USA TODAY Sports
There is a growing sense of dread surrounding this team. As the losses pile up and frantic fans search for understanding, many are beginning to believe that the team is simply far worse than initially advertised. The days of Gino dancing to Celtics domination have given way to a bitter certainty that the good times are gone.
Before we all jump off the proverbial cliff, allow me to paint a less dire picture. The observations offered below may not sit well with some and are certainly not in line with the collective conventional wisdom of the team's media coverage. However, there are points that need to be addressed in light of this teams seemingly annual ability to find itself when it matters most.
JUST THE FACTS
The perimeter defense is clearly the biggest weakness of this team - not rebounding, not scoring, not "rim protection" - all of this boils down to controlling the perimeter.
Boston needs an upgrade to the frontcourt. Whether its internal production or the ever-growing probability of outside help, its a known issue area. but it can come from either the 4 or the 5 as long as the skills required are there. Most 4/5's are interchangeable. Boston's dearth of "length" in the frontcourt has made the damage caused from perimeter penetration that much more pronounced.
That being said, it doesn't appear that the team needs a massive overhaul at all - Lee, Green, and Sullinger have all played much more consistently over the past 14 games. People are overreacting to the end result of losses and not seeing the dynamics of the individual players. While winning is the bottom line, finding a solution to get back to the winning ways requires a thorough grasp of how everyone is performing. These three actually are, in fact, starting to "fit" together better with the team concept. Whether or not they must be used in trade is another matter, but they look much improved from season's beginning.
The absolute main problem is the perimeter rotation, which has exposed a major flaw in the frontcourt construction. The importance of Wilcox was written about early in the year. But, without Sullinger becoming a "double/double" producer earlier than could be expected, Bass' lack of production has accelerated the timetable for management to make personnel decisions. Slow individual offensive starts, coupled with rotational limitations have made this team perform worse than their collective ability would suggest.
This is where Lee's early season struggles really muddied the picture further. He was suppose to be the Bradley stop-gap. Lee's consistent mix of defense and perimeter shooting would allow time for Avery to heal. But his inability to remain consistent offensively forced a shift to the starting lineup and screwed up the rotation completely.
In the meantime, we're stuck watching frustrating basketball based on inescapable limitations. Wilcox going down is now showing its full impact. He and Barbosa were instrumental parts of a number of critical wins this year. With Bradley out, these two were giving quality production almost every night.
There are so many more things that can be said. This is death by 1000 pin pricks at the moment. Not the least of which is the tangible sense that a change is imminent. The team's recent performance indicates a group that is uncertain of itself and anticipating change. We've seen this before in each of the past three years.
WHAT HASN'T BEEN SEEN
Avery Bradley coming back and taking 30 mins a night by the end of the month of January. The 14-20 point output we were seeing during the bulk of last year's 2nd half run. The BEST perimeter scorer on the other team being limited in his efficiency by Bradley's smothering defense. He is an impact player, not a savior, but a massive upgrade to this team's most fatal flaw.
Lee/Green playing hybrid swing players to negate some of the worst perimeter defensive match-ups that have burned this team. Green primarily at the 3, where he has been really expanding his offensive game. The concentrations of his shot location has been outstanding. He is aware of his spots, and more importantly, his teammates are learning where and when he is effective. He is exploring his attack options, using counters more frequently and gauging space and angles more intelligently.
The same can also be said of Lee. His lack of three point efficiency has increased his use of his midrange game. Playing as a large guard or a speed forward against the proper match-ups should only further improve his production, which has been on the upswing for more than half the season. Most of this has gone completely unnoticed due to his production frequency's being masked by mundane averages. A Quick glance at the game-to-game performance frequencies shows that both players are trending in the right direction, producing much more frequently in their roles than they were over the first 14 games of the year.
The two can both play different SG/SF/PF hybrids that are all over the league. Lee and Green are capable of spelling Pierce during tough match-ups that the Captain shouldn't be trying to grind out as he is now. Moving Terry back to the bench and implementing a more effective perimeter rotation is an essential component of this team realizing its potential.
TOTAL SPECULATION AND FAITH
What I do know is that i've seen very very good basketball out of this team numerous times this season. I know a team that "stinks" when I see one and Boston ain't one of those teams. "Bad" teams achieve and fail in a much different pattern than this Boston team has done thus far. The individual components on this team have each flashed a glimpse of collective greatness. They have battled in critical situations and shown what could be if not for certain critical missing elements.
When I look at Boston this year, I see a team that is fighting against most opponents best efforts. They have won against numerous teams that would be considered victories of note. However, due to some personnel limitations they are getting exposed in certain areas that can't be addressed quite yet. Too many games have come down to the wire, but have been lost because the team couldn't protect the perimeter and the paint at the same time. The Spurs game comes to mind when I think about this team's ceiling and where subtle elements could lead to significant improvement.
I'm aware that the "excuse" crowd will be up in arms regarding the above. The total lack of fight and focus from this past road trip doesn't do anything to help the argument against, to be sure. Being a firm believer in the "human element" that is at play within each group work environment, too much of this team's struggles seem indicative of the "mental fatigue" that Doc alluded to.
Frankly, I believe the team realizes that they currently have deficiencies that no amount of "grit and balls" can overcome. This realization has led to a sense of the inevitability of a trade, which means uncertainty surrounding who will go and who will stay. They are a team in stasis, treading water as they wait for reinforcements to arrive.
THE GOOD NEWS
This team was, in fact, built for making the necessary moves if certain things didn't play out up to hope or expectation. The fact that its hitting the team harder on this trip is nothing new. Boston has struggled on this holiday road trip almost every year of the Big 3 era. Ever since the first Ray trade speculation, this time of year has drawn the worst inconsistency from them.
Ainge will make a move if the right value is there. He has never shied from the truth that everyone is tradeable if it means improving the team. But I'm sure he sees and values the more nuanced dynamics of evaluating a roster. This is a quality group of seasoned professionals, most in their prime. It defies logic that such a collection of proven players would fail to come together at some point. Now that the issue areas have been defined, there should be ample opportunity for the organization to fix what's missing - there are 50 games left and that provides months of time to work toward a solution.
They need another frontcourt athlete who can impact both sides of the court. Fortunately, there are about 12 of them potentially available this year.They'll get someone good for the "right" price if patient and calculating. This is the way the Patriots have done business for years, so its surprising to see such unrest when similar strategies are at play. The sports differ only in the value of the commodities and rules of engagement. Playing the market is playing the market, which is why these two teams share such a kinship.
KG's recent comment is spot on. The "plastic men" are going to melt away as the furor of another poor stretch of play has people bailing on the team. I've seen too much from the core of this group as well as the individuals who were brought in. There is better basketball in this group, and with the proper tweaks things are very likely to shift gears quickly.