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NBA Power Rankings, 2011-12 12.24.11 at 9:49 am ET
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Let’s be honest here. No one really knows how this NBA season is going to turn out. It will take weeks, if not months, for teams to figure out who they are how they want to play and it’s a question of when (not if) injuries will begin to mount in this jam-packed schedule.

With that in mind, we’ve divided the initial Power Rankings into tiers beginning with the true contenders all the way down to the lottery-bound cellar dwellers. There will be an immense amount of change in the Power Rankings once the games begin for real and teams begin to separate themselves. Last year’s record are in parenthesis.

THE CONTENDERS

Miami Heat Miami (58-24): The Heat have had a year to play together and there are no more excuses for a team with two of the top five players in the league, an All-Star big man and a stronger supporting cast with the addition of Shane Battier. The road to the finals in he East runs through Biscayne Bay Blvd and the West is in the midst of a major reorganization. This is the year for LeBron James to finally break through and bury his demons.

Oklahoma City ThunderOklahoma City (55-27): During the playoffs, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook experienced what Rajon Rondo has been dealing with his entire career. When he’s great, they’re practically unbeatable and when he’s off he gets most of the blame. This is also a big year for Kevin Durant, who quietly took a minor step back last season. The Thunder are the anti-Heat and now that they have their playoff legs underneath them, they seem almost predestined to meet in the finals.

Chicago Bulls Chicago (62-20): The Bulls are just hanging out, quietly bringing back their entire rotation and adding Rip Hamilton to take some of the scoring load of Derrick Rose. The key in this short season is their young and athletic frontline including unheralded Omer Asik and Taj Gibson. The problem is they don’t matchup well with Miami.

OLD AND IN THE WAY

Dallas MavericksDallas (57-25): Rather than keep their championship team together to try and squeeze one more title out of their aging core, the Mavericks let Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson and JJ Barea walk and added Lamar Odom for a bag of magic salary cap beans. The Mavs are dangerous as long as Dirk Nowitzki still breathes, but they are also eying next summer when they will have tons of cap space to reload for another run.

Los Angeles LakersLA Lakers (57-25): Speaking of Odom, he’s looking more and more like a straight salary dump, which is curious for a team that almost landed Chris Paul. It’s hard to see what the end game is for a franchise that hired Jason Kapono and Josh McRoberts to play meaningful minutes. Still, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are enough of a foundation to at least make them dangerous.

Boston CelticsBoston (56-26): The Celtics are clearly in a transition stage as they added useful complimentary players, but didn’t change the team’s core or address their future. Everyone knows the deal: If Rondo and the Big Three are healthy and happy when May comes around, the Celtics will be the proverbial playoff team that no one wants to play. Beyond that is anyone’s guess.

San Antonio SpursSan Antonio (61-21): No one is talking about the Spurs, which is totally fine with Tim Duncan and company. It’s not like they’ll fall completely off the map, but they’re not likely to be any better this season, either. The Spurs are in a strange kind of limbo: Their potential for disaster isn’t as great as Boston or the Lakers, but their days as a contender are likely over.

Orlando MagicOrlando (52-30): As long as Dwight Howard remains, the Magic have to be taken seriously, but if he leaves their roster has disaster written all over it with commitments to players no one else wants. Orlando didn’t address any of its major needs and it’s hard to see how this ends well. Read the rest of this entry »

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Could Mickael Pietrus be the final piece of Celtics roster? 12.23.11 at 9:51 am ET
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Mickael Pietrus would fill a need on the Celtics roster. (AP)

On Wednesday, Celtics coach Doc Rivers hinted that the team would keep one of their 15 roster spots open in case someone else was waived or bought out. On Thursday, the C’s waived three of their own players, bringing their count to 14 and sure enough, Phoenix elected to cut ties with Mickael Pietrus, a 6-foot-6 wing player, who would fit in nicely on a team that needs depth at both wing positions.

Pietrus still has to pass through waivers, but if he’s available he’d be an upgrade over whatever is left in the free agent market.

The 29-year-old Pietrus has had a consistent eight-year career in Golden State, Orlando and Phoenix. He takes a lot of 3′s and makes them at about a 36 percent clip. He’s developing a reputation as an offensive player who passes only as a last resort, but the Celtics could use a little of that on their second team (in moderation).

He’s also a willing defender with the required length and athleticism to be a versatile backup. He’s more of a defensive stopper in theory than a legit Bruce Bowen doppelganger, but the tools are there.

Pietrus was great in 2010 playoffs with the Magic, averaging better than 10 points a game and shooting 39 percent from 3-point range as Orlando advanced to the NBA finals, knocking off the Celtics in the second round in the process.

His departure from Phoenix is not without some controversy. He had surgery on his right knee in July after he was declared unable to play with the French national team. The Suns traded him to Toronto, but the deal was negated after he failed the physical.

Suns coach Alvin Gentry told the Arizona Republic, “He was really our kind of player — a big guy who can shoot. In order for it to be a good fit, you’ve got to want to be here and I’m not sure he was every fully engaged about being here.”

If his knee holds up, Pietrus would be a solid fit for the Celtics who need more depth on the wing and a proven backup to Ray Allen. They have four wing players behind Allen and Paul PierceMarquis Daniels, Sasha Pavlovic, Avery Bradley and E’Twuan Moore, and none of them is a proven 3-point threat. (He’d be an interesting fit, as well. Pietrus was involved in the Kevin Garnett-Channing Frye incident last season, throwing a left hand in the vicinity of Garnett’s thorax).

For all the concern about the lack of centers, the Celtics actually have six frontcourt players including rookie JaJuan Johnson and Greg Stiemsma behind the likely rotation of Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal, Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox. Their biggest need by far is depth on the wing behind Allen and Pierce and Pietrus is one of the few players available who could play both roles.

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Last-minute Celtics roster options 12.21.11 at 2:31 am ET
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WALTHAM — As training camp winds down, the Celtics have 13 players on guaranteed contracts and coach Doc Rivers hinted that decision time is coming soon. Rivers said the team was likely to make a decision before or shortly after their final preseason game on Wednesday against Toronto.

As has been discussed throughout camp, Danny Ainge has acquired several players who will play multiple positions. Keyon Dooling could line up alongside Rajon Rondo in the backcourt. Marquis Daniels can play the off guard spot and Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox will mix and match at both frontcourt positions.

With that in mind, here’s what they have:

Point guards: Rajon, Rondo, Keyon Dooling

Off guards: Ray Allen, E’Twuan Moore, Avery Bradley

Small forwards: Paul Pierce, Marquis Daniels, Sasha Pavlovic

Power forwards: Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass, JaJuan Johnson

Centers: Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Wilcox

Also in camp: Greg Stiemsma, Gilbert Brown, Michael Sweetney

OPTION I: Stay in house

The 6-foot-11, 260-pound Stiemsma has impressed the coaching staff with his ability to block shots and Rivers likes his shooting touch from the elbows. It wouldn’t be a shock if he made the final roster and provided another big body up front. The list of free agent centers is thin and Stiemsma has more upside than the likes of Francisco Elson.

Brown could be another candidate to stick. He hasn’t had many opportunities in camp, but he’s long and athletic. Unfortunately for Brown, the Celtics already have two young guard prospects in Moore and Bradley and a third could be overkill.

Option II: Keep a roster spot, or two, open

ESPN reported that Kenyon Martin‘s Chinese team might release the veteran forward, allowing him to return to the NBA earlier than expected. It’s a tricky proposition and may take weeks, if not months, to untangle, but Martin would be in demand if he becomes available.

J.R. Smith, Aaron Brooks and Wilson Chandler are also playing in China and they knew when they signed their deals that they would have to finish out the season that ends in March. Chandler would be a perfect fit, but the Celtics can’t offer him more than the minimum unless they work out a sign-and-trade. The Nuggets are loaded with wing players after acquiring Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer from Dallas and re-signing Arron Aflalo so Chandler’s situation is one to watch.

Option 3: Pick through the free agency remains

Again, the Celtics can’t offer more than the minimum.

James Posey has been in decline since he left Boston and the 35-year-old is coming off the worst season of his career. His True Shooting Percentage has dropped from .587 with the Celtics to .568, .525 and an abysmal .485 last season with the Pacers. Posey remains a popular choice among fans who have memories of his versatility and toughness with the championship squad, but his best days are clearly behind him.

Al Thornton is younger at 28 years old, but he’s an inefficient scorer offensive player and defense has never been his forte.

DeShawn Stevenson can shoot, and play defense. At least he did last season with the Mavericks, knocking down 38 percent of his 3-point attempts.

Speaking of defensive-minded 3-point specialists, Keith Bogans was cut by Chicago to make room for Rip Hamilton and while his defense isn’t as good as his reputation, he was solid for Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls. Of the remaining available players, Bogans could be the best fit for a team that lacks a veteran guard behind Allen.

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Camp notes: Paul Pierce may not be ready for opening day 12.20.11 at 4:13 pm ET
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Paul Pierce's sore right heel is a concern for the Celtics (AP).

WALTHAM — Paul Pierce has participated in just one practice during training camp because of a right heel bruise and with opening day quickly approaching, Celtics coach Doc Rivers acknowledged that Pierce may not be ready to play when the regular season opens on Christmas Day against the Knicks.

“I’m concerned not long-term, but I’m concerned short-term,” Rivers said. “We have those two games right off the bat and he’s gone one practice and that’s basically it. So, yeah I’m concerned about it.”

Pierce worked out on Monday while the rest of the team had the day off. Rivers said that his heel was “extremely sore” on Tuesday.

“We just want him to rest,” Rivers said. “The problem with that is, it will be a lot of rest and then he may be ready but with no [practice time], that’s scary and if he’s not, he’s not.”

Pierce won’t play in Wednesday’s final exhibition game against the Raptors and the plan right now is for him to try and test it again on Friday.

The good news for the Celtics is that Sasha Pavlovic (left wrist) did practice on Tuesday and if he’s able to play, Rivers will have two veteran small forwards with Marquis Daniels and Pavlovic.

JAJUAN JOHNSON PASSES THE TEST

Kevin Garnett has a well-deserved reputation for being hard on young players, but the flip side of that is if the player responds positively to Garnett then there’s nothing he won’t do for him. Rookie big man JaJuan Johnson has apparently received that message.

“Kevin has clearly taken JaJuan under his wing,” Rivers said. “You guys have been around here with Kevin, he gives you the one shot and if he feels you’re paying attention he spends the year with him. JaJuan has obviously passed the test, which is good for everyone because it makes it a bad year for that guy.”

Johnson played just seven minutes on Sunday against Toronto, an indication that he has a long way to go to crack the big man rotation that features Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Wilcox and Brandon Bass. But Johnson has still impressed with his shooting ability and maturity.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Fast Break: Celtics hold on to beat Raptors 12.18.11 at 3:32 pm ET
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With only two preseason games and the start of the season just week away, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he would give his starters and his top rotation players significant time in their exhibition game against the Raptors and the coach was as good as his word.

Even without Paul Pierce (right heel) and Sasha Pavlovic (left wrist), Rivers used just 10 players in the first half and the Celtics coach didn’t go deep into his bench until the fourth quarter. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Celtics blew a 10-point lead in the final quarter, but held on for a 76-75 victory in Toronto.

Here’s the good and the bad:

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Marquis Daniels started for Pierce and played well. He’s one of the team’s better post-up options and he remains a good cutter who helps facilitate the team’s offense with his movement off the ball. With Jeff Green out for the season, Daniels has become an important reserve. He’ll get most of the time behind Pierce and also play some off-guard for the Celtics as well. He came into camp in terrific shape and said that he’s stronger than he was before undergoing surgery for a spinal condition.

– Rivers called center Jermaine O’Neal the MVP of the first week of camp and at times he was the best player on the floor for the Celtics. O’Neal said that he feels more comfortable offensively and understands where he needs to be to contribute. Defensively, his shot-blocking presence is invaluable for a team with a shortage of big men.

Brandon Bass continues to impress with a diverse offensive game. He hit jumpers coming off down screens and in isolation and ran the floor with Rajon Rondo for a sweet dunk in transition. Bass is the best offensive weapon the Celtics have had coming off the bench in years.

– The Celtics were the worst offensive rebounding team in the league by a wide margin last season. That should change with Bass and Chris Wilcox on board. Both are energy players with athleticism and timing and they weren’t afraid to crash the boards.

E’Twuan Moore drained a couple of late jumpers, showing again why the team is so high on their second-round pick.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– The hope is that Pierce can return to practice this week, but until he returns the Celtics are dangerously thin at the small forward spot. The Celtics insist that there’s noting to worry about with Pierce, but any time one of their core players misses this much time it’s a concern.

– Without much depth at small forward, Rivers used a number of three-guard lineups with Keyon Dooling, Avery Bradley, Moore, Ray Allen and Rondo. They were successful in speeding up the tempo of the game, something that has been an emphasis throughout camp, but struggled to score without Allen or Rondo in the game.

Shot creation will be something to watch all season from the reserves. The Celtics struggled mightily in that regard last season and while Dooling, Bass and Wilcox are an offensive upgrade, none of them excels at creating his own offense.

– Rookie JaJuan Johnson did not see the court until the fourth quarter, an indication that he has work to do to see some playing time. Rivers has said that Johnson has been up and down throughout camp, which is to be expected for a rookie. The team loves his outside shot and athleticism. He’ll get his chances during the season.

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Jeff Green will miss the 2011-12 season 12.17.11 at 12:42 pm ET
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Jeff Green will have surgery and is out for the season, (AP)

The Celtics announced on Saturday that forward Jeff Green will have heart surgery next month after his physical revealed an aortic aneurysm. Green will not play this season, although there is hope that he will be able to continue his career next season.

Symptoms for aortic aneurysms often go undetected until examinations, such as physicals. Green’s condition was detected during a team physical on Friday after he had agreed to a one-year contract. He had been held out of practice while he underwent further tests.

“While we are saddened that Jeff will not be able to play this season, the most important thing is his health, and we were fortunate to have access to an amazing team of specialists to evaluate Jeff’s case,” team president Danny Ainge said in a statement released by the team. “The entire Celtics family supports Jeff during this difficult time in his career.”

The Herald reported that his contract will be voided, although it’s unclear where the Celtics go from here. They had one open roster spot even with Green and if his contract is voided, that would open another. They are already over the salary cap and they used the mini mid-level exception on Chris Wilcox, leaving them able to offer just the veteran minimum.

The Celtics could apply for an injury exception, which would allow them to sign a player for up to half of Green’s $9 million contract as a replacement. However, doing so would validate Green’s contract and cost the team up to $27 million in contracts and luxury tax payments.

Former Celtic James Posey was recently waived under the amnesty clause and he is an unrestricted free agent after clearing waivers. While different players with much different skillsets, comparisons were made between the two after Green was the centerpiece of an unexpected trade in February that sent Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Green, center Nenad Krstic and a first round pick from the Clippers that carries top-10 protection through 2016.

The prize, however, was Green, a 6-foot-9 player with obvious basketball skills but no defined strength, He was expected to provide youth, athleticism and scoring for a team that needed all three.

Green was a capable backup for Paul Pierce, something that was desperately needed after Marquis Daniels was lost for the season with a spinal cord injury, but he never appeared to get in sync in Boston, averaging just 9.8 points and 3.3 rebounds in 26 regular season games.

Beyond backing up Pierce, his playing time was often sporadic. It was a significant adjustment for Green who went from a starting role where he was getting 36 minutes a night with the Thunder to an undefined backup situation that saw him on the floor for just 24 minutes a night.

“I wasn’t comfortable in my spot,” Green said on Tuesday. “It was tough to transition coming from Oklahoma to doing what I was doing there to coming here and trying to find my spot somewhere where I can score the ball.”

Still, Green’s numbers held up when adjusted for the lost time (his scoring and rebounding averages were essentially identical per 36 minutes for both teams) and his shooting percentage climbed from 44 percent with the Thunder to 49 percent with the Celtics. Both he and the team were expecting better results in his first full season.

“Coming to this situation last year was very stressful, trying to grasp everything right away was hard,” Green said. “Now I’m in a situation where I can relax a little bit. I’m on point with everything.”

In a condensed season, Green was expected to see significant playing time. The plan was to work Green in tandem with Kevin Garnett, giving them a small-ball look. While Green struggled to defend bigger players without a strong frontcourt compliment, he performed well when paired with Garnett and the other All-Stars. His absence also leaves the backup small forward to Daniels and Sasha Pavlovic, although coach Doc Rivers is less concerned with that situation.

“We have enough players,” Rivers said. “That’s why we have Sasha and Marquis to play the [small forward.] What it would take us away from is going small. We gameplanned all summer about the small lineup we were going to run with Kevin and Jeff .”

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Camp notes: Rajon Rondo makes progress 12.16.11 at 2:10 pm ET
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Rajon Rondo

While the Celtics wait on Jeff Green, they have been dealing with other camp injuries. Paul Pierce has missed most of the practice time with a sore right heel and he won’t play Sunday against the Raptors in their first exhibition game. Rajon Rondo, however, may be good to go after spraining his right ankle over the weekend.

Rondo is scheduled to play in the team’s scrimmage on Friday night and if all goes well, he should get some playing time on Sunday.

Rivers said that he won’t hold out his other starters, especially in the first half on Sunday. Without much time to get ready for the season, he feels that they need their reps.

“I think guys are going to play and they may play normal minutes,” Rivers said. “We’re going to play them. I don’t know about extended. Right now after four minutes is extended for everybody. We’re going to play them decent minutes. First half for sure.”

The coach isn’t too worried about Pierce yet, mainly because of the kind of player he is.

“I’m always worried when guys haven’t played,” Rivers said. “You don’t want any of them to miss [time], but if there was one to miss practices it would be Paul just because of his ability to play. He’s a natural scorer. The one you’d like the least is probably Kevin [Garnett] because he’s a system guy. He needs repetitions.”

Rivers said that Garnett has been solid in the first week of camp, which is a positive sign. “He usually has poor practices to begin with, he plays hard, but not well. Now he’s back early so that’s good.”

SCOUTING COACHES

Without much time to prepare, Rivers said that he’s looking more at coaching styles than personnel as the season approaches. His feeling is that the short prep period won’t lead to many system changes. Rivers even acknowledged that the short prep time caused his team to scuttle a few system changes they had planned.

One area that could be affected by Green’s absence is the Celtics plans to play smaller lineups.

“We have enough players,” Rivers said. “That’s why we have Sasha [Pavlovic] and Marquis [Daniels] to play [small forward]. What it would take us away from is going small. We gameplanned all summer about the small lineup we were going to run with Kevin and Jeff and if he [can’t play], that’s gone.”

(Click here for more on the Celtics frontcourt.)

STIEMSMA’S ADJUSTMENT

Rivers praised center Greg Stiemsma for his defensive approach before Thursday’s practice. Now he wants him to be more comfortable with his offense.

“We had to remind him he can shoot,” Rivers said. “He’s an excellent shooter from the elbows. Defensively he’s there.”

Stiemsma has experience, having played in the D-League and overseas. Rivers had a good analogy about the differences between other leagues and the NBA.

“It’s like golf when you’re playing with a club pro and then you go out and play with a real pro,” Rivers said. “You thought the club pro was good and then you think, ‘Wow there’s a big difference.’ I think Stiemsma sees that. You get in an NBDL game and then you get in this speed there’s a whole different level.”

Still, Rivers likes that Stiemsma is already a pro. “He’s over all the stuff and that’s part of the college stuff,” Rivers said. “They get built up. In a lot of systems they’re the guy and now you’re telling them pick, roll, rebound.”

Reminded that Stiemsma already had that drilled into his head by Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, Rivers replied, “Bo told him the truth.”

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