Amidst the euphoria of the offseason’s acquisitions has been the dark cloud of lack of depth on the roster. This is a valid concern, and one that will take more work by Ainge to fix. However, I don’t think it is as much of an issue as the Bob Ryans of the world might make you believe.
First of all, as fans, we have to get out of the habit of thinking of this team as "developing" and start thinking of it as "contending." For the last few years, we’ve celebrated the extended minutes for the young players. A ten man rotation seemed prudent for the long term goals of the team. Besides, it was difficult to tell which players deserved playing time over others, so they all got time. All that time spent developing talent was to prepare for the current situation.
Now is the time to look for results, not promise. There will be no more extended minutes for rookies that look lost on the court. There will be no "second unit." There will only be subs and versatile backups. The playing rotation will be 8 (or maybe 9) players deep.
First of all, the three superstars will be on the floor a lot. You’ve heard Doc say in the past that he wanted to keep either Pierce or Wally/Ricky on the court at all times. Now look for Doc to set up a rotation where two of the three stars are on the court at all times. I’m hoping that he’ll find a way to rest each of them more than their career averages, because they are going to need to be paced to hold up into their 30’s. Still, none of them will want to be off the floor and the presence of the other two to carry the load should (in theory) lighten the burden on each of them.
After the three stars is where the development of the last few years will need to pay dividends. The next three best players on the roster are each in their early 20’s. Rondo and Perkins round out the starting five and Tony Allen (if healthy) will likely be the first sub off the bench.
Rajon Rondo is likely going to be facing the most scrutiny and pressure on the team. He’s a second year point guard (which is never easy) surrounded by win-now talent. Danny has been gushing about the kid since before last year’s draft. He was coveted by the TWolves and held onto with a vice grip by Ainge. He’s been dubbed the "point guard of the future." That’s a lot to put on a guy a month younger than Gerald Green. In some ways, the 3 stars will help him on the court. Lanes should open, assists will pile up, leadership will be all around him. One the other hand, he has to walk with the big boys and show he belongs. Teams looking to game plan for the Celtics are going to look for weak points in the lineup. If you were the opposing coach, wouldn’t you attack the young point guard on this team? The pressure is on Rondo. He has to make The Leap this year or there will be problems.
Kendrick Perkins also needs to step up. For him it is more of an issue of staying healthy than it is getting better (though there’s room enough for improvement). Nobody expects Perkins to replace the scoring that Al Jefferson provided (that’s KG’s job). However, it would be nice if he could provide a good amount of rebounds for this team. Also, he’s going to need to defend the paint and take whatever pressure off of Garnett that he can by doing what he does best: bang with the big boys. To be of any help, he’s going to need to stay on the court. That means cutting down on fouls and staying healthy. Last year it was plantar fasciitis. Before that it was a dislocated shoulder. If he can stay healthy, he can be a solid, if unspectacular, player on this team.
Speaking of staying healthy, Tony Allen is likely to be the first sub off the bench for either Ray Allen or Paul Pierce. He is slated to be on the court by training camp, so we know he’ll play. What we don’t know is how he’ll play. It was a long time after his first return from surgery before we saw his explosiveness and aggressive play return to form. He can’t afford to be a step slow and out of rhythm on this team. Chances are he’ll be healthy enough to play, but his confidence needs to return. Whatever light bulb in his head that clicked on last year (just before he was hurt) needs to be switched back on in a hurry. One of the flaws of this game even when he’s fully healthy has been an inability to focus the whole game. That should be less of a problem in his role off the bench. He can be a great defensive sub that can take the pressure off Ray and Paul simply by taking the opposing wing player out of his game for a little bit. He simply needs to wreck havoc. And to do that, he’ll need to get his confidence back.
So barring injury, the top 6 are set. The rest of the rotation is still up in the air until Ainge finalizes the roster but here’s my best guess at the last 2 or 3 spots.
Brian Scalabrine will be counted on to come in and do the little things that winning teams need done. Set picks, grab rebounds, space the floor, direct traffic on defense, etc. Eddie House is a shooting specialist. He might be able to fill in as backup point by bringing the ball up and handing it off to Pierce or Allen, but he doesn’t give me warm fuzzies in that role (nor does he provide Rondo with a mentor at the position). He’s a sharpshooter and he can provide that element when the situation calls for it. Lastly there is going to be a big man that will need to back up Perkins. In some situations I imagine Doc might want to use KG at the 5 and have Scalabrine play the 4, but Garnett is best as a 4 so a backup big man would be preferred. The team likes Mutumbo, and for good reason. The ageless mountain of a man proved his worth with the Rockets last year. If they can’t get him, they’ll need to find someone that can bang with the big boys.
What about the rookies? What about Powe? They’ll have to work their way into the rotation and be ready for when injuries happen. Summer league is fine, but it means nothing to contending teams. Amir Johnson tore up the summer last year and barely saw the light of day on the Pistons the rest of the season. And rightly so. Of course the Pistons had a better roster 4 through 6 than we currently do, but the point remains. This is not the year to develop young talent. If they develop in practice and earn time on the court, wonderful. If they don’t, they can put in the time and work to be ready for their shot next year.
Of course some of this is subject to change if Ainge can pull of a trade or squeeze some extra free agent money out of the exceptions the team has left. A trade for a guy like Jasikevicius might make me feel better about the point guard spot. Or brining in Troy Hudson might give us some more depth at that spot. We still have to see what 7 footer we can convince to sign. Longer term, the team might be able to pull something off at the trade deadline.
There is room for more improvement, but with an 8 or 9 man rotation there will be less pressure on the end of the bench. The 4 through 6 players are young but got great experience the last couple years. The 7 through 9 players each knows their role and will play it well. If this team can stay relatively healthy, they should have enough to make a lot of noise in the playoffs. And once they get that far, who knows how much farther they can get.