The early season struggles of this team have not been all about putting size on the court. The team's late season success with a relatively diminutive lineup wasn't a pure anomaly. Boston's squad was built around a model that looked sustainable. They added a more diverse array of offensive weapons to bolster their staunch defense.
However, the defensive slippage seen this season cannot solely be blamed on the new personnel. Aside from Jason Terry, the collective group all have track histories ranging from defensively competent to downright dominant.
In fact, it's this truth that may shed some light on the team's early defensive struggles. This leads us to our first point of change.
There has been quite a bit of anticipation for the return of the feisty young guard, and for good reason. Bradley's impact on the Celtics was profound last season. His defensive tenacity sparked a tremendous second half surge and garnered Bradley NBA All Defensive Team consideration.
Bradley is by no means the savior of this team. But the other-worldly offensive/defensive points per 100 possessions mark that he set when on the court with KG and Rondo can't be dismissed. That trio set an all time league high of 82 points allowed per 100 possessions during the second half of the season over an 800+ minute stretch at one point. This type of defensive dominance sparked the transition that eventually led to Ray Allen's departure. In his place, Jason Terry was brought in to fulfill the bench sharpshooter role.
Unfortunately, Bradley's recovery and Courtney Lee's offensive struggles forced Terry into a starting role that he simply isn't suited to play. An already small Celtics starting lineup took a massive hit in perimeter defensive competency. For a team already facing the daunting task of integrating major offensive pieces, the defensive downgrade was bound to cause problems.
Terry just is not capable of playing the key role that Bradley has earned on this team. Bradley is the teams best defensive player and Terry may be its worst. Think about that. Bradley's ability to impact perimeter penetration and disrupt offensive timing has been completely missing from the starting lineup. This has limited Rondo's ability to play to his defensive strengths as a off-ball lane defender, and has forced Garnett to rove away from the basket with much greater frequency.
When Bradley returns he will solidify this teams defense every minute he is on the court. That might not make him a savior, but it damn well makes him a major part of the solution. his presence also helps lead into the next point of change.
SHIFTING OFFENSIVE IDENTITY
The team's offense has been better than last year by volume, but efficiency has been lacking. A big reason for this is very likely due to just how much more diverse the options are. Bradley's absence only further complicated the roles everyone is learning to play. Last season, Boston only had 3 rotation players with a usage-rate over 20, which is consistent with the "Big 3" era and its offensive philosophy. This season there are 5 players with such a usage rate and the total usage distribution is at an all time high.
Despite the play of Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee, and Jason Terry, the team is working hard to figure out a better solution than force-feeding Pierce and Garnett the ball every night.
In theory, the bench was suppose to have two "go-to" scoring options in Terry and Jeff Green. Mixing in quality support players such as Lee and Chris Wilcox gave Boston the potential for 48 minutes of focal point scoring, thus eliminating the burden on Garnett and Pierce to produce nightly at such high volume.
Unfortunately, this difficult process has been hindered by the early season struggles of Bass, Lee, and Terry. The constant shifting of lineups, rotations, and play calls to address those three has negatively impacted Jeff Green's ability to settle into his offensive comfort zone. Rivers has shown wisdom in keeping Green predominantly at the 3. But for a team that has a glut of players at the 4 and the 2, it limits Green's ability to maximize his productivity because he and Pierce so seldom get to share the court as a wing tandem, which is the best place for them to shine together offensively.
Green has taken the brunt of the fans ire for his seeming lack of aggressive play, but despite this perception his usage rate and per minute productivity over the last 14 games is on par with the teams best players. It's hard to blame Green for his offensive decision making when the units he plays with so often have no sense of order or purpose to their execution.
Green is most effective when he knows how to play off of his teammates. The lack of cohesion has far too often found Green outside of his areas of strength - the left elbow or either baseline. He has been completely left out of pick and roll or high post opportunities, frequently being parked in the corner or used in aimless hand-offs when the team is mired in one of their "random" sets that so often have no cohesion when not searching for the "Big 3".
The collective effect of role uncertainty has led to inconsistencies on both sides of the court. It's also led to an over reliance on Garnett, Pierce, and Rondo to play the "Big 3" role during a season where this team is suppose to be shifting toward an equal opportunity offense such as the Spurs run.
Boston just isn't comfortable enough to change their familiar patterns of play when it matters most. When the struggles begin, Doc Rivers has been trapped between sticking with the theory of the new or reverting to the knowledge of the old. Not an easy position to be in at all.
Paul Pierce has shown this week that he can still be super human at times. But he's past the point in his career where one would build a team around that type of workload. Garnett and Terry shot a combined 7-37 against the Bucks the other night. This happened during a game where Jeff Green and Courtney Lee were at the top of their respective games and combined to go 9-18. In no universe should this happen. Green and Lee were paid specifically to avoid this type of shot distribution. It perfectly emphasizes the conundrum this team finds itself in while trying to establish an identify that works.
This constant process of trial and error has led Rivers and Ainge to the final point of change.
MERGERS AND ACQUISITIONS
This team was constructed to consolidate their assets and make a move if and when necessary. The organization may have had high hopes for this roster, but only the most obtuse of skeptics would believe Boston was "all in" with this front court. The collection of contracts and excessive depth were designed for the probability that a move could be made if needed.
Brandon Bass played admirably most of last season, but he was slotted to be a backup when he was acquired for good reason. His rebounding and offensive game are not ideally suited for a starting unit lacking consistent punch in both of these areas. His inconsistency this year speaks to the mindset of a player that knows he has a tenuous grip on not only a starting job, but a place on the roster as well. His contract value and length are consistent with the skill set he brings as a first-big off the bench type. He's a movable asset in what promises to be a market abundant with big men.
Chris Wilcox is an excellent backup Center/Forward for a Rondo led team, he may even be the best starting option next to Garnett currently on the roster. But the need to get both Jared Sullinger and Bass quality minutes has forced Rivers into utilizing personnel combos that are less than ideal. As of now, Collins size and defensive acumen are winning out in this less than perfect mix.
Sullinger is the most talented of the group, both offensively and with his rebounding. But he is a rookie and betting on his ability to surpass the impact that Bass had for the starting lineup last season is unreasonable. His time will come in this league, whether it be for this team or another. The better Sullinger performs, the greater his trade value becomes. For a player who would have been a sure-fire top 10 pick without the injuries, every quality play he makes only adds to his desirability in the marketplace.
Both Wilcox and Sullinger represent this teams greatest chance for self improvement without a shift in personnel. They have the talent to make a significant impact for this team. But their enemy is time. For Wilcox, it is his recovery from surgery that works against him. For Sullinger it is his lack of experience. With so many proven players potentially hitting the market, it's up to both Wilcox and Sullinger to prove their worth sooner rather than later. This team has invested too much into the present to risk a shot at contention. They will not hesitate to deal for a more reliable upgrade if the opportunity arises before either of these players shows his full worth.
If only Darko Milicic had been more patient. His willingness to turn down big money overseas showed his commitment for being a part of something here in Boston. But the teams adherence to small ball early in the season clearly wore on his patience, which has benefited Collins but further hindered the teams ability to progress. Collins provides something very valuable to this team. His defensive prowess, communication, and toughness serve as a tone-setter for others. But, this team needs more out of a starting role than just the "little things" alone. Production counts for a unit that is woefully behind on filling its quota for the team.
There are three weeks until January 15th, the date when all of Boston's arsenal of assets will be available for the poker game of the trade market. Though the trade deadline is much further out in late February, Ainge is probably quite wary of disrupting an already fragile chemistry too late in the season. It seems likely that the team would push for a move, if the right one were available, rather than continue to "push" until the last hour.
In these next three weeks the team will have a chance to observe Bradley's impact on the rotation. They will be able to gauge where the market is at for their personnel as well. These next three weeks could determine the fate of many players on this roster as well as the magnitude of the moves the organization is poised to make.
One thing alone is clear at this point. The team has a glaring need for superior production from its front court. Asking Kevin Garnett to perform as he did last season is not acceptable if this team wishes to contend. There must be another player who can produce consistently on both ends of the court or at least two players who combine to do so. As of now, there is not....and its hard to be patient when the sands of time are slipping away.
The status-quo won't cut it. Not for a team so close to contention. It's within them, all that's needed is the proper amount of change - internally or otherwise, something's gotta give or this year's window will be gone.
A single Kevin can't stand alone.