Chris Wilcox hopes to show worth
After nixing trade, Celtics big man has stepped up his offensive production
Wilcox reportedly was close to being shipped to the Washington Wizards as part of a deal that brought shooting guard Jordan Crawford to Boston. But Wilcox utilized a clause in the collective bargaining agreement to veto a potential deal and the team ultimately sent veteran Jason Collins to Washington, along with injured Leandro Barbosa, to complete the swap.
To Wilcox, a former NCAA champion who has never tasted NBA playoff basketball, there was simply too much unfinished business in Boston. A heart ailment forced him to miss the postseason last year and he couldn't fathom another mid-April finish this season.
"The main thing is this team gave me a second chance at getting back into the league, so I wanted to come back here and prove my point, let them know that I appreciate everything they did for me so far," Wilcox said.
It was one year ago this week that Wilcox first learned of the enlarged aorta that sacked his 2011-12 season and prevented him from getting that first taste of playoff basketball.
He underwent surgery at the Cleveland Clinic on March 29 and an uncertain future awaited. The Celtics re-signed Wilcox this summer to a minimum contract with the hopes he could regain the form he showed just before his heart woes arose.
Back issues slowed him in training camp and a thumb injury forced him to miss extended time early in the season. All that, coupled with inconsistent play on the defensive end, had relegated Wilcox to an emergency body before injuries ravaged Boston's depth in February.
So the team seemed willing to move on without him. Playing on his second minimum contract with the team (despite being waived to clear a roster spot last year), Wilcox is set to have Early Bird rights after this season -- a designation that could help him earn a bigger payday.
It also gave Wilcox the ability to veto any trade because a swap would have forced him to forfeit those impending rights. Despite the somewhat awkward situation, he expressed gratitude to the team for giving him the chance to prove his worth.
"They took a chance on me, bringing me back after the trade deadline, so I just wanted to come out and play hard," Wilcox said.
Over the four games since the deadline, Wilcox has responded by averaging 6.5 points on super-efficient 76.5 percent shooting along with 4.5 rebounds over 20 minutes per game. The Celtics -- 3-1 in that span -- are plus-28 with Wilcox on the floor in that stretch, and his impact is further reflected in solid numbers in both offensive (116.6) and defensive (95.4) ratings (points allowed per 100 possessions) when he's on the floor.
Wilcox admits that what the team is asking him to do hasn't really changed. But without Collins, he got thrust into a bigger role -- first big off the bench spelling Kevin Garnett early on -- and has made the most of consistent minutes.
"My role has been basically the same the whole time, but it's just more so being consistent and having minutes to play again," Wilcox said. "At one point I was playing like four or five minutes and it was kind of tough to be consistent, and not knowing if you were going to play tonight or not. But now I know my role, I know when I'm coming in, I know what I need to do to prepare. I think now it's just more going out and playing my game."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who offered pointed words about Wilcox's underwhelming play and essentially challenged the veteran big man after the deadline, admits he's answered the call thus far.
"He really has. Since we made the trade, I think Chris has been pretty good," Rivers said. "He's playing with great effort, he's running the floor, setting picks. He's been good for us."
Rivers notes he didn't have much of a choice, cracking, "He was the only [big] left." But Rivers also noted that Wilcox sought out the coach in the aftermath of the trade deadline to discuss his role moving forward.
Asked about that conversation, Wilcox said, "I wanted to know my role. We got rid of [Collins], he went down to the Wizards, so I wanted to know what [Rivers] needed from me. We had a conversation, he told me he just needed me to go out and play hard, be aggressive, and bring energy every night. So that's what I've been trying to do over the last couple games."
Wilcox still is tightening up his defensive play, but the one area in which the Celtics really need him to step up is on the glass. Right before his heart diagnosis last year, Wilcox had carved out a consistent role by being a relentless rebounder and running in transition for easy points.
The latter hasn't been an issue this season. Wilcox is shooting a rather ridiculous 71 percent from the floor, finishing alley-oops with alarmingly regularity (68 of his 71 field goals this season have come at the rim and he's a mere 3-of-10 away from the iron).
Dig deeper and Wilcox is averaging a whopping 1.212 points per play, according to Synergy Sports data, which ranks him second in the entire league (behind only 3-point chucking Steve Novak among players with at least 100 offensive possessions this season).
But Wilcox's work on the glass has been a concern. His rebounding percentages -- a gauge of the available boards he's getting while on the floor -- has fallen dramatically this season. Wilcox's defensive rebound rate is at 15.5 percent (well below his career mark of 19.8; it was as high as 22.7 just two seasons ago in Detroit) while his total rebound rate is at 12.1 percent (his career mark is 14.4 percent; it was 16.7 two seasons ago).
The board work hasn't improved over the past four games as Wilcox's defensive rate dipped to 13.8 percent in that span and his total has risen to a mere 12.9 percent. But if Wilcox can boost those numbers moving forward, he'll be exactly the player whom Rivers and the Celtics have desired. And he'll finally have the chance to not only taste the playoffs, but be a valuable contributor.
Wilcox was reflecting on a wild year since learning of his heart ailment, but his words might have rang true to this whole trade deadline affair as well.
"It's a tough situation," Wilcox said. "But at the end of the day, it's a blessing."