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Eight questions about the Celtics

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  October 30, 2012 12:11 PM

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Why eight? Well, to be honest, I'm not really sure of the number's significance, though I can assure you it's not some sort of hackneyed tribute to Antoine Walker.
After all matters of the 2012-13 Celtics were considered, eight just happened to end up being the number of questions we asked Boston.com Celtics writer Gary Dzen and columnist Chad Finn regarding this fascinating team, which tips off its season tonight against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and the rival Miami Heat. Here is their back-and-forth on what's ahead for the Green as they pursue Banner 18.

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1. WHO WILL BE THE MOST IMPROVED CELTIC?
Dzen: Is choosing Jeff Green too obvious? Probably, but if we're adhering to the literal version of the question, Green will improve more than any other Celtic, and not just in comparison to last season, when he didn't play. After coming to the Celtics two seasons ago in a trade for Kendrick Perkins, Green averaged 9.8 points and 3.3 rebounds in 26 games in Boston. That was way down from his 15.2 points and 5.6 rebounds with Oklahoma City that year.

Expect Green's numbers to be right back near those Thunder numbers this season. For starters, he's healthy. That's obviously not a minor detail for Green after going through heart surgery in January. But he also knows the system now, having spent last season hanging around the team and taking it all in. He's motivated, and he's needed more. Paul
Pierce averaged 34 minutes per game last season without a viable backup. Expect that number to go down and Green's minutes to go up near 30 minutes per game. Green truly is a feel-good story, and there's no harm in getting on board.

Finn: If he were healthy and hadn't kept popping his shoulder in and out of its socket like Martin Riggs in "Lethal Weapon 2'' during the Heat series, I'd be giddy about watching Avery Bradley continue to build on his breakout sophomore season in which he did such things as ...

... posterize Kevin Durant and ...


... swat D-Wade and ...

... pull of the ol' you-can-pass-it-honest-I'm-just-tying-my-shoelace-over-here trick. I'm going to miss him while he's out, and I do wonder whether the accumulated guard depth is a clue that he may be out longer than they've acknowledged.

Anyway, most improved ... hmmm, I'm doubling down on your choice, Jeff Green. I don't think he's quite the force he was during the preseason, and the James Worthy stuff is insane even if it's partially tongue-in-cheek.

But as much as I value statistical analysis, I think there is a grayer area there in basketball than in baseball, and I almost get the sense that because he was habitually inefficient with the Thunder that some people are rooting for that to be the case in Boston just to validate the numbers. Consider this from ESPN's John Hollinger:

I can't stress this enough: Green is 26 and played four full seasons in the league, and after all that time there's no evidence he's actually any good and considerable evidence that he's a health risk. Yet he's being paid like a second-tier star. This was, without a doubt, the worst contract of the summer.

Without a doubt, huh? I'll take that bet. Green's a damn good player, a good shooter, a good slasher, and a good defender, and he has a point guard who has stopped throwing him hard-to-catch passes and will help him succeed. To put it another way: He's a hell of a lot more valuable going forward than Kendrick Perkins.

2. WHAT'S THE TEAM'S BIGGEST QUESTION MARK?
Dzen: Frontcourt depth continues to be this team's biggest weakness. That's not to say Danny Ainge didn't address it. He used his two first-round picks on what he thought were the two best big men available in this year's NBA Draft in Fab Melo and Jared Sullinger. He re-signed Chris Wilcox and added Darko Milicic and Jason Collins. The Celtics are much deeper in the middle than they were last season.

That's all good, but the fact remains that just like last year, the Celtics are a Kevin Garnett injury away from being virtually irrelevant. Garnett is the plan in the frontcourt. There's no equivalent player on the Celtics, and that's fine. Had Garnett gone elsewhere, he would have been the best free agent big man on the
market for some other team. It's difficult to find a superstar big guy.

Brandon Bass is a fine power forward, and Sullinger looks like he'll contribute right away. But they're both power forwards, not center. Without Garnett in a preseason game against Philadelphia, using Sullinger at the five did not work (Evan Turner got to the rim
whenever he wanted). The Celtics might not need to go big often, but when they do they'll need their full complement of players to be at
their best.

Finn: You know, part of their appeal, I think they actually have a big question, at least one that doesn't have a logical, attainable answer. Sure, KG is irreplaceable, and should the knee injury from a couple of years ago recur, of course everything changes. No one wants to see Chris Wilcox and Darko Milicic splitting 46 minutes at center. (I'm accounting for two minutes of garbage time for Fab Melo there, though he'll probably be spending the majority of the winter in scenic Portland, Maine.)

But the Garnett injury thing isn't so much a question as it is a worst-case scenario. Instead, I'm looking at a couple of smaller questions that I think will be answered to their liking.

Can Garnett and Paul Pierce, who have a combined 71 years on this earth and roughly 97,000 minutes played in the NBA, continue to play at an elite level?

Can Doc Rivers, who likes to have a set rotation, utilize the unusual bench depth to greatest effect? It's going to be fascinating to see how he rations out the minutes between Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Leandro Barbosa and Avery Bradley once he returns.

Perhaps most important, can Rajon Rondo live up to his vow to be more of a leader, which includes keeping his temper in check and bringing it pretty much every night? He's permitted the occasional night off in Sacramento in January, since Dennis Johnson did the same thing from time to time and we all love Dennis Johnson. But this is his team now -- his 44-point performance in Game 2 against the Heat last year was the clearest reminder of what he can and should be -- and he knows this is his time. It's up to him to seize it, and I believe he will.

johnsonwilliamsnetsfinn.jpg3. WHICH ATLANTIC DIVISION TEAM IS THE BIGGEST THREAT?
Dzen: I think it's the Brooklyn Nets, but I say that with a lot of uncertainty. On paper the Nets have the most talent with Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Kris Humphries.

Philadelphia should be a contender with Andrew Bynum, but we haven't seen it yet. I'm not convinced Bynum, once he's healthy, will buy into Doug Collins's system of getting guys to dig in on defense and spread the glory around on the other end (in other words, playing games with scores in the 80s).

The Knicks are now the AARP Knicks. I'm also not sold on any Carmelo Anthony-led team playing its way into serious contention. Too many matadors on the defensive end with that group.

Actually the more I think of it, Philadelphia could be interesting. Bynum gives them a player the Celtics can't match up. Put Lavoy Allen or Spencer Hawes next to Bynum and you've created a matchup nightmare for Boston.

Finn: I like your point about Philly, though with Andre Iguodala in Denver they're not what they were defensively. I agree New Jersey is the biggest threat. It'll take some time for Deron Williams and Joe Johnson to mesh -- for a guy who got way too many isos in Atlanta, Johnson can also be too unselfish, and I know that makes no sense -- but there are quality pieces (Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, Celtics nuisance Gerald Wallace) who should fit together well enough for 48 or so wins, conservatively.

The if-you-can-make-it-here Knicks hype is nauseating. Marcus Camby will help Tyson Chandler bolster the defense, but he's also so old I think he was at UMass with Dr. J. Jason Kidd is 39, Amar'e Stoudemire is already hurt, and Carmelo Anthony plays efficient basketball only when he's surrounded by players of equal or greater talent that he respects. That does not describe this crew. That describes what happens every four summers.

Put 'em down for the eighth seed and let's see how they fare against the Heat.

4. HOW MUCH WILL RAY ALLEN BE MISSED?
allenrayheatfinn.JPGDzen: More than people think.

The Celtics never had an end-of-game lineup problem with Allen here. He was the two-guard, no questions asked.

Boston added Terry and Lee to fill the loss of Allen, and both are good to very good players, but neither of them equals a Ray Allen on his own. In other words, is the sum of the team's parts greater than the individual if only one guy can play at a time? I have a hard time saying yes.

Look, there's been plenty of hatred spewed Allen's way since he signed with the Miami Heat. I get it, he signed with the enemy. But that doesn't mean he wasn't valuable here or that the Celtics won't miss him. Allen's ankle injury might also have fooled fans into thinking he was rapidly deteriorating. Remember Allen had surgery on his bum ankles just before he was traded here in 2007 and he was much-improved afterward. He's older now, but with his level of fitness there's a very good chance he regains some of his former form.

Who makes the big shots for Rivers down the stretch? It's probably Terry, and it may even be Rajon Rondo, who has shown he's looking for his own jumpers much more in crunch time. Someone else will shoot, but they may not go in as often as Allen's did.

Finn: Not as much as he thinks he will.

Listen, I loved watching him play here. You can make the argument that he is the best all-around shooter in the history of the league, and he's one of those guys who makes it look effortless through extraordinary discipline and hard work. You have to respect that, just as you have to respect that he occasionally was an afterthought until he was called upon to bail them out with late 3s, or that he sacrificed the most of the Big Three -- he averaged 26.4 points per game in 2006-07 for Seattle the year before he came here.

But he's also at the point where his ego has exceeded his ability. He's still a brilliant shooter when everything is right, but he's a liability defensively and is a downright poor ballhandler. As accomplished as he is, he has to be blind not to realize that inserting Bradley into the starting five was the right thing to do, and he's downright delusional to believe he was as vital to the Celtics' success last year as Kevin Garnett.

I'm sure it eats at him that Rondo, a smarter player who shunned Allen's attempts to mentor him, went to Doc and suggested Bradley should start ... and then Rondo was proven right. He hasn't forgiven Doc for that slight, which of course was no slight at all when it came to what was best for the team.

He left because he felt disrespected, and that's understandable to some degree. He probably ended up in a better situation for himself going forward. But with Terry, Lee, and eventually Bradley, the Celtics are better at shooting guard than they were a year ago. That concept is probably unfathomable to Ray Allen, 10-time All-Star and all-time 3-point champ, but it's the truth.

5. HOW MANY CELTICS WILL BE NAMED ALL-STARS?
piercepaulallstarfinn.JPGDzen: Two: Rondo and Garnett. I think realistically there are four Celtics in contention for the All-Star team: Rondo, Garnett, Pierce, and Jeff Green.

Rondo should be a virtual lock so long as he stays healthy. He may be the best point guard in the league this season. Garnett and Pierce both have good chances to make it. Why I give the edge to Garnett is because he exploded in the playoffs last season. People will remember that. Pierce is always under the radar, and while I'm not expecting him to be any less effective, I think he'll play less with Green in the mix. There's also the issue of position. Pierce's appears to be more crowded with stars, while Garnett could have less competition if he's listed as a center. All three players could make it, but I'm guessing two.

Green is a long-shot to make the All-Star team, but it wouldn't be unheard of if he had a stellar season off the bench. He wouldn't deserve a spot over Pierce, but juxtaposed with his recovery from heart surgery, Green could win some of the popular vote. Did I mention he's a longshot?

Finn: Who cares? All-Star Games are such a Laker thing. All right, I'll say this much: Rondo who is poised to be one of the top five players in the East if not the entire league this year, had better start. He's way overdue to get his due.

6. WHAT WILL BE THE BIGGEST SURPRISE, GOOD AND BAD?
schintziusfinn101.jpgDzen: First the good: Darko Milicic will be more than a punchline. When the Celtics signed Milicic, fans let the jokes fly. The former No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft has not lived up to his draft position, and he never will. But that doesn't mean he won't contribute. Milicic is currently the top backup to Kevin Garnett with Chris Wilcox still getting up to speed. Darko is a legitimate 7-footer with good touch and strong basketball instincts. He rebounds and blocks shots. As much as fans loved Greg Stiemsma, Milicic is the vastly superior player. His issues are known, and they've started to show in preseason. He can lose focus, sometimes in the middle of a play. But he'll be a factor.

Now here's the bad. The Celtics will lose to teams they shouldn't lose to this season. As we've seen since 2007, nothing comes easy with this group. The Celtics are the best team in the Atlantic Division, but that doesn't mean they won't struggle to beat the Nets, Sixers, and Knicks during the season. There will be losses in places like Golden State and Detroit. That doesn't mean, however, that there's a strong danger of losing to any of these teams during a seven-game playoff series.

Finn: The Celtics have such an accomplished core and familiar bench that surprises with this group are hard to come by. We know who they are and who they should be. Even Jared Sullinger is a very well-known commodity compared to most No. 21 overall picks. I'll say Courtney Lee, because his profile is relatively low among casual fans for a player of his skill-set, and his attributes (hitting the corner 3, playing tough D) jibe perfectly with what Doc will ask him to do. Negatively, I think we're all intrigued by Darko because there was something there the led Joe Dumars to take him over Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh, and it's hilarious that he's apparently developed a bond with KG over their favorite 12-letter words, but he is what he is at this point. And what he is at this point is Dwayne Schintzius without the party in the back, a good-passing big man with a low motor.

7. WHICH BENCH PLAYER WILL HELP MOST?
leecourtneyfinn102.JPGDzen: Jared Sullinger is going to have a huge year. He gets the nod over Green because he helps in an area where the Celtics are sorely lacking: rebounding. We've already seen what Sullinger can do with those big paws of his. He has a nose for the ball, can carve out space, and the ball just sticks to his hands. In this one area he is already a superior player to likely starter Brandon Bass. On offense Sullinger is also skilled, possessing an array of floaters and runners and baby hooks that may not look pretty but are highly effective. He'll play right away, and he'll play a lot.

Jason Terry and Courtney Lee also get votes here, but their roles are different. The Celtics are really looking for both players to combine into one Ray Allen. In that way, they're not really an addition to the team but more of stabilizing force. Lee can make more of a difference with his defense than Allen ever could.

Finn: The Celtics actually have a couple of potential Sixth Man of the Year candidates, and when is the last time we could say that? James Posey in 2007-08, maybe? Kevin McHale in '84?

It's tempting to say with Jeff Green based on the minutes he'll get and his encouraging preseason, but I'll go with Terry, who actually won the award three years ago. (Barbosa is also a previous winner.) Terry will shoot 36-38 percent from 3, make those clutch late 3s Allen was often called upon to make (Terry is a better 3-point shooter percentage-wise in the postseason than he is in the regular season), make 80-something percent of his free throws, and mesh better with Rondo on the court -- and off, obviously -- than Allen did.

He's a perfect fit in style and temperament -- he's so effervescent in interviews that a cynic might think he's auditioning. I think he's just a good dude who's happy to be here. I can't believe there was a time when I thought Miles Simon would be the better pro.

I don't think Sullinger will be a bench player by season's end. Wouldn't be surprised if he's the regular starter over Brandon Bass by the All-Star break.

terrypiercefinnpreview.jpg8. WHAT ARE YOUR EXPECTATIONS FOR THE OLD GUYS?
Dzen: It's not a big secret that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are getting older. The morbidly curious game is guessing whether Pierce (35) or Garnett (36) will break down first. I'm not a fan of using the term "break down" because I don't think it's that simple. But the skills of both players won't be as sharp in two years as they were two or three years ago. Some loss of effectiveness is going to happen.

Before the second half of last season it was easy to say that Garnett would lose more of his effectiveness before Pierce did. Then Garnett went out and was arguably the MVP of the team during the playoffs, while Pierce struggled at times. Garnett was fairly healthy, while Pierce labored through a knee injury. It will be interesting to see what kind of season Pierce has without being hampered. Given his status as a professional scorer, I expect it to be a good one. The addition of Jeff Green is huge and allows Pierce to get more rest. Garnett will get his rest no matter what, because despite the drop off without him in the game, the Celtics need him for the playoffs.

Finn: It's funny, "old guys'' should probably include Terry, who is 35. But he's a new guy around here.

We're talking about our old guys, I think, the guys who have been through the six- and seven-game postseason battles here. Which means KG and Pierce, heretofore known as The Big Two Featuring Rajon Rondo. To answer the question honestly, I have to say I don't know if I can answer it other than to say they will play with astounding toughness and pride no matter what their physical state happens to be.

I did not see Garnett's renaissance as a defensive force coming last year, and on the opposite end of that, it was jarring to see Pierce, who has always had an old man's game (I mean that as a compliment), struggle to get the familiar angles and openings in the Philadelphia series. Part of that -- a large part -- was his knee injury, but it was also a window into what he will look like when his skills begin to noticeably erode.

The hope is that with the with the additional depth, any natural regression because of age is countered by Doc's willingness and knack for finding them a little bit of extra time off every now and then. That'll be easier to do with Pierce than KG, but it will be done, because this team is still about June, not November.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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