The Boston Celtics have only played five games and already one of the most commonly held preseason beliefs - that Boston's bench would serve as one of its key strengths this season - has been turned on its head. The noteworthy depth that this team was ready to rely upon suddenly evaporated, largely due to the 10-game suspension of reserve guard Delonte West and the early injury woes of big men Jermaine and Shaquille O'Neal, and the second unit has struggled mightily because of it.
Glen Davis (13.4 points per game, five rebounds per game) has been the lone bright spot off the pine, although he has benefited from playing extended stretches with Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett. Marquis Daniels hasn't hindered the group (he was particularly effective against the Heat on opening night), but so far his level of play hasn't consistently matched up with what we saw during the presesaon. Von Wafer's been practically non-existent, even with West suspended, and while Semih Erden continues to show flashes of promise, either one of the O'Neals would serve as a better option for the Celtics at this point.
That brings us to Nate Robinson, who, out of all of those who have contributed to the second unit, has undoubtedly struggled the most. He's looked incredibly uncomfortable serving as the primary ball handler for the second five, and his needed offense has suffered because of it. His shooting numbers have been atrocious (5-26 from the field, 1-12 from three-point nation), as playing the point has taken away from his ability to serve a more customary role for him - that of the shooter and penetrator.
Fortunately, these early season struggles shouldn't be permanent, as the respective returns of Shaquille O'Neal and Delonte West will help stabilize an out-of-sync second unit.
The struggles of the bench were particularly noticeable in the Celtics' two most recent wins (109-86 over the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday, and 105-102 over the Bucks in overtime on Wednesday), when it squandered leads that the starters had built up. Early in the fourth quarter against the Pistons, a five-man unit comprised of Robinson, Daniels, Wafer, Davis, and Erden saw a 19-point lead shrink to a much more manageable 14-point edge, prompting Doc Rivers to yank Wafer and Erden in favor of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Wednesday night against the Bucks, the bench struggled in the opening minutes of the second quarter, when Milwaukee sliced a nine-point deficit (27-18) into a four-point deficit (27-23) in less than two minutes, prompting Doc to re-insert Jermaine O'Neal, Rajon Rondo, and Ray Allen before three minutes had gone by in the frame.
Robinson might benefit the most from West's return, as it'll enable him to slide over to the more familiar two-guard spot, where he can serve as more of a scorer as opposed to a playmaker and distributor. West will shoulder the ball handling responsibilities, and his presence should allow the Celtics to spread the floor and stretch the defense. West and Robinson proved during the preseason that they work well off of one another and can be an effective one-two scoring punch, particularly once Davis starts setting those beefy screens of his.
Meanwhile, the return of Shaquille O'Neal from a right knee bruise will give the second unit a better inside presence in one form or another. If Shaq continues to start, Jermaine will revert back to the second unit and should serve as a defensive staple up front - something the second unit has sorely lacked thus far. If Doc Rivers elects to continue to start Jermaine, then Shaq can fill in with the second unit and will provide needed low post scoring, and a rebounding presence (both offensive and defensive). In addition, if the second unit is looking to run, Shaq's a prime candidate to start the fast break with a rebound and a mean outlet pass to one of the guards who can advance the ball up the floor.
At 4-1, the Celtics have so far managed to deal with the somewhat expected lack of depth (they knew Delonte would be suspended, and it was assumed one of, if not both of, the O'Neals would miss time at some point). And while the situation right now isn't ideal, the cavalry is on its way, and when it arrives, hopefully the second unit will begin extending leads, rather than squandering them.