Commentary

Celtics tapping Bass for bigger role?

Updated: January 31, 2013, 7:07 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Fresh off playing a team-high 37 minutes, 36 seconds in Wednesday night's win over the Sacramento Kings, Boston Celtics forward Brandon Bass was dripping sweat Thursday morning as reporters were let into the team's training facility for pre-practice media access.

Bass was on the floor getting a hands-on lesson from Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, repeatedly working on offensive situations before the rest of his teammates emerged from the weight room for the noon session.

Read into it what you will, but with Jared Sullinger battling back spasms that forced him out of Wednesday's game against Sacramento and left him questionable for Friday's visit from Orlando, it's clear Bass could be in line to see his role expand yet again.

Regardless of Sullinger's health and Bass' role, the Celtics desperately need the sort of production they got from the 27-year-old forward last season if they are going to overcome the loss of Rajon Rondo.

Let's start with the bad: Bass is shooting a mere 44.4 percent from the floor (well below his career mark of 48.8 percent), and that's far from the only number that has nosedived from last season. Bass is averaging nearly six fewer minutes, four fewer shots and five fewer points per game from a year ago.

Bass was a major factor in Boston's second-half turnaround last season, and he finished a robust plus-158 in plus/minus (plus-171 as a starter). He was fourth best on the team behind only Kevin Garnett (plus-267), Rondo (plus-196) and Paul Pierce (plus-192).

[+] EnlargeBrandon Bass
Steve Babineau/Getty ImagesUntil Wednesday's breakout performance versus the Kings, Brandon Bass hadn't scored 12 points since Dec. 5.

This season, Bass is minus-125 overall -- minus-79 as a starter -- and no one is even close to him. Rondo is second lowest on the team at minus-57.

It's almost baffling. Bass was an extraordinarily efficient player on both sides of the ball last season. According to Synergy Sports data, which standardizes production on a per-possession (shot, foul or turnover) basis, Bass averaged 0.955 points per play on offense (76th percentile among league players) and allowed a mere 0.673 points per play (95th percentile) last season. His offensive production this season is down to 0.878 points per play (46th percentile), and his defensive production is 0.801 points per play (75th percentile).

Those are some rather insane drop-offs, even amid Boston's roller-coaster play to start the 2012-13 campaign. It's a particularly headshaking plunge after Bass inked a three-year, $19.4 million deal in the offseason -- even if he likely did take a bit of an open-market discount to come back to Boston after opting out of the final year of his previous deal.

The encouraging news: Bass scored 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting with four rebounds, three steals and two assists in Wednesday's win over the Kings.

But he hasn't topped 12 points in a game since Nov. 28, a stretch of 30 contests. He averaged a mere 6.1 points on 41.9 percent shooting over 24.6 minutes per game in 14 appearances in December. His January numbers had shown virtually no increase, and on Sunday, he lost his starting role to rookie Sullinger.

With Sullinger's availability unclear as he battles the back spasms that forced him out of Wednesday's game after a mere four minutes, Bass was asked Thursday how his approach changes.

"Same approach it's been all year: To play every possession like it's my last and just be more aggressive," Bass said.

It's probably safe to say that Bass has hardly played every possession like his hair is on fire this season. Deny it as he might, he has performed like someone who is battling confidence issues. He said last week that he hasn't hesitated on taking open shots and suggested offensive overhauls have contributed to his diminished role.

Call it whatever you want, the bottom line is that the Celtics need more from Bass. And they need it now.

Bass admitted that it has been a difficult season, noting: "When you set goals for yourself and you have ways you think you can help the team and you're not helping them at the time, it's frustrating."

Ainge's pre-practice pep talk sure seemed to be geared at getting Bass a bit more aggressive in taking defenders off the dribble and attacking the basket. Despite being undersized for his position, Bass is an explosive leaper who uses those hops to finish at the rim. As he struggles with his jumper, the Celtics would like to see Bass generate some easier buckets near the hoop.

Kind of like the little reverse dunk he delivered early in the second quarter Wednesday, helping light a fuse that saw Boston's offense make 14 consecutive shots. He added a nice driving dunk early in the third quarter.

Bass thrived in a Rondo-less offense Wednesday night and suggested that more touches in Boston's new spread offense might help him break out of his shooting funk. But Celtics coach Doc Rivers, as he often advises Bass himself, said not to overthink any correlation between Bass' production against the Kings and the loss of Rondo.

"I just think Brandon played well [Wednesday] night. I don't think we need to give it much thought," said Rivers. "He made the same shots he was missing three games ago. I just think what Brandon is doing now, he's just not thinking about missing shots or that he's not playing well or that he's not getting the same touches or whatever that stupid [stuff] is.

"He just made shots. I think that's basketball. It's just that simple."

What's easy to forget amid his struggles is that Bass was a major asset into the playoffs. His defensive talents were enough that Rivers allowed him to guard LeBron James in a pivotal Game 7 in Miami last season.

The Celtics seem to hope that more offensive consistency will allow Bass' confidence to grow again at both ends of the floor. Despite seemingly regressing in Boston's help defense system this season, Bass showed last season he can thrive in it.

Narrow the list of NBA defenders to those with at least 200 defensive possessions and Bass was second in the league behind only Omer Asik in terms of points per play, according to Synergy data. Opponents shot a mere 31.8 percent against him, and his 31.7 scored-on percentage was the best in the league.

Bass is far from the only player underperforming for Boston. The Celtics need elevated play from top to bottom of their roster in the wake of Rondo's loss.

"When a key guy in your rotation is playing well, it helps the team," said Rivers. "When a key guy in your rotation is not playing well, you need him to play well. I don't think it's any deeper than that."

The injury-detoured Celtics were able to salvage their 2011-12 campaign and run to the cusp of the NBA Finals because of increased production from the likes of Bass.

If there's to be an encore, they need more from Bass.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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