Celtics camp questions: Is there enough size?
|09.20.12 at 11:15 am ET|
When Kevin Garnett was on the court during the playoffs last season, the Celtics were a team that was good enough to take the NBA champions to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals. When he was not, they were something worse than awful.
The difference between a team with KG and one without him was more than 35 points per 100 possessions. That staggering statistic not only proved just how valuable the ageless big man was, but also how truly dependent the C’s were to his presence.
The mid-season move of Garnett to the center position — which he professes to hate — was the key to their turnaround. The move also opened up a starting job for Brandon Bass, and while the duo yielded one of the more undersized frontcourts in the league, the Celtics went 24-10 after the All-Star break.
Garnett is too fast for most centers and possesses a lethal 20-foot jump shot, which allowed the C’s to spread teams out offensively and give Rajon Rondo room to operate in a congested halfcourt. Bass’ steady diet of 15-foot jumpers added a nice complement to their new-look offense. Defensively, Garnett remains a monster. Arguably the best pick-and-roll defender in the league, he was the linchpin of a defense that once again ranked among the best in the NBA.
Both players are back this season and expected to continue in their roles, but old issues still remain up front, namely rebounding and depth. Never a good offensive rebounding team, the C’s became the worst offensive rebounding team, maybe ever. Generally a strong defensive rebounding team, their percentage slipped to below average during the regular season.
That changed significantly in the postseason with Garnett playing more minutes and channeling his 2004 self on a nightly basis, but there’s no way he can keep up that pace for 82 games.
Reinforcements were added in the offseason, but mostly of the stopgap variety. Jason Collins, who has barely played 1,000 minutes in the last three seasons combined was brought in from Atlanta. A strong post defender who gave Garnett fits at times in their first round playoff series, Collins won’t provide much offense, but he he is a savvy post defender.
Chris Wilcox is also back for a second tour of duty after undergoing heat surgery. At his best, Wilcox is an athletic flyer and one of the few players who can get up the floor with Rondo and finish in transition. He has the size to play the five in a pinch and the athleticism to handle the four, but Wilcox remains a curious enigma.
It’s not surprising then that the Celtics seem to be zeroing in on free agent center Darko Milicic, a player best known for being drafted ahead of Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade and inspiring one of the best blogs ever produced. Despite his inconsistent play, Darko has his uses. He’s a decent rebounder and can block the occasional shot. As a veteran backup playing for the minimum, he may be the best of an uninspiring lot.
While the free agent pickings were slim, the Celtics focused on size in the draft and may have come away with a steal in Jared Sullinger, a rugged rebounder and gifted offensive player from Ohio State. Sullinger slipped in the draft due to concerns about his back, but he showed during summer leagues that he knows how to play. Various scouts raves about his performance in Orlando and Las Vegas and there’s a legitimate chance that he can crack the rotation and provide meaningful minutes this season.
Sullinger offers two things that the C’s have lacked in recent years: rebounding and a low-post presence. He’ll have to learn how to get his shot off against taller, more athletic players, but his skills are obvious.
With their other first round selection, the Celtics took Fab Melo, a legit 7-footer from Syracuse. Raw may be too kind an adjective to describe Melo’s game at this point, but he is athletic and a willing worker on the defensive end. If nothing else, he can block shots and take charges and that alone should keep him employed for years.
Melo should get ample time playing for the Red Claws in the D-League this season. The Celtics took over basketball operations in Maine under a new working agreement that will allow them to shuttle players back and forth. If Melo provides any help this season it should be seen as a bonus.
As it always does, this comes back to Garnett. Doc Rivers‘ 5-5-5 substitution plan helped keep the big man fresh and his regular season minutes to a manageable level. If he can stay healthy, the C’s should be able to win enough games to maintain their hold on the division and grab a decent postseason seed. If he can once again summon whatever internal demons drove him toward to greatness in the spring, there’s no telling how far the Celtics can go.
In assembling the roster, the Celtics’ braintrust has taken a calculated gamble that the road to the finals will go through Miami. The roster is built to provide versatility and flexibility in the backcourt and on the wing to better match up with the Heat. They are, however, vulnerable against bigger teams such as Philadelphia, Indiana and Chicago. But in an offseason market bereft of quality big men, they are taking the gamble that Garnett can once again hold things together.