Four months after a painful walk off the confetti-covered floor at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Boston Celtics begin their quest to get back to the NBA Finals Tuesday night against the Miami Heat.
To kick off our season preview, we take a player-by-player look at the 15-man roster, offering thoughts and analysis on what to expect from each player based on his performance to this point.
THE STARTING FIVE
Rajon Rondo, PG: The catchphrase last year was, "As Rondo goes, so go the Celtics." Yes, there's the Big Three and Boston's offseason was highlighted by the addition of two former All-Star O'Neals (Jermaine and Shaquille), but Rondo still somehow remains the below-the-radar MVP of this squad. His ability to get everyone involved (and keep everyone happy) will go a long way toward this team's success. Eyes will also be on Rondo to see if he's improved the areas he's lacked (free-throw shooting, perimeter shooting).
Ray Allen, SG: Allen quietly skated through the preseason but reminded everyone of his value by exploding for 14 third-quarter points, as Boston's starters capped the exhibition season with style in Wednesday's come-from-behind win over the Nets. Allen stands to become the NBA's all-time leader in 3-point field goals at some point this year, but Boston would love to see more consistency beyond the arc, after his percentage plummeted to 36.3 percent last season (a season after being at 40.9 percent). Even at age 35, Allen remains in great shape and should be the pillar of consistency he's been for most of his three seasons in Boston.
Paul Pierce, SF: Maybe even more than before the 2007-08 season (when the Big Three were united), Pierce is bubbly and excited for this new campaign. He has raved about the team on the floor and in the locker room and said he thinks big things lie ahead (something he's stressed since the first day of the preseason). After a summer that saw him earn long-term stability (he got married after inking a four-year contract extension), the pieces are in place for Pierce to thrive this season.
Kevin Garnett, PF: Just like last year when questions about his surgically-repaired knee seemed to come up after every game, Garnett has already tired of the health chatter (snapping, "We're still on this?" at a reporter's query about his knee Tuesday's night). Garnett certainly looks to have regained some of the explosion he lacked last season, and everyone on the team gushes about how he has looked in practice. Aside from a poor shooting night in the finale against New Jersey, he finished the preseason strong, and Doc Rivers admitted that Garnett's health will largely dictate if this team can win a title, as it has the past two seasons.
Kendrick Perkins, C: Sidelined into the new calendar year after offseason knee surgery to repair the torn ACL he suffered in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Perkins is working hard on rehab, noting during the preseason that he was ahead of schedule. The Celtics will miss the defense he provides, especially his familiarity and comfort in the frontcourt with Garnett. The O'Neals might give Boston the luxury of working him back slowly, but it's a contract year for Perkins, giving him a little something extra to prove once back on the floor.
BOSTON'S BENCH MOB
Nate Robinson, PG: It took Robinson nearly four months to buy into the Boston system, but the team is glad he did. Fueled by a strong Finals showing, Robinson ultimately re-upped with the Celtics and the benefits of a full preseason with the team are obvious. It's also obvious that Robinson thrives when he's not forced to be the primary ball-handler on the second unit. The addition of Delonte West will allow Robinson to flourish off the ball, providing the scoring punch the team desperately craved last season when it traded away Eddie House for the slam dunk champ.
Delonte West, PG: Don't be surprised if when all is said and done it's the addition of West (the final of Danny Ainge's 11 offseason signings) that is regarded as the most important for this Celtics team. West's addition provides the backup ball-handler the team so obviously lacked last season, and he's the glue for the second unit. Here's a player with talents to start on many teams in the league, but he enjoys the bench role and will fuel the reserves by distributing and scoring.
Marquis Daniels, SF/SG: Despite what Rivers has dubbed an "up and down" preseason, when Daniels has been up he's been exactly what the team expected when they signed him a year ago. His defense has been solid in spurts, and he's provided a nice burst of offense with a new 3-point weapon in his arsenal. Daniels remains at his best when he's cutting to the basket or working mismatches at the 3. As the only real depth behind Pierce, it's imperative he remains healthy, especially early in the season.
Glen Davis, PF: Even after signing Jermaine O'Neal to add an impact player to the frontcourt at the start of the free-agent period, Ainge gushed about what the team expects from Davis this season. They say it takes a year to recover from surgery. Maybe it took Davis a year to recover from his off-the-court fiasco that resulted in a fractured thumb and a 27-game absence at the start of last season. He whined a bit on the first day of the new season, and Rivers promptly shut him up. Ever since, he has proved to be a force off the bench this preseason, enough that Davis as the team's sixth man doesn't sound foolish, even on a beefed-up roster.
Shaquille O'Neal, C: O'Neal will dive into the starting lineup in Perkins' absence to start the year, and all indications are it will be a nice offensive boost. Rivers loves the way O'Neal keeps his defender close and opens lanes for Rondo to drive. The trouble, as expected, is going to be how to mask O'Neal's defensive deficiencies, particularly in pick-and-roll situations. The Celtics seem content to put the onus on their guards, meaning they'll have to fight through a lot of screens this year and must try to stick with the ball-handler, but if they can the Celtics have the luxury of keeping Shaq near the basket and force shots away from the basket.
Jermaine O'Neal, C: Maybe the preseason injuries shouldn't surprise anyone given his recent history, but it's telling that Rivers used the word "disappointing" to describe O'Neal's preseason. He's already battled a cocktail of hamstring, back and hand injuries, missing half of Boston's eight-game preseason slate and never getting a chance to carve out his role. From what we did see, it appears he'll provide a nice defensive boost to the second unit, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds, particularly as part of a unit that's otherwise undersized. Offensively, O'Neal needs to find his rhythm. He looked painfully off with his shot at times this preseason.
ROOKIES AND THE REST
Semih Erden, C: Few expected to even see him stateside after the Celtics tapped him with the 60th (and final) pick in the 2008 draft. Fewer had any great expectations for him when he arrived. Alas, Erden showed raw potential during the 2010 FIBA World Championships this summer, helping Turkey to a silver medal, and looks like a guy this team can develop (he's proved to be raw during the preseason, shining at times, but being downright lost at others -- particularly against New York's Amare Stoudemire). As Rivers contends, getting beat up by Perkins and the O'Neals will expedite anyone's development, and undoubtedly Erden will benefit from practice time alone this season.
Luke Harangody, F: Harangody parlayed a phenomenal summer league showing into a guaranteed two-year contract (no small feat for the 52nd pick in this summer's draft), and despite a slow start to the preseason he proved he's got potential to help this team in many ways during the exhibition slate. Harangody hasn't met a shot he hasn't liked, and while it doesn't look particularly pretty it's proved effective. Worries about his ability to rebound and play the power forward spot have been slightly diminished by his ability to scrap for rebounds, even against taller opponents. He might not see a lot of minutes, and he could end up with the Maine Red Claws for spurts, but he's a nice end-of-the-bench player with potential to be more down the road.
Avery Bradley, PG: The 19-year-old guard remains the biggest unknown on the Celtics' roster, having been unable to get on the floor because of an ankle injury. Surgery erased his summer and a "six-to-eight week" recovery has turned into 12 weeks and counting. Bradley made his NBA debut last week in Philadelphia, but soreness set in and the team is debating how to alter his rehab because the current model isn't working. Fortunately, even as the 19th overall pick, he remains at the end of the guard depth chart, and Boston would have brought him along slowly, regardless. It's almost certain he'll trek to Maine, if for no other reason than to get game reps, having essentially been off the court since March Madness.
Von Wafer, SG: He's the 15th man in title after having to compete this preseason to secure his (non-guaranteed) spot on the roster. But he might ultimately prove to be more important for Boston, especially at the start of the year, as the 10-game suspension facing West has forced Boston to keep Wafer around, at least for the time being. He's got potential, no doubt, and he showed that with a monster season with the Rockets in 2008-09, but Rivers contends he needs to buy-in on defense and, maybe more so, with the Celtics' culture. Yes, he can provide instant offense and a 3-point threat, but Boston needs him not to be a defensive liability and not worry about how many minutes he's getting in his role. Otherwise, it can easily page someone like Stephane Lasme, a final cut expected to land in Maine, thanks to new D- League allocation rules.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.