It can be both good and bad to know too much.
On one hand, the Celtics aren’t a work in progress. They are who they are, and without having to do a heck of a lot of research, we have a general idea about what kind of team they’re going to be.
On the other hand, it may be hard to see the openings in which this team can take steps forward. Progress may be hard to come by, because without major changes to the roster, there just isn’t much room to grow.
An easy task would be to come up with five reasons the Celtics won’t win the title this season (too old, too slow, too small, Miami, and Chicago are good places to start). A more difficult task is to come up with five ways the Celtics can put themselves in a position to win it all. I was asked to do that for a Boston.com feature for later in the week, and I wanted to elaborate on one of my initial thoughts here.
The idea for this post came last week, before Jeff Green was lost for the season with a heart ailment. At the time, the first thought that came to mind was was: what if the bench pushed the tempo? What if the Celtics gave teams a different look at different times in the game? This becomes ostensibly more difficult without Green. Still, the Celtics will do themselves a favor if Brandon Bass (pictured) and their second unit could get some easy points.
The reason why this idea makes some sense starts and ends with Rajon Rondo, who seems to be playing a full court game even when others are playing in the half court. Rondo plays full-court defense even when his team isn’t pressing. In fact, the most enjoyable part of his game to watch may happen between the 3-point lines as Rondo stretches himself into passing lanes and wreaks general havoc with a flurry of movement. Outside of his passing ability, Rondo’s biggest talent may be his court vision on the defensive side of the ball.
Court vision, of course, comes in plenty handy on the fast break, and Rondo has shown flashes of being a dominant transitional point guard. He seemed downright giddy during his charity game at Harvard a few weeks ago, where he, Green, Rudy Gay, and others ran up and down the court in a glorified dunk contest. Rondo was in his element, at one point pulling out an alley-oop off his forehead to a streaking Gay behind him.
The issue with the Celtics, of course, is finding Rondo some players to run with. You may have noticed that the Celtics don’t push the ball much. In fact, their 96.5 points per game last season was 23rd in the league, a stark contrast to their No. 1 ranked opponent-PPG average. The defense obviously gives them fewer possessions and fewer PPG, but the Celtics aren’t a team built for pushing the tempo despite having a point guard with the penchant for it.
At this point the Celtics don’t have a first unit that runs. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jermaine O’Neal are no longer capable of it (Pierce can do it in spurts). But take Ray Allen from that first unit as a trailer/shooter and mix in any combination of Bass, Keyon Dooling, Marquis Daniels, Chris Wilcox, E’Twaun Moore, Avery Bradley, and JaJuan Johnson, and you might have something.
The hard part will be finding the right combination of players to run with Rondo. Bass and Wilcox appear to be the obvious choices for big men, and Johnson could work as well if he can work his way into the rotation. Green would have been a perfect fit on the wing, but Daniels can be that slasher if healthy. The key is to find a way for Moore, Bradley, and Dooling to be effective enough on defense to justify using them in an up-tempo offense. Doc Rivers has a noted opposition to playing rookies, and it’s entirely because they don’t play well enough in all phases of the game to remain in the rotation. Rivers won’t compromise his defense to get a couple of easy buckets on the break.
All of this isn’t to say that the Celtics should become Golden State East. They’re going to win the majority of their games because they have players who can execute in the half court and because they play better team defense than almost all of their opponents. That isn’t going to change. A welcome change, however, would be for some of the team’s younger, more athletic players to showcase their youth and athleticism in a meaningful way. That would be a welcome wrinkle on a team out of which few surprises are expected.