With one game left in the preseason, there are few questions surrounding the Celtics. Is the starting lineup set? Yes, and it’s humming like a well-oiled machine. Does Brad Stevens have his rotation in order? He’s close, and these are really rich man’s problems when it comes to the wealth of depth at his disposal.
However, there is still a battle for the 15th spot on the roster. All things considered, this is hardly Sophie’s Choice, but someone good is going to get cut if Danny can’t make a deal before the start of the season. The conventional wisdom here is that it comes down to James Young and R.J. Hunter. They’re relatively neck-and-neck when it comes to preseason production with neither creating a enough distance from the other to make this an easy choice, so here’s a suggestion for the front office:
Cut Gerald Green.
Back in August, ESPNBoston asked what should we be excited about entering next season? I responded:
The youth movement. The vets will carry this team, but it's the young players who could make this a special season. If Kelly Olynyk can contribute consistently with more minutes, if Marcus Smart can take the next step as a reliable scorer, if Jaylen Brown Brown can add versatility on defense and offense and if Terry Rozier can become a playmaker off the bench, Stevens could have a dangerous 10-man rotation for next season and, more importantly, a solid foundation for the franchise's future.
I didn’t list Young or Hunter in my answer, but the team should always have the big picture in mind, and that’s the young players.
The rebuild has been fast and furious, and in Danny Ainge’s brilliance (by the way, if you haven’t checked out former CelticsBlogger Kevin O’Connor’s piece on Danny’s genius/luck, it’s a must read), he’s been successful on two fronts. In just three years, he’s put together a starting unit via savvy trades and free-agent signings that’s capable of challenging for a conference championship. That alone would be an impressive feat, but he’s also simultaneously built through the draft and put in place a solid foundation that has the franchise set up for a decade of success.
With Vegas and NBA experts picking the Celtics as strong competition to the Cavs in the East, it’s easy to be a prisoner of the moment. We want to win, and we want to win now. Signing Gerald Green to a one-year minimum is the perfect low-risk, high-reward move that could make pretenders into contenders.
After last night’s game, former teammate Brook Lopez said of Green, “He was just high energy. He always came to the game and picked an energy level and effort level and brought life to us. We looked to him to do that every night and absolutely something he did off the bench.” And if you talk to Isaiah Thomas, Green is the man. At Media Day, Isaiah Thomas called him a “professional bucket getter”, and it’s difficult to ignore Thomas’ history with Green on the Suns and how much he’s campaigned for him to make this team.
Green is three years removed from his career year in Phoenix where he nearly averaged 16 points on 40% shooting from behind the arc. For a team starving for outside shooting, he could immediately have an impact. It’s numbers like that coupled with the Brad Stevens Effect that have many believing that Green could play a vital role as a microwave scorer off the bench.
He’s recovered from a hip injury that hampered him early in training camp, and over the last four games he’s shown that “spurtability” that Stevens said he was “scared of” in the past. Off the floor, he’s also shown a maturity that definitely wasn’t there when he was drafted by the Celtics at age 19. The 31-year-old-to-be is now the oldest player on the roster, and he adds experience and wisdom to a bench that’s without a veteran presence. His nine years in the NBA (plus two more overseas) is more than Smart, Rozier, Brown, and Olynyk combined. And by all accounts, the journeyman has already provided a positive influence in the locker room. He’s taken R.J. Hunter under his wing as his “zen master” and provided a shot of confidence to the youngsters:
"I try to tell young guys -- like, if I see a young guy pressing, I try to tell him to relax and play your game. If I see somebody that’s doing something good, I tell him, ‘Hey, man, keep doing those things. Those things can make you be a great pro.’ I just try to give guys encouragement, since I am the old vet now on the team."
Green is right, and it’s that lesson about confidence that might eventually doom his return. At the end of Green’s sophomore season with the Celtics, he was handed starter’s minutes after Paul Pierce went down with an injury, and Green never looked back. With a green light to shoot and a year and a half under his belt that included a little national spotlight as the 2007 NBA Slam Dunk champion, he started to reach his potential, which would later make him a trade chip in the Kevin Garnett deal.
The youngsters tried to prove themselves while playing extended minutes during Monday night's win over the Nets. pic.twitter.com/Noev8jqtNh— Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 18, 2016
Neither Hunter nor Young are in young Green territory yet, but they’ve shown flashes this summer suggesting that they’re ready to turn the corner and contribute to this team. They’re due to break out moment, and if we’ve learned anything from the rebuild, it’s that patience pays off.
Young and Hunter are 21 and 22 respectively. They still have multiple years on their rookie contracts with cap-friendly options. Stevens has done wonders with these 1-2 year reclamation projects like Green, but maybe that’s how we should be looking at James and R.J. You could argue that Green is more ready to play meaningful minutes right now. My guess is that the vets on this team would rather go into battle with a seasoned Yoda vs. two Luke Skywalkers just getting a handle of the Force, but the front office needs to be thinking Return of the Jedi and not just Episode 4.
Realistically, how often will any of these players be needed in December or February or even June? For all intents and purposes, Demetrius Jackson is the 15th man. Along with Jordan Mickey, he’ll be ticketed to Maine as soon as the season starts. Tyler Zeller serves as the emergency big on the deep bench, so Green, Young, and Hunter are really competing for two spots as wing scorers in reserve. How many situations are there going to be where Young and Hunter couldn’t do what Green can do? Their number might be called up from time to time to stretch the floor, but none of them should be getting meaningful minutes over Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier anyway.
Green told Hunter that he needs to "live and die with results," but ultimately, we're talking about the potential success of our 11th and 12th men. Stevens said, “It's going to be a tough call. ... (guys cut) are going to make an impact on this league.” The 2016-2017 season won't hinge on the success of Green or Young or Hunter, and if we're living and dying with their results, I'd rather invest in players that can pay off in the long term.
Green’s return to the Celtics is a nice homecoming, but so is the continued development of two players that could be contributors very soon if not right now.