Paul Pierce and friends. And a guy in a jacket. (Getty Images)
Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens because it's late December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Boston Celtics.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
As soon as thoughts and concern for Jeff Green's health dimmed a bit in the wake of the news of his scary heart condition, Celtics fans and NBA onlookers quickly moved to dismiss Boston's depth. Not quite to the point that critics were ready to call off their championship expectations, but because the team missed out the heavy duty days of the NBA's truncated free-agent signing period, there were worries that Green's absence could hurt the older Celtics in ways abbreviated minutes or slim practices couldn't help.
Am I missing something, here? This looks like a rotation I would gladly accept, were I a Celtics fan, and that's not with overrating the top-heavy aspect of this team's star-laden lineup. Does this thing not run 10 deep to you?
Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are key, we know, but there are a series of sound minutes-soppers here. Brandon Bass works well at two positions and Avery Bradley can spell Rondo despite his offensive limitations. Jermaine O'Neal had a fantastic year at center last season, and Chris Wilcox will love his ability to roam in Doc Rivers' ever-shifting offense full of moving parts.
With Sasha out of the picture, that's still 12 rotation parts to get all cheerful over. Dismiss the rookies and you still have a versatile, defensive-minded 10-man rotation that, by the way, is top-heavy with one of the league's best point guards and three of the best players of their generation.
Last "generation," I admit, but I see no reason why the Celtics can't hold up. Once the playoffs hit and you sometimes see three days in between first-round games, things will be all caught up, and the Celtics know Rivers' offense and the expected defensive rotations like the melody to "Jingle Bells" at this point. Timely.
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Lack of practice will be a worry to the coaching staff, but I honestly doubt it will be as big an issue with Boston as it is with other teams -- although Pierce's heel injury is a worry. Those things don't tend to go away. Still, this is a group that is good enough to not only down the Miami Heat, avenging last season's second-round loss, but get back to the Finals for the third time in five years (wow, has it been that long since Kevin McHale did Danny Ainge a solid and shipped K.G. to Boston?) in 2012.
Green would have helped, but the green have enough. Wordplay.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Boston Celtics
While I'm sure Doc Rivers prefers the challenges that come with coaching a lineup full of stars to the litany of issues he faced trying to coax wins out of Boston's brutal '05-'06 and '06-'07 rosters, coaching great talent does present its own unique set of problems. Throughout the Pierce-Garnett-Allen-Rondo era, the Celtics coach has earned acclaim for his skill at resolving those issues -- for having the fingertips to manage the sometimes mercurial personalities of Boston's top guns as well as the tactical skill to repeatedly put his personnel in the position to succeed in big spots.
The Celtics obviously wouldn't have won four straight Atlantic Division crowns, made two trips to the NBA Finals and won a championship without their signature stars, but Rivers' ability to push the right buttons has also been an integral element in the team's success. With this incarnation of the Celtics facing a daunting, 66-game compressed schedule in what could be its final year together, Rivers may have to turn in his finest performance to date to keep Boston among the NBA's elite.
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He'll have to integrate new pieces like Brandon Bass, Chris Wilcox and Keyon Dooling (plus any last-minute additions that Danny Ainge might make to fill out the roster) without much practice time. He'll have to cobble together enough minutes from Marquis Daniels and Sasha Pavlovic to make up for the unfortunate absence of Jeff Green and create a halfway legitimate reserve three behind Pierce.
He'll have to create avenues through which second-year man Avery Bradley and rookies JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore can contribute, because a team with as many miles on its collective odometer as Boston will likely need fresh legs more than most during this grueling season. He'll have to continue his complicated, fascinating tango with Rondo -- undoubtedly one of the most gifted (and reasonably priced) point guards in the game, yet seemingly a perpetual subject of offseason trade talk -- to keep the Kentucky product moving forward and pacing the team through the 66-game slate.
The job for Rivers is the same as it's been for the past few seasons -- win enough to get into the playoffs, ideally with a reasonable level of health, and then bet on execution and guile beating talent and athleticism. This year, though, it promises to be even harder; given the rising level of the latter in the Eastern Conference, his Celtics will need him to manufacture even more of the former. It'll be fun to see what he's got up his sleeve.
The Celtics need their best players healthy and firing on all cylinders to continue to compete with the league's upper echelon teams. That makes the news that Rivers is "concerned" enough about the sore right heel that has dogged Pierce throughout training camp to sit him out of Boston's final preseason game -- and potentially scratch him from the Celtics' Christmas Day opener against the New York Knicks -- pretty worrisome.
The injury has limited Pierce to just one practice in Celtics camp, and while it's not like a 13-year veteran who's scored more than 21,000 points in his career is going to forget how to play ball, going into the season with a rusty leading scorer wouldn't exactly help a Boston attack that's fallen into the bottom half of the league in offensive efficiency in each of the past two seasons. Plus, putting a not-ready-for-prime-time Pierce on the court to defend Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James in Boston's first two games could be, as Rivers said, "scary."
If Pierce does miss time in the early going, Rivers does have a couple of veteran options to spot at small forward -- Daniels is back and healthy after undergoing surgery to widen a narrowed spinal canal, and Pavlovic looks to have shaken off a left wrist injury -- although neither player can be expected to produce at the same level as the Celtics' captain. And while Rivers characterized his concern as a short-term worry rather than a long-term one, if I was a Celtics fan, I'd be wondering how a heel injured enough to cause missed games is supposed to get significantly healthier by running up and down the court, and worrying that this is the kind of thing that could bother Pierce all season.
It's very possible that Rivers is just being especially cautious with Pierce; after all, while Rondo orchestrates the attack and Allen remains surgical, it's Pierce who is the linchpin of Boston's offense. But if the heel winds up being a nagging problem or worse for the man who scored nearly 20 percent of Boston's points last season, then like Doc, all Celtics fans will have cause for concern.
Are you any good anymore, Jermaine O'Neal?
Like, I know you're not "six-time All-Star, run a team through me" good. But given how you've looked of late, I can't really tell if you're even just "it's fine that I am playing in the NBA" good.
To be fair, you were injured a lot last year -- to the point where fans and observers regularly wondered if the Celtics would get anything out of you in your first season in green -- so maybe the 24 regular-season games you played weren't the most representative sample of your present skill set. (On the other hand, you kind of get injured a lot, so maybe it was.) When you did play, though, you posted career per-36 lows in scoring and rebounding to go with career high turnover and foul rates. You blocked about the same percentage of shots as DeAndre Jordan, which was pretty neat, but beyond that, you were kind of lousy.
In the postseason, though, you showed signs of life. You hit six shots and played defensive game-changer in Game 1 against the Knicks. You crashed the glass in Game 2 against Miami. It wasn't exactly the fire of old, but it was a spark, at least, and a welcome sight. If this really is your last season in an NBA uniform, it'd be neat to see it again. If that was the last of it, though, then you're probably picking a good time to go.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
BOSTON CELTICS: "Richard III"
The Celtics have fallen out of the top tier of championship contenders, but they're still a very good team with reasonable ambitions for this season that outstrip those of all but a few teams in the league. Unfortunately, they don't seem to realize it, because the team seems to have turned complaining into a sport this offseason.
Rajon Rondo's annoyance at being the subject of various trade rumors makes sense, but Kevin Garnett's jawing about the rigor of a compressed schedule and Ray Allen's digs at David West feel like the unnecessarily ornery actions of two men upset to be on the downside of their careers. Put all these responses together, and the Celtics stand out as sour. It's a big change for a group that built itself on the concept of Ubuntu.
These days, they seem to define themselves by their opposition to things instead of by what they believe in. It's a curious decision, and one that also explains the decisions of the eponymous lead of Shakespeare's play "Richard III." In his quest to win the throne of England by any means necessary, Richard never makes it clear what actually qualifies him to rule — it's a power grab and little more. While that proves to be an effective way to gain the crown, it also makes him a particularly lousy king. His reign is short-lived, in part because his methods just set the stage for a similar takeover shortly after his ascension. While the play is many things, it's notably a political argument that those in power take their jobs seriously if they want to hold onto them.
The Celtics aren't kings of the NBA and might not even rely on positivity to win. But there's still something disappointing about their approach to the last few months. They're easy to root for on the court — it'd be nice if they were the same way off it.
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