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Player Progression / Team Regression

In a prior Cheap Seats piece "Celtics Still Defensively Challenged", I noted that the team was placing an awful lot of pressure on Sebastian Telfair to be the guy to put the C's into the echelon of winning basketball teams. Since the Celtics did not address any defensive shortcomings in the offseason, I reasoned that it would fall on the NYC prodigy to be the engine in an up-tempo scoring machine. Telfair would have to turn an already efficient offense into one that added ten to fifteen extra fastbreak points; Celtic games needed to be shooting gallery for the team to have any success. Obviously, Sebastian has failed in this regard. I don't know that he was ever really suited for this role, but I do know that fans have been continually promised one style of play prior to the season and been delivered another when the actual games start.

The search for a true pass-first point guard will continue, right after these important messages from our sponsors...

The overall sentiment on the blog is that this team is finished and should do everything in its power to secure a top pick in the talent rich 2007 NBA draft. Fans don't care so much about the wins and losses, as long as the Celtics continue to develop young players like Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, and Rajon Rondo. Player progression with team regression. If we can't be optimistic about the future of certain players, then the mere process of watching Boston get their collective heads caved in becomes a total soul-crushing excercise. We fans cling to little shreds of hope:

* Hey! Gerald had a good game! You see that dunk he threw down in the 3rd?
* Rondo got more than ten minutes tonight!
* Call me crazy, but I think that Scalabrine's breasts have actually shrank a full cup-size!

I think that fans have gotten too complacent in this regard. It's great that Al Jefferson is having a breakout season and that Gerald Green is turning into a factor on offense. Tony Allen, prior to his potentially career-limiting knee injury, was really taking off, too. Yet even with the individual growth of these players, the _team_ is still the same rudderless ship. Eventually, Paul, Wally, Delonte, and Perk will all be healthy. When they are, the production of certain players that are currently getting minutes due to other injuries has to drop. For example, Green is not going to score twenty a night with Pierce and Szczerbiak taking the bulk of the perimeter shots. Rondo's minutes will probably drop from sporadic to near nil, as Doc is clearly more comfortable with West as his starting point. Jefferson will probably get fewer touches too, although he is the one player that can truly make a difference in how the Celtic team plays offensive basketball. Right now, the net result just a substitution of similar cogs, amounting to a team that plays in the exact same way with different names on the jerseys.

The Celtics need to do two things to become successful:

1) Replace players with redundant skill sets with ones that fill a need.
2) Establish an identity of any kind on the basketball court.

The first responsibility falls on Danny and Doc. It's on the GM to recognize what the team's needs are, and it's on the coach to make sure that players are being utilized in the proper role. Unfortunately, both have failed in some capacity (Danny with the Telfair trade, Doc's offenses too numerous to detail). I'll save the who's redundant/who's not breakdown for another article. The second is on the coach to design and the players to implement. Tony Barone's job in Memphis is a perfect example. Within ONE GAME of taking over for Fratello, Barone turned the plodding pace of the Grizzlies into a clone of the Doug Moe era Denver Nuggets. The Grizz are now averaging 111.5 PPG with a roster most scouts would agree is inferior to Boston's from top to bottom. Memphis isn't winning many more games yet, but they have a much better chance to win playing Barone's style than Fratello's style, that much is certain. Therein lies the power of establishing a team identity that players believe in; Memphis is now known as a high-scoring fastbreak team, and it didn't take them much time.

Why can't the Celtics do the same thing? Al Jefferson can't run as well as Pau Gasol? Mike Miller is just that much better than Paul Pierce? Chucky Atkins is a better open court point guard than Rajon Rondo? I don't get it.

To look at the other extreme, let's say the Celtics are fortunate enough to land Greg Oden. Forget the fact that Oden is the consensus number one pick, he is also the best fit for the team because of the impact he makes on the defensive end. Wouldn't then the natural inclination be to model the team on the deadly inside-outside game of the championship era San Antonio Spurs with Oden and Jefferson masquerading as Duncan and Robinson and Pierce/Szczerbiak/Green filling the Manu Ginobili/Sean Elliott/Robert Horry roles? It's a pretty nice dream, I admit.

The Celtics have some talented youngsters, but individual player progression alone isn't going to turn this franchise into a winner. A style of play that fits with the team's personnel has to be implemented, and there's no time like the present to do it. Right now, the C's seem to be a high post / cross screening / jumpshooting team on offense and a rotation missing / penetration allowing / absolute turnstile on defense.

What would I do? Well, if I couldn't turn the Celtics into Memphis east...

In the halfcourt I'd be in favor of a simple binary pick and roll defense system like the old Dick Harter blitzing schemes, because the current one implemented during training camp is definitely not working (which was the case even before all of the injuries). Play Rondo upwards of thirty minutes a night and have him pressure in the backcourt on every made basket. Do not double team the low post except on players that truly command one.

On offense, once Paul and Wally are healthy, do a total conversion to a low post oriented offense and run everything through Jefferson in the halfcourt. Opposing teams will have to pick their poison: either double Big Al and two passes later have
Pierce/Szczerbiak/Green/West get a wide open shot, or single cover Jefferson and have him score more than 50% of the time. Take transition buckets when available, and look to score more on the break with the proper units on the floor (smallball has really struggled in the halfcourt of late).

That's just one sensible man's opinion, and we all know that Doc is anything but. Rivers has had his hands tied recently, to be fair, but he too seems content with the idea of player progression / team regression, and that just isn't something that I can tolerate from the head coach.

This team needs a basketball identity, and it needs one now.

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