C's clicking, Q's lingering
Six-game win streak is great, but can Boston keep it up with a depleted roster?
The Boston Celtics have won a season-high six straight games, and all anyone wants to talk about is the guy who's not on the floor (Rajon Rondo) or players who are not on the roster (potential free-agent/trade targets).
The latter part is somewhat understandable: 'Tis the season for deadline chatter and the Celtics have some interesting decisions to make this month. That said, fans should take a minute to savor the inspired ball this team is playing even without Rondo and Jared Sullinger. Many assumed this team was doomed after losing two starters in a five-day span, but the Celtics have put together some quality basketball in the face of adversity.
Q: I'm the best point guard in the NBA. No way this team is better without me, right? Right, Forsberg? RIGGGHHHHTTT!!!!???? -- Rajon Rondo (Louisville, Ky.)
A: This topic has just about reached its saturation point, but a couple quick thoughts here. The Celtics are not better without an All-Star point guard on the roster. That's preposterous. But I do think guys like Courtney Lee, Jason Terry and Jeff Green -- underperformers for much of the first half -- had no other choice but to step up their play without Rondo. I believe Lee when he noted last week, "We don't look at it as we are better off without Rondo, I think we came together and we are playing hard for Rondo." The Celtics have also benefited from a softer schedule (yes, the double-overtime win over Miami was impressive), but the Kings, Magic, Raptors, Paul-less Clippers and the Pau-less Lakers are not exactly a defensive obstacle course. There have been times the Celtics have clearly missed Rondo (fourth quarter versus the Clippers in particular), but they have found ways to win without him and we really like the way they've handled adversity (especially crunch-time situations). The Avery Bradley-Lee combo, with their increased defensive pressure, has been super effective, while the entire team has stepped up on the offensive end.
Q: I'm really struggling to get my head around all of these trade rumors. At this stage in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce's careers, what is the point of trading them for cents on the dollar? -- Robert (Edinburgh, Scotland)
A: So Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has always pledged to do what's in the best interest of his team. If a contender was willing to mortgage a good portion of its own future to add a veteran body for a playoff push, Ainge has to listen. But even Ainge has admitted the Celtics value their vets far more than others do. If Boston had stumbled in this post-Rondo/Sullinger world, Ainge would have been in a tough spot and likely would have pondered potential deals harder. Now, if the Celtics can maintain their winning ways, it's easier to ride it out with the veterans leading the way and see what this team can accomplish.
A: It sure would have been easier a couple weeks ago. The loss of Rondo and Sullinger has thrust just about every healthy body not named Fab Melo into a prominent role. The Celtics would essentially be sacrificing at one position to fill a need at another if they had to move someone like Lee, Terry or Brandon Bass. Boston has a clear need for another big man but hasn't been enticed by what's currently available on the free-agent scrap heap. The question facing Ainge is whether that pool will get any deeper after buyouts, or if this team has to make a move to add rotation-caliber talent.
Q: What are the main concerns of the post-Rondo portion of the season? How do Doc and Danny best address them? Will those moves be enough to challenge the top 4 teams in the East? -- Constable Geneva (Boston)
A: Constable is one of our favorites from the ever-popping comments section in the blog, so we couldn't pass up his letter. As for big concerns moving forward: (1) rebounding without Sullinger and (2) ball-handling without Rondo. It's really that simple. The trouble is I don't see any easy way to fill either need. Serviceable big men command a ransom, while a pure point might be hard-pressed to crack Boston's current four-guard rotation given how well the Bradley/Terry/Lee/Barbosa combo is playing right now. The Celtics' guard depth does lead me to wonder if they'd explore the idea of moving Lee, but the way he's played in February might leave them leery, particularly with his age and cost-friendly long-term contract. Even if the Celtics settled for mere low-cost free-agent additions, this team has enough pure talent to be in the mix in the East. With wins over Miami and New York this season without Rondo, it's hard to believe otherwise (even if seven-game series with those teams would surely be daunting given the losses this team has endured).
A: Since you asked ... For the season, the Celtics rank 29th in offensive rebounding (21.2 percent), 14th in defensive rebounding (73.3) and 28th in total rebounding (48.0). The usual caveat applies here: Boston's lack of emphasis on the offensive glass drags down the overall number. But the discouraging part is that, over the past four games (since losing Sullinger in the first quarter against Sacramento), Boston ranks 25th on the offensive glass (21.9), 26th on the defensive glass (71.4) and 19th overall (48.8). The pronounced downturn on the defensive glass is somewhat concerning. Remember, too, that Boston is playing not only without its best pure rebounder in Sullinger, but also without one of the league's best rebounders at the guard position in Rondo. The Celtics have gently prodded the likes of Green and Bass to bring more consistency to the glass, particularly as the team eyes more small ball. Alas, rebounds might simply be a casualty of this team going small. Boston might have to endure the statistical dip, while hoping that someone like Chris Wilcox or a late-season addition can provide a second-half jolt on the boards.
Q: I feel like the Celtics are just going to limp into the playoffs and get blown out in the first round. The talent they have is severely lacking, and they just don't match up to other East heavyweights. I think Danny Ainge has to at least trade Paul Pierce and start the rebuilding process now, rather than start it later. -- Patrick (Davis, Calif.)
A: So this is a legitimate concern. If you're Ainge and you simply don't believe your team is a championship contender this season, then you have to consider the future. That said, I don't buy the argument that Boston is set up for an early playoff exit. There's still plenty of talent on this team and the playoff experience of its core players (heck, even Lee played in a Finals with Orlando) leads me to believe that this team still has an edge on much of the underwhelming East field. If the Celtics can climb the playoff ladder a bit before the end of the regular season and ease their playoff path, they are capable of making a run. It's definitely more difficult now, but not quite enough to ponder a more drastic overhaul.
Q: Do you still believe the Celtics can come out of the East? You were the only analyst/reporter that said Celtics will emerge in the end. -- Elizabeth (Millstone Township, N.J.)
Q: Right now, besides Pierce and Garnett, who are teams most interested in trading for? -- @koppa34 (via Twitter)
A: I think contenders would have some interest in a player like Terry given his big-game history, but his age, early-season struggles and two remaining years on his deal might give those teams pause. Lee might be the most appealing, particularly to a younger team, given his age and contract, but I'm not sure you could fetch equal value in return, especially if you were seeking frontcourt help. Bass is an interesting situation to me. If the Celtics are convinced that Sullinger is their power forward of the future, it makes you wonder if Bass is somewhat more expendable (at least after this season). That said, his deal is relatively cost-efficient and he showed last season he can be an above-average defender. Still, the Celtics have a glaring need for rebounding at the power forward spot given the lack of consistency there from Green and Bass.
Q: If Danny Ainge decides to sit at the deadline and not make a trade, why wouldn't the Celtics grab a Ben Wallace or Kenyon Martin for frontline help? -- Anthony (Houston, Texas)
A: Boston has had a need for frontline help for much of the season. Their lack of interest in what's already available speaks volumes about what's out there. That's not to say that someone like Martin might not end up being the best option, but you certainly get the impression they are gauging all other available avenues before navigating that route.
Q: Question about possible additions: What about a guy like J.J. Redick? I think they could use a solid jump-shooter. This is a weak draft by most accounts. What about a first-rounder for him? -- Mike (Rhode Island)
A: All indications are the Celtics expressed interest in Redick earlier this season, but injuries forced them to back off. Keep in mind that draft picks have no value in trades, so you still have to match salaries (and he's got a $6.2 million expiring contract). There's a lot to like about Redick's game (and that expiring contract could actually be a good thing for Boston moving forward), but any hope for that swap might have expired when Rondo and Sullinger went down.
Q: Does Jeff Green belong in the Slam Dunk contest? -- @pokemonandpot (via Twitter)
A: Green's most noteworthy dunks typically require an opponent to stand near the hoop and get banged on. While he's logged plenty of airtime on "SportsCenter" for his above-the-rim antics, he hasn't showcased the sort of flair that the dunk contest typically caters to. Green has produced the type of jams that should appear on the NBA's best of the season (sorry, Al Jefferson), but not sure he would shine in the All-Star event.