives to the basket – usually in desperation because a play broke down – he doesn’t finish at the rim, and his free throw shooting leaves something to be desired (as discussed). With Phoenix currently outside of the playoff picture, perhaps they’d take on Rondo to lead their young team of athletes, while allowing Nash a shot at joining three future HOFers in Boston for one last push. With Nash at the helm, this Celts team would be tremendously improved, as he can find the open man, hit the open shot, and create his own offense. Rondo simply cannot do two of those three things.
Why, you may ask, would I propose trading the team’s sole young, signed talent? In my opinion, by the time Ainge builds a capable team of runners and shooters to surround Rondo, he will have lost a step or two. The Celts are not coming back next year with Gerald Wallace, Josh Smith and Dwight Howard, and the Big-3 coming off the bench. That’s not feasible. The team is not in the position they were in when they traded for Allen and Garnett. They don’t have the young talent to trade away. And, regardless of how much money they have for free agency, it seems many young talents don’t want to play in Boston, for whatever reason – Boston wasn’t on the trade lists of Paul or Howard, and West openly chose Indiana. The Celtics will most likely come away with a few minor free agents, and I find it likely they bring back Allen and Garnett on one-year contracts. How much will that improve the team if Rondo is still the center piece? Re-building around Rondo doesn’t seem like the best idea. He’s certainly good and can be an All Star for years to come, but I’ve watched Rondo play into his sixth year, and I don’t believe he’s the kind of player or person that an organization builds a team around. He’s limited offensively, gambles defensively, and he’s shown a predilection to petulance and immaturity. He needs to be surrounded by mature veterans and athletic runners, a difficult roster mix to put together (and one the Celtics had in 2008).
Additionally, there is another big thing that bugs me about Rondo. He’s fully capable of putting on a defensive tour-de-force and putting up a triple-double while playing the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls, but he plays down to his lowlier opponents, like the Wizards or Cavs or Raptors. If Rondo can eat up great teams and match wits with superstars like Rose and Westbrook, then why can’t he consistently destroy lowly opponents? Is it a lack of focus and desire, or is he simply not good enough to dominate on a consistent basis? Personally, I feel it’s a lack of focus and desire. He gets up for the great teams, and is often taken behind the woodshed by the bad teams. If he can guard LeBron in the playoffs, hounding him to no end, then he should damn well be able to shut down Darren Collison or Jarrett Jack. But, he can’t, not consistently anyway. This is a troubling trait for a potential team leader.
One final comment: Rondo’s over-aggressiveness on defense does more to hurt the Celts’ defense than it does to bolster it. Too often Rondo’s man ends up with an open shot or an open lane where O’Neal or Bass pick up an extra foul (usually on an And-1). If Rondo truly understood the Celts’ defensive strategy, he wouldn’t gamble as often. He’s immensely talented, but too often I feel that he feels he has to go it alone because of the age and conditioning of his teammates. By gambling he puts his teammates in poor position for defensive close-outs and rebounds. If Rondo’s the leader of this team, then he needs to stick to the system.
If anyone is traded on this team before the season is through it needs to be Rondo, but only in exchange for a top-flight, half-court-capable PG like Steve Nash; preferably, one with a short contract. I don’t believe this will happen, but if I were Ainge I would look into it.
- Doc needs to update his offensive system. Watching the Celts on offense brings to my mind the following adjectives: stagnant, predictable, old. These are the same plays from 2008. They worked in 2008 because they were new and other teams hadn’t seen them, and the Celtics stars were four years younger and able to better execute. There are three reasons why these plays are no longer effective: 1) predictability – other teams know how to defend the Celts’ plays; 2) age – the Celts are older and less effective overall; 3) roster turnover – there has been too much turnover in the roster during the past three seasons, and the new guys simply haven’t had time to grasp all the concepts. The Celts’ offense is built heavily on screens and jump shooting, but they don’t have anyone other than KG who can set a solid screen, and jump shooting can be hit-or-miss (duh!) and long rebounds often lead to fast breaks on the other end. O’Neal and Bass don’t set screens like Perk or Davis did, and Allen is the only consistent jump-shooting threat on this team (though I know Pierce will get back to being consistent once he deals with his conditioning). When your offense is based on spacing for jump shooters, wouldn’t it help to have more capable jump shooters? And, wouldn’t it be nice if Doc actually called a post play for one of his big men? We have three big men (KG, Bass, O’Neal) who prefer jump shots over post plays, but the coach doesn’t need to cater to that. Brandon Bass is 6’8:, 250lbs.; put him down on the block and force him to take his man to the rim. There isn’t one post threat on this team, which makes it very easy for other teams to guard the Celts.
In my opinion, Doc needs to institute a few simple post plays for the likes of Bass and change up the half-court sets so they’re not so heavily dependent on screens from guys who do not set solid screens. With this current roster, I’m not certain anything will work, but something needs to be shaken up on offense. Doc needs to get his players closer to the basket, so that finishing becomes easier. This isn’t a team that can win the way it’s currently playing.
I was very concerned over the past few years with Doc’s offensive play-calling. I initially did not want him to come back to coach this team, thinking that a new offensive-minded coach could do wonders shaking up the team, while the core group of the Big-4 could lead the team on defense. Well, this year’s team has a horribly inept offense and a pathetically inept defense. The offense will not fix itself. It is predictable and inefficient, a terrible combination for a team hoping to make a run in the playoffs. The defense? Well, that can only be fixed through…
- Practice. The team’s defense will improve with practice time only, and that time is drastically limited in this shortened season. Game time flies by at a different speed and doesn’t allow for as much repetitive learning and communication. Only in practice can guys learn their roles and where they need to be on defensive switches and rotations. The team is trying, but the new guys haven’t had enough practice time and the old guys cannot be in two places at once (when their teammates aren’t in their correct positions). The Celts’ defense is built on teamwork and rotation, and this team is not prepared to get it done on a consistent basis. The origin of this issue is the massive roster turnover that has been employed over the past three seasons. I know Ainge is aiming toward massive cap space in 2012, but he short-changed the team for this season (even before considering the unfortunate absence of Jeff Green – Pietrus is a fine replacement for Green). Practice time must be as important as game time to members of the Celtics this season. They must find a way to instill their defense into the new guys before the season is over.
- How about rebounding drills? Holy crap, how does this team rebound so poorly? They’re certainly not the shortest team in the NBA. In fact, they’re over the league average for teams with players 6’10” or taller (average = 4.2; Celts = 5). The teams with the fewest players 6’10” or taller are the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers (both have only 2 players over 6’10”), and they’re two of the top rebounding teams in basketball. I can understand having a system in place where your team abandons offensive rebounding opportunities in order to fall back on defense, but how are the Celts this bad at defensive rebounding? From years of playing ball I have come to believe that rebounding is 40% position/60% hustle (luck is miniscule). You have to position yourself appropriately based on the shot being taken and the position of your opponent, but more importantly you have to want the rebound more than the guy next to you. The Celts don’t properly position themselves for rebounds, perhaps because there are so many new faces and they don’t yet have a feeling for each other. The Celts also don’t ever seem to want the ball (besides Rondo’s occasional hustle for loose boards). Most of the time, they seem averse to grabbing the ball. Their opponents go after the ball, and that is why the Celts are suffering. Can this be fixed? I don’t believe so. The team must have discussed rebounding a few times over the past few years, but they continue to suffer from a lack of it. Apparently, there is nothing Doc can do to get these guys to rebound the ball. Teams don’t win without rebounding. As Celtics fans, we’ve learned this first-hand over the past few seasons. Regardless, I’d love to see the younger guys, like Bass and Pietrus and Stiemsma, go after rebounds with controlled abandon, and it’d be great if the veterans could set the tone by showing more effort.
- Health is always an issue, but there is nothing that can be done about this, besides Doc limiting the veterans’ minutes. The team is old, on average, and there will be aches and strains along the way. We fans already knew that everything had to align perfectly – incl. health – in order for the team to make a deep playoff push. With injuries to Pierce, Wilcox, and Dooling in the first few weeks, we can only hope that the team is getting this out of their system early.
- KG’s lack of aggression has been an issue over the past few seasons, but is truly hurting the team this year. His leg injury can be blamed for his hesitancy in the past, but this year he is healthy. He’s older, yes, but he can still be a 15ppg/10rpg guy if his minutes are properly handled and he attacks the basket more often. More than age, I believe KG’s aggression has dwindled due to the loss of Perk. When Perk was on the court, KG knew he had a brother-in-arms with him in the post. Without Perk, KG stands with O’Neal and Bass, both fine players, but soft players who prefer jump shots over dunks. For the first time in his career, KG looks scared at times on the court. Defenders know he won’t attack the rim on offense, and he’s lost a step on defense (though he’s still terrific). He’s not the KG of old, but he needs to be more aggressive than he’s being now. Knowing he’s approaching the last few years of his career, if not the last, I hope he leaves it all on the court. It’s all you can ask from a great player as they near the end.
- The starters are playing heavy minutes even though they’re under-conditioned and there are young, energetic legs on the bench. I know playing youngsters is a tough paradox for Doc to wrap his mind around. With so little practice time, how does he trust court time to the young guys without sacrificing the best chance the team has to win? Well, they haven’t been winning and the starters look gassed each game. Like it or not, with little practice time available, Doc has to throw the young guys into the fire and hope that they learn quickly. This will only benefit the team in the short- and long-term. Short-term, it rests the starters for the fourth quarter and the remaining season. Long-term, the organization gets to see what it has in its young players. Doc may need to simplify a few things for the young guys – on offense and defense – but, as I said earlier, simplification may be a good thing for this team. Throw JaJuan down on the block and see what he can do to get to the rim. Let E’Twaun take the ball off a pick and find his way to the hole. Give the guys a chance. And rest the veterans.
There are quite a few issues this team needs to rectify over the coming weeks in order to align themselves for a playoff run. They have certainly derailed early, but there is time for them to get back on track. Much of what I mentioned above deals with basic team basketball. As these guys play together over the course of the season, one would expect defensive rotation and positioning to work itself out, and screens and rebounding can be practiced ad nauseum (when they do practice). The team’s shooting will hopefully come around as their conditioning improves. Health is out of everyone’s hands. Well, that’s not entirely true. Doc can play his veterans less minutes, increasing their odds of making it through the season injury-free. Getting young guys more involved now may improve their chances of becoming solid contributors come playoff time. It’d be great to see E’Twaun contribute during 12 minutes of action in a playoff game victory, which Norris Cole is bound to do for the Heat. If that’s going to happen, then the kid has to get court time now. As for my most controversial issue above – Rondo, there is little more to say. I don’t believe Ainge will trade him, but if Phoenix offers Nash (and a big man like Gortat), Ainge better listen. If he really cares about this Celtics organization then he has to take off his beer goggles and really look at Rondo’s game. There are still key aspects to his game that Rondo needs to improve – free throw shooting and consistent focus/desire being the top two (I doubt he’ll develop a three-point shot this season). Outside of re-loading during the season, we fans can only hope that the team finds a wave and rides it into the playoffs. It’s possible, but who knows if it’s likely. The way they’re playing now doesn’t bode well for the future. They aren’t simply losing games. They’re playing bad basketball on both ends of the court. If they can get it together, if Doc can work some magic, if there is anything left in the tanks of the Big-3, then we may see this team play deep into June. They’ll always be the puncher’s chance for this underdog Celtics team.
And, please, for those who say that all these issues become moot once the team starts winning, that isn’t necessarily true. The team lost the Finals in 2010 because of a lack of rebounding (which Perkins’ injury simply highlighted). The team lost to the Heat last season because of an inefficient offense. Health, and a starting unit that is gassed come playoff time, has been a recurring issue for this squad. These are issues that have followed this team for seasons, and age and roster turnover are highlighting them in this shortened season. They’re important issues, regardless of wins and losses.
I hope my next update finds them with a record of 15-7. Go Celtics!
For my pre-season Celtics prediction, please visit here.