By Jeremy Gottlieb
It’s the NBA All-Star break, faithful readers, and even though it was a quick, mostly uneventful (unless you’re Nate Robinson or anyone in the Suns’ organization) weekend and games resume tonight, the Celtics have a couple of extra days to do some serious chillaxing before their season resumes Thursday night in Salt Lake City against the Jazz. With all this bonus free time in the middle of the schedule, it seems appropriate to attempt to assess exactly where the Green is at with just 27 more games on the regular season slate. So, we’re going to try a different tack with this little ditty and hand out report cards to your defending World Champs. Grades will be given in five groupings, one for the starters, one for the bench, one for the coaching staff, one for the front office and one for the entire operation as a whole. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at who makes the Full Court Press honor roll, and who doesn’t.
1. THE STARTERS
Look closely at the fivesome comprised of Messrs. Pierce, Garnett, Allen, Rondo and Perkins and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any real signs of wear and tear. After 108 games last year (not including preseason) and 55 more this year, signs of long term fatigue aren’t terribly noticeable. In fact, an argument could be made that each individual member of this group is even better than last year. Naturally, such a discussion must begin with Rondo, who in less than three full seasons has gone from being a legitimate question mark to the cusp of elite point guard status. For proof, look no further than the final game before the break at Dallas in which he carried the Celtics through the first three quarters and finished with a jaw-dropping stat line of 19-15-14, while shooting 9-of-14 from the field. It wasn’t the first time Rondo has put up such numbers this year and likely won’t be the last. As has been mentioned before, both in this space and elsewhere, as soon as Rondo develops some semblance of a mid-range jumper (and the confidence to take it), the coronation will commence.
As for everyone else, it’s steady as she goes. Pierce got off to somewhat of a slow start but for the most part, has continued to be one of league’s best. He remains stellar with the game on the line, the most recent example being the Dallas game, in which he woke up from a three quarter nap to completely take over the game in the fourth quarter, wrestling it away from Dirk Nowitzki (who was playing at the absolute apex of his talents that night) with an 18-point fourth quarter in which he featured pretty much the entire repertoire in leading the Celtics from the brink of a sure loss to a remarkable win. Allen is consistently excellent, averaging 18 points a game while shooting 49 percent from the floor (four percent more than his career average) and 40 percent from 3-point land. Garnett is steady as ever, still putting up his at or about nightly double-double, though his scoring average, 16.4 PPG, is down two points from last year and four from his career mean. And Perk is humming along, providing size, strength and an element of intimidation while posting the occasional big game and fighting for the league lead in technicals. If the Celtics are going to win another title, it’s these guys who must lead them there. There isn’t much of a reason to expect otherwise.
2. THE BENCH
The toughest item on this list to figure out, the Celtics reserve unit this season is not operating at the same level as it did last year and may end up being the difference between whether banner 18 is raised up next fall or not. Of course, the most obvious reason for the drop off is the absence of James Posey, who, as loyal Celtics followers know, was the X factor in the team’s run to the title last season. But at this point, it seems more reasonable to suggest that it isn’t Posey’s departure, but the lack of any legit replacement for him or what he brings. The reserve who has had the best season is Eddie House, whose long range shooting has been a godsend. But House is a jump shooter, period. There aren’t a lot of intangibles to his game beyond an element of veteran leadership. He is not a lock down defender, doesn’t handle the ball particularly well and is too small to be a consequential rebounder. These factors are not pointed out to criticize House – he is a very valuable member of the team whose offense has mightily contributed to several wins. They are pointed out to show that there is a huge difference between this year’s second unit and last year’s. For all of their selling points, Leon Powe and Big Baby Davis (both of whom have run off immensely important stretches of play in recent weeks) are too young, limited and inexperienced to approach Posey’s level. And Tony Allen, who has the talent and ability to at least approximate Posey’s skill set, doesn’t even understand enough basic basketball concepts to come close.
What does all of this mean? It’s too soon to be certain. We won’t know for sure what the lack of Posey’s contributions will mean until playoff time. Between now and then, there is time for the acquisition of a veteran big man or guard (or both) who can step in and inject some more leadership and consistency to the second unit – someone who can step up and hit a big 3-pointer, play tough defense against one of the opponent’s best players, grab an important rebound in traffic or slide into the lane and take a charge. Sound like anyone you know?
3. THE COACHES
Actually, the heading should just read, THE COACH, as the merits of Clifford Ray, Kevin Eastman, et al is mostly irrelevant (although that isn’t true of Tom Thibodeau, who is still a defensive wizard as evidenced by the Celtics’ No. 2 ranking in points against and No. 1 ranking in opponent’s field goal percentage, and acquitted himself very nicely running the show for the final quarter-plus in Dallas last week). All that matters for our purposes here is Doc Rivers and Doc Rivers only. Doc is still riding the wave provided for him by Pierce, Garnett and Allen and is still doing so impressively. He has the occasional brainfart (I still don’t understand why Davis and not Powe was in the Laker game down the stretch after Garnett fouled out), but what coach doesn’t? The thing that is so striking about Doc is that he is exactly the same as he was two years ago during that wretched, 18-game losing streak. It’s not like he suddenly learned to coach last season (though the importing of Thibodeau from Houston certainly helped). In any sport, the coach is only as good as his players and in the NBA, when you’re sending guys like Garnett, Allen and Pierce out there as opposed to guys like Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes (even though we have a soft spot for good, ol’ Ryan) and Michael Olowokandi, chances are you’re going to win a few more games. Doc is steady, he’s tough enough, he has a very imaginative and precise sense of how to coach offense (and has Thibodeau to provide the same qualities on the other end of the court) and he’s smart. He understands exactly how to use his experience as a former player to motivate his players without coddling them or condescending to them. He’s the right guy for this group. Put him in a rebuilding situation or at the helm of a rudderless ship alongside a bunch of kids, as he was pre-Banner 17, and you’re asking for trouble.
4. THE FRONT OFFICE
Danny Ainge, one year removed from Executive of the Year honors, has some decisions to make in the coming days/weeks if he’s to be considered for that honor again. Ainge’s biggest moves so far this season are a) not re-signing Posey, and b) extending Tony Allen’s contract. The jury is still out on option A, as mentioned above, and anyone who has ever read anything I’ve ever written about this team probably can deduce my opinion regarding option B. So now, we can sit back and wait to see who, if anyone, is acquired for the stretch run and the playoffs. It still says here that the Celtics would be well-served to bring in a veteran or two for leadership and insurance reasons. Given the team’s cap situation and current roster, such a move won’t likely come via trade (unless Oklahoma State wants to pass off Earl Watson and Joe Smith for Tony Allen and Scal). It’ll have to be the buyout option again, a la Sam Cassell last year (Bon Voyage, Sam – thanks for everything and enjoy spring time in Sacramento!) which means that Ainge will have to rely a lot more on timing and luck (or a change of heart by P.J. Brown) than his shrewdness and skill as a GM. Ainge has never been one to shy away from a move if he thinks it will help the team – for evidence, look at his first few seasons at the wheel. It would be easy to give him an incomplete instead of a grade here, but since memories of last season still invoke the warm and fuzzies, let’s be a bit more generous.
5. THE OWNERSHIP
Tough to find fault with these guys, is it not? After a few years of aimlessness in the organization, principal owner Wyc Grousbeck pretty much said, “F This!” and unlocked the vault, giving Ainge carte blanche to bring in Garnett, Allen and their max deals, and voila! A championship. Meanwhile, he and Steve Pagliuca have gone about their business with a nice mix of class and aplomb. They don’t meddle in the basketball side of the operation, nor do they whine about contracts or the luxury tax or anything, for that matter. They just sit under the basket and cheer for their team to win another banner. Is Grousbeck on the same level as his fellow local championship owners Bob Kraft and John Henry? If he isn’t he’s pretty damn close.