- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Another small break in this crazy schedule, another chance to tend to your crazy mail. As the All-Star break rapidly approaches, let's sift through the most recent letters:
Q: Kevin Garnett missing practice with an injured hip brings about something I have noticed the last few games: KG is playing in pain. He is on the verge of entering the top 10 in all-time minutes played and Shaquille O'Neal has said that he was playing through pain last year. Are people not noticing how much of a warrior he has been this season, leading the team in games appeared in and remaining an elite defender and impact player in year 17? -- Rob (Ithaca, N.Y.)
A: The fact that up until Sunday Garnett led the team in minutes played is rather astounding (Pierce finally leapfrogged him despite missing three games). Celtics coach Doc Rivers has monitored Garnett's minutes closely this season with hopes of maximizing his efficiency and keeping him upright (he's done well on both accounts). Garnett has played through some pain, including in his left ankle that we've often seen wrapped in ice after games. But as we've seen with nearly all of his teammates, injuries like this are going to crop up, and given the schedule, teams will be forced to sit guys out. The silver lining: Even if he misses this back-to-back series against the Pistons and Bulls, Garnett will have received a full week to recover before Sunday's rematch in Detroit. As for his recent production, take away that off shooting night against the Lakers and KG has been spectacular at both ends of the floor, proof to Garnett that the shortened training camp truly did work against him and the team as a whole earlier in the season.
Q: As much as I watch the Celtics in hopes that our veteran players will get it together and bring us to glory, I really enjoy watching how the rookies and bench players have been stepping up to the challenge of filling the Big Three's collective shoes on our roster. How good are our younger players? In the future, do you think Boston will build with JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore? Or will they instead use them to leverage bigger trades? -- Jay (Los Angeles via Westford, Mass.)
A: About the only criticism of Rivers in recent years has been his inflexibility in giving younger players a shot. Well, with the schedule (and injuries) this season, he's really had no choice, and it's been fun to see rookies such as Johnson and Moore have some early success. Are they ready for rotation minutes? Probably not, and Rivers has admitted as much. But the Celtics have stressed two mantras this season: 1) No excuses, and 2) they need all 15 guys. Whether it was Greg Stiemsma providing a lift early in the season, or Moore chipping in when Rajon Rondo and Keyon Dooling were out, or Johnson now getting an opportunity with Brandon Bass out, everyone is going to get a chance this season, and that can only bode well for development. Will the Celtics keep these guys long term? More on that in a bit.
Q: The Celtics clearly need an upgrade at center. Any chance they can flip Jermaine O'Neal's expiring contract for an upgrade, or something of value?
-- Jon (Brookline, Mass.)
A: Poor, J.O. If he could stay healthy, I think fans would be far more appreciative of what he brings to the table (and no, wise guys, I don't mean the trainers' table). On a team lacking pure size, O'Neal has great value to this team as a legitimate big body around the basket, one that thrives on the defensive end by blocking shots and taking charges. The downside, of course, is that he simply can't stay on the floor -- in part because of how he gives up his body -- and this season's schedule isn't making that quest any easier. When you run into teams like Los Angeles and Orlando with legitimate frontcourts, you're going to need someone like O'Neal up front. Given New Orleans' lack of interest in accepting him as part of a potential David West deal before the season (the Hornets instead allowed West to sign as a free agent in Indiana without compensation), we know the trade market for O'Neal is minimal and Boston's best bet is to simply hope he can stay healthy when the games matter most.
Q: Just read today that Michael Beasley is on the block for the Timberwolves. Is he someone Danny Ainge could take a floater on? A change of scenery could be a breath of fresh air, and maybe he could have a Zack Randolph-like Z-bound with his third team. (Memphis was Z-Bo's third team, too!) -- Dan (San Diego)
A: Technically, Memphis is Randolph's fourth team (Blazers, Knicks, Clippers), but your point stands. Beasley is playing only 28.2 minutes per game in a reserve role (down more than four minutes after starting 73 games a season ago for Minnesota). There's simply been some speculation that as the team's biggest contract this season ($6.3 million), the Wolves might be inclined to move him, especially with an $8.1 million qualifying offer looming next season. Some will fantasize about an O'Neal-for-Beasley swap (the salaries match up), but unless the Celtics are dangling their first-round picks, I don't see why Minnesota would be interested. Plus, not sure Boston needs another power forward when a pure center might be its current top need.
Q: Everyone is asking if Danny Ainge will blow up the Big 4 before the trade deadline. Either way, who are your guys you absolutely do NOT trade? I have to say I like Jajuan Johnson next to Rajon Rondo. I'm not sure there's another youngster I'd rather have locked up with him. -- GrandJordanian (San Diego)
A: Love the potential in Johnson, and he showed a lot by bouncing back from Friday's tongue-lashing in Toronto to play big minutes in Sunday's win over Chicago. Beyond the core players -- the Big Four, Bass and Mickael Pietrus (and Chris Wilcox is trying to muscle his way into that group) -- I'm not sure there's anyone I wouldn't trade for the right player. If it takes adding Johnson or Moore to a deal that brings back a player who the Celtics believe will have an impact this season and beyond, you simply have to consider it. But I think Boston knows the value in a young player like Johnson and will tread carefully there.
Q: After watching Sunday's game vs. Chicago, I realized two things and I was wondering if you agree with me. 1. We are better off with Chris Wilcox as our starting center instead of J.O. because Wilcox will run the floor with Rondo and this is exactly what this team needs. 2. I see why KG hates Joakim Noah. He is such a punk! But KG played a great game because I think he is really motivated to play hard vs. Noah. -- Dan (Erie, Pa.)
A: Let's tackle 'em both: 1) I don't agree on Wilcox. I think you need more pure size up front, especially for how poorly this team rebounds. Plus, I think Wilcox's energy off the bench (coupled with Bass and Pietrus) is a huge boost for that unit. You can still run him with Rondo, even if it's not from the opening tip. 2) It's fun watching KG and Noah spar, even when things don't get too chippy. Both are just so passionate, and that clashes on the court.
Q: Bill Belichick has something up his sleeve, whether he uses his first-round draft picks to move around, I would look at the Colts or the Rams and see if he can switch picks around and possibly pick up Reggie Wayne or Brandon Lloyd. Also, finding out Law Firm might not return(better pay), Matt Forte or Peyton Hillis might be wearing a Pats Jersey -- Jon (Boston)
A: Thought I opened the wrong mailbag when I found this one on top this morning. I know I did some Patriots coverage during the lockout, but can I forward you along to Mike Reiss for all your offseason needs?
Q: At Celtics home games, Doc Rivers often turns and speaks to a well-dressed guy sitting over Doc's righthand shoulder, in the row of seats behind the bench. Who is that guy, and what does he do? It always seems like Doc is making a comment to him. -- KC (Whyalla, Australia)
A: Just a guess here, but you probably mean assistant coach Jamie Young. Young has been with the team the last eight years, the majority as video coordinator and last season as an advanced scout. As part of the coaching staff shuffle this offseason, when Lawrence Frank took the head-coaching gig in Detroit, Mike Longabardi made the jump to the bench (alongside stalwarts Kevin Eastman, Armond Hill and trainer Eddie Lacerte), while Young joined Tyronn Lue in the group of assistants behind Rivers (you'll often see team doctor Bryan McKeon and director of security Phil Lynch back there as well). You can check out last year's media guide online for a closer look at front-office faces.
Q: What do you honestly think the Celtics have to do to win another championship this year?
-- Dijana (Sydney, Australia)
A: Just pointing out that we're closing out with a double-dose of Aussie questions. I'm bigger Down Under than Gotye. My response to this hasn't wavered this season: The Celtics need to be healthy and they need to be playing their best basketball in late April/early May and -- insert KG screaming -- anything is possible. This is such a weird season. Health and chemistry will be huge at the end of the year. The Celtics should certainly have that second part, it's just a matter of keeping everyone upright. Not even sure deadline maneuverings will matter; this will come down to whether the core can carry this team past the second round, where it's likely they'll run into the Bulls or Heat.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com