Are The Celtics' Problems Here For The Long Haul?

Feb 22, 2012; Oklahoma City OK, USA; Boston Celtics small forward Mickael Pietrus (28) power forward Kevin Garnett (5) and forward JaJuan Johnson (12) during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena Mandatory Credit: Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE

As a west coast fan of the Celtics, it's tough when we lay an egg on national television. Sadly, that's been the case the last week since getting dismantled by the Thunder, Mavs, and Bulls and having the Chuckleheads (pun intended) on TNT take us apart. What could have been a showcase of "Why The Celtics Are Still Contenders" has become an open invitation for all haters to come out of the woodwork. You get text messages and e-mails from friends about how Boston looks old and tired and washed up. It's relentless and it's not fun. You tell them-and more importantly yourself-that it's a product of injuries and the shortened season and a lack of consistency and that this is a team that can get hot in the playoffs and we'd gladly take a #7 or #8 seed so we can face either Chicago or Miami with some fresh legs right off the bat.

This is all well and good. It's logical. This isn't Kool-Aid. I actually believe that's true. When we're clicking, we can beat anybody and we're going to have to face those teams at some point anyway. What scares me though is exactly how much has to go right over what can go wrong. In Britt Robson's SI.com NBA midseason grades article, he spells it out so succinctly:

...in the present, the Celtics must rely on jump shots for points and a maniacal defense for wins, a grueling, ultimately impossible way to get where they want to go.

We can win this way, but it's certainly not the easiest way. It's worked in the past, but the league is changing. There's a premium on players that can drive to the basket and either finish or get fouled. How many times have we heard the eulogy of the mid-range jump shot and the rise of the slashing point guard? The game has transitioned from the subtleties of the half-court set to this daredevil aerial show where guys like Lebron, Rose, and Griffin fly at the basket without abandon. It's like the halftime show where the guys jump of trampolines. Personally, I'm not the biggest fan of bulldozer basketball where guys just put their head down and drive the lane hoping to hear a whistle, but it wins games. Last night against OKC, the Thunder forced the action and try to drive it down our throats with every possession. However congested the lane was, all action went towards the rim.

This is not the Celtics and what worries me to no end is that the problems with the team are far less about personnel than they are systemic.

Let's dissect our the two glaring deficiencies that every national broadcast highlighted: rebounding and scoring.

Rebounding (specifically on the defensive end). As TNT pointed out in the Dallas debacle, we're last in total rebounding. That sounds depressing, but I think that's a misleading stat. Critics will point to the age thing again and sarcastically submit as Exhibit "A" Red's instructional video about boxing out your man, but it's not that simple. One of the keys to the Celtics' defensive scheme is to guard the ball handler and his most likely path to the basket. That's evident in every hedged screen and every big man that shades over to cut off a driving lane. This system has again produced one of the most suffocating defenses in the league. However, there's always a catch and you have to take the good with the bad.

With our bigs always in constant movement, often times switching assignments on the block and in the paint in order to be a help defender, getting rebounding position can be difficult and that's only accentuated when the defense produces a bad perimeter shot by the other team. KG and JO are usually out of position and not between their man and the basket to box out. Subsequently, they give up a ton of offensive rebounds. It's a nasty by-product but considering that comes from a smothering defense, I'll take that second-hand smoke any day. Really, I'm far less worried about the rebounding as I am about the other side of the ball.

Scoring. When the Big Three was assembled, they were already past their primes and Doc knew that to keep the championship window open as long as possible, he had to preserve their legs and make the game easier for them on the offensive end. The team's calling card was always going to be cemented on defense, but on offense, Doc had the foresight to use Garnett's, Allen's, and PP's jump shooting to extend their careers. They were no longer going to be playmakers working off the dribble or in the post. Gone were the days where they would dominate the ball and grind out points going one-on-one with their defenders. They were going to spend most of their energy on team defense and rely on their 1000-j's-a-day-in-the-off-season and Rondo's uncanny passing ability to get them open jumpers off off-ball screens to win games. And for the most part, that's worked.

Fast forward five years and we're at this crossroads. For the last four seasons, the jump shot has been falling. We've won a championship, had another Finals appearance, and two successful regular seasons plagued by injuries in the playoffs. This season, however, the shot's been off. We have no low post presence with Garnett shooting more elbow jumpers than playing with his back to the basket and the more glaring eyesore has been the discrepancy of free throws attempted. The Celtics are a team right now where nothing comes easy on offense. Off ball screens have Ray or PP coming from the baseline and catching the ball moving away from the basket. Cutters run toward open space to the perimeter rather than to the cup. It's an offense geared to create open shots, but missed jump shots have this irreversible snowball effect: 1) jump shooters rarely get to the line, 2) if a big is setting a screen, he's not in the best position to grab an offensive rebound, and 3) they lead to transition offense against, yes, one of the oldest teams in the league.

***

What I appreciate about Doc is that he's a basketball purist at heart. He was a gritty player that couldn't necessarily rely on his athleticism to get him by; he had to be savvy and smart and he's brought a lot of that hard knocks education to his coaching. Sure, there's an old school vs. new school element to consider and as I get older, it's becomes more and more important to me that the basketball I watch is the basketball I like and I've loved the last five years. The emphasis that Doc has instilled on defense and his ability to draw up plays in the half court are unmatched. There are so many moving parts and misdirections in Doc's offense and it's a beautiful thing to watch. I think deep down, Doc doesn't like doing it the easy way. It would be so much easier to have guys just crash into the paint and turn the game into a bull fight. He relishes the challenge of beating teams that play bully ball and loves guys that have put time into their craft to make themselves complete players. He puts value in team work and working together to get the right shot, but when that shot isn't falling and you're losing games, what's next?

This is why I don't get the Trade Rondo fervor. He's the one guy on the team that makes the game easier for everybody. He's become this pariah of late because of his immaturity and two-game suspension, but he's still the "engine that stirs the drink." Not only does he distribute the ball, he's arguably the only player that consistently takes it to the rack every night. If Rondo gets traded, we'd be giving away the one player on our roster that bridges us to what NBA basketball has evolved into today. It'll be interesting to see what Danny does between now and March 15th, in the draft, and in the off-season. Regardless of what we can get back, will there be a shift in basketball philosophy? Will there be a movement towards athletes and acrobats rather than skilled, all-around ball players like E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson?
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