Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Summer Forecast: Bench boost?
By Chris Forsberg
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Boston Celtics didn't just reassemble their core this offseason, the team made great strides towards constructing a deeper and more well-rounded bench.
The Celtics' bench hopes to do more than flex during the 2012-13 campaign.
After an injury-ravaged second unit struggled to consistently produce in the postseason last season, Boston seemed hellbent on strengthening the supporting cast this summer. The Celtics made former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry a primary offseason target, then added more wing depth in Courtney Lee. Along the way, the Celtics also brought back Chris Wilcox and Keyon Dooling on cost-efficient one-year deals and, soon it would seem, the team is expected to finalize a long-term deal with Jeff Green. Sprinkle in Jason Collins for frontcourt depth, as well as a rookie class headlined by Jared Sullinger, and there's potential for this bench to be one of the deepest in the league.
Alas, it's impossible to discuss the reserves without the usual asterisks. In each of the last three seasons, Boston thought it had put cobbled the necessary supporting cast to make another title run, but it was never quite enough. In 2010, a Rasheed Wallace-led bench ran out of gas in the NBA Finals against the Lakers; in 2011, Shaquille O'Neal limped through an injury-plagued campaign that left the team short on depth; and last season the losses of Green and Wilcox (along with Jermaine O'Neal) depleted Boston's overall second-unit depth.
There's plenty to like about this year's supporting cast. If players like Terry, Lee, and Green can simply play to the levels they've displayed in recent seasons, Boston could truly field one of the deepest benches in the league. But this crew has gotta show it.
And there's plenty of questions marks. Can Green and Wilcox bounce back after missing time last season due to heart ailments? Is Sullinger ready for a rotation role as a rookie? Do the Celtics have enough pure size up front, and can they lean on another rookie like Fab Melo if needed?
If Terry can set the tone, the rest of the bench should fall into line. Paul Pierce used to gush how the second unit would push Boston's starters in practices before the start of the 2009-10 season. The Celtics need that sort of confidence and competitiveness from this bench.
And if injuries rear their ugly heads yet again, Boston is as prepared as ever to navigate that potential turbulence with this reserve unit.
Read on for our panel predictions.
Absolutely -- Jason Terry, by himself, could probably match the production of Boston's second units over the last five seasons (at least scoring-wise). But add in the likes of Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox, Jared Sullinger, and either Avery Bradley or Courtney Lee, and you really have a group capable of impacting each different area of the game. This crew shouldn't struggle to score; Wilcox and Sullinger can fight for rebounds; the bench will boast versatility on the defensive end; and they all have the ability to keep the ball moving and score in transition. As important as it was re-signing Kevin Garnett, building this deep of a bench was arguably Danny Ainge's greatest offseason accomplishment. Garnett and Paul Pierce shouldn't have to shoulder the same load they have in recent seasons, and putting together a versatile bench is the key to giving them necessary relief. Even with Pierce and Garnett being older -- and Ray Allen no longer being in the fold -- a case could easily be made that this upcoming season's team is not only the deepest since the KG era began, but also the most talented. The bench will help the C's avoid any significant letdowns during the regular season, and could easily emerge as a deciding X-factor in the postseason (health always permitting, of course).
One of the best things about the Celtics' offseason is that Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers went above and beyond to construct a bench that is capable of giving Boston the boost it needs. Over the past couple years, after letting key cogs like James Posey and Tony Allen walk in free agency, the aging C’s could not overcome a depleted, injury-ridden bench corps that only managed to produce two points in the season-ending Game 7 loss to Miami. This year, for the first time since the C’s won the championship in 2008, Ainge tried to bring back nearly everyone on the roster, only allowing rotation players like Mickael Pietrus to walk if he upgraded at the position. There are guys who can score (Jason Terry), defend (Courtney Lee), rebound (Jared Sullinger and Chris Wilcox) and -- perhaps most importantly -- there is solid depth at nearly every position (except maybe the frontcourt, depending on whether Sullinger can be a helpful contributor right away). Based on this talent, you have to think there could be games this year where the Boston reserves carry the starters and not the other way around. That will be a breath of fresh air for a team that routinely collapsed late in postseason games the past two years, largely due to a lack of support off the pine.
The Celtics should have a great deal more firepower than in recent years. Jason Terry is capable of providing the scoring that Boston has desperately needed, while also helping Jeff Green become more acclimated than he was during his initial stint in Boston at the end of the 2010-11 season. Green was brought in to be the core of that second unit when he was traded for Kendrick Perkins -- the move didn’t immediately work out because he was not aggressive enough, and when he was aggressive, it came off as forced and unnatural. But Terry should remedy some of Green’s issues by stretching the floor or running a simple pick-and-roll between the two. Chris Wilcox and Jared Sullinger will provide the rebounding and post defense. We know what Avery Bradley can bring (assuming Courtney Lee earns the starting spot during Bradley’s recovery from injury) with defense, intensity, and backdoor cuts that should be available with Terry creating space by being parked around the 3-point line. The two biggest concerns with the second unit are rim protection on the defensive end and floor leadership on the offensive end. How comfortable is Doc Rivers leaving Wilcox as the only person deterring opposing guards from taking it to the rim? Who directs the Celtics' offense when Rondo hits the bench? Keyon Dooling isn’t ideal, and Bradley and Terry are ideally both off guards. The problem can be aided by leaving Pierce on the floor when Rondo is getting much-needed rest, but that could increase Pierce’s minutes when Rivers should be aiming for the opposite. On paper, Boston’s second unit has considerably fewer question marks than in years past. But I am not convinced the improvements will provide a big enough boost to take this team farther in the playoffs than last season.
The Celtics bench averaged 12.1 points per game against the Miami Heat in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. The year before, Jason Terry poured in 18 points per game against the Heat in the NBA Finals. By himself. When you also add Courtney Lee (an underrated shooter and defender who won't remain underrated much longer), Jeff Green (who gives Boston the versatility to play small), Jared Sullinger (a rebounding, low-post scorer on a team that hasn't rebounded or scored in the low post) and Chris Wilcox (whose solid 2011-12 campaign seems to have been erased from most people's memories), the Celtics' bench could be one of the NBA's most explosive and well-rounded. My only hesitancy with this second unit: Does it have enough "intangibles" guys? James Posey left his imprint on games by taking charges and diving for loose balls. P.J. Brown is remembered for a couple pivotal playoff jump shots, but his biggest contributions came setting screens and committing hard fouls. I hope Boston's bench next season will make the plays that don't get counted on the score sheet. Finally, I have confidence they'll make the plays that will.
I think the bench could be the best one we've had AG (after Garnett trade), at least once Avery Bradley returns to full health. You'll have Jason Terry and either Bradley or Lee in the backcourt which makes for a great offense/defense combo. Then you've got the handyman Jeff Green that can fix a lot of holes. Finally, you've got some young legs backing up Garnett and Bass down low in Sullinger and Wilcox, with Collins tossed in to provide defense and fouls. Knocking on every piece of wood within reach, I'll toss out the usual caveat of "as long as they are mostly healthy," this group is going to be huge for Boston.
Your turn: Will the Celtics bench be better next season? Sound off in the comments.