Xmas countdown: Center of attention
December, 20, 2011
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com
Brian Babineau/Getty ImagesJermaine O'Neal played in just 24 regular season games last season.Editor’s note: From Dec. 12-23, we’ll count down to the Celtics’ Christmas matchup with the Knicks (Dec. 25 at 12 p.m. ET) by hitting on 12 big topics facing the Green this season.
WALTHAM, Mass. -- When Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was asked at the start of the month what the team's priority was in a soon-to-be-frenzied, post-lockout offseason, he quickly noted, "We need size."
Talk about stating the obvious. The team arrived at camp with only two legitimate centers -- veteran Jermaine O'Neal, who had missed 58 games last season, and D-League standout Greg Stiemsma, an invite untested at the NBA level. Surely, the Celtics needed to add at least one more center to the mix, right?
Boston moved quick to sign Chris Wilcox with its taxpayer mid-level exception ($3 million), then traded for Brandon Bass, stockpiling a power forward position that already included Kevin Garnett and first-round draft choice JaJuan Johnson.
Last week, with the season rapidly approaching, Ainge was asked if the team had enough size to enter the 2011-12 campaign.
"Absolutely, we have enough size," he said. "For sure."
Really? Enough size in the post?
"Take a look out there," Ainge said pointing to the players on the floor behind reporters. "We've got a lot of size."
But guys that can bang underneath?
"We have guys that can bang underneath, too," said Ainge.
Barring a last-minute move, something that you certainly can't rule out as teams start finalizing rosters, the Celtics are poised to go with a potential O'Neal-Stiemsma combo to start the season. One year after a lack of depth at center spot burnt the team a bit when the O'Neal brothers -- Jermaine and Shaquille -- limped through the 2010-11 campaign, Boston appears willing to roll the dice in what's become a bit of a center-free league (save for select locations like Orlando and Los Angeles).
"Obviously, we have flaws," said Rivers. "We’d love to grow a little bit, but we’re not. I think they’re done. Their growth spurts are all over with at this point -- at least upward... I like our team. We’re always going to look to improve if we can. Right now this is who we are."
Earlier in the offseason, Rivers seemed indifferent about needing another center.
"We do, we don't," Rivers said. "If we don't have one, I'm not that upset by it. I'll always take one, so if you can find one for me, please help out. I just think if we have enough 4s that can play both [big-man spots] and if we have enough fouls, we can get away with it."
A breakdown of what Boston currently has on its roster for centers:
Jermaine O'Neal2010-11 stats: 5.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks
2011-12 outlook: Rivers dubbed O'Neal the training camp MVP and he's looked solid in the small glimpses we've seen this preseason. The question, of course, is whether he can stand up to the rigors of a condensed, 66-game season. He's got a chronically bad knee and a iffy wrist that he elected to skip surgery on this summer. Even still, O'Neal said last week that he wants to play 85 to 90 percent of the team's games this season. He's adamant about staying healthy and he clearly put in the work hoping to ensure that happens. O'Neal talked about taking heightened reps during camp and Rivers has raved about his comfort level at both ends of the court with a year in the system. O'Neal even let potential trade rumors bounce right off of him when the team nearly dealt him away to land David West. If O'Neal stays healthy -- a monster if -- he could be very important to the team's success.
Greg Stiemsma2011 stats: 9.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.5 blocks (four games in D-League this year)
2011-12 outlook: Stiemsma could still get bumped if the Celtics could hook a serviceable veteran, but he's also intriguing enough to stick around (a bit like Chris Johnson, who the team begrudgingly released in March in order to add point guard depth). Stiemsma's a bit like Semih Erden, young and unpolished, but could be thrust right into the fire due to the lack of bigs on the roster. Stiemsma can defend the basket and post blocks in bulk, it's his strongest asset. Offensively, don't expect much. Rivers noted he's got a solid little elbow jumper, but he's gotta build some confidence to take it (especially since he won't give you much beyond tip-ins around the basket until he develops that aspect of his game). If it comes down to rolling the dice with a veteran that could break down, it might be better to roll with Stiemsma. Much like Erden last season, he might be needed to pull this team through when injuries crop up.
Newcomers Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox both seem open to the idea of shuffling up to the center spot if called upon. Bass could fill a Glen Davis-like role as first man off the bench with the team utilizing him at both the 4 and 5 (depending on where they want to shuffle Garnett). Both guys are undersized, but they're also athletic and gritty, which might allow them to mask any height deficiency. Expect the Celtics to keep a close eye on what's available. Size doesn't come cheap and the Celtics don't have anything beyond a minimum contract to offer a free agent, so they're going to need someone to take a discount in order to add experienced size at that position. Expect to see Kevin Garnett play a healthy dose of center this season, allowing Boston to use Bass, Wilcox, and Johnson alongside him at times. With a lack of pure centers across the league, the Celtics can mask their own lack of depth at the spot by utilizing their other big bodies to fill the floor.