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Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Mailbag: Can C's still contend?

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

The trade deadline has passed, the roster is set, and about the only question Celtics fans have now is whether this team has the ability to contend for a championship. Heck, most of you are already wondering about shaping the roster for next season, which might reveal how you feel about the championship possibilities for this year's squad.

Regardless, that's where we kick off the ninth installment of the ESPNBoston.com Celtics Mailbag, tackling the nine most interesting questions from this week's delivery:

1. Do you think this team really has a chance to win a championship? -- Jordan (Salt Lake City, Utah)

A: Despite their best efforts to change my mind given their lackluster play against quality opponents, I remain steadfast that this team can compete for an NBA title this season. Am I as confident as I was back in October when the team was hanging blank banners on the wall of its practice facility in Waltham? Not even close. But the talent is still there, we just need to see more focus and more consistency into the postseason. But let's say the Celtics stumble their way into the third seed in the Eastern Conference and draw a team like Toronto in the first round. Does that scare anybody? With that third seed, the team is likely to draw the Orlando Magic in the second round, and Boston actually matches up well against them (heck, a healthy frontcourt last year probably pushes Boston through to the conference finals). Not even the Cavaliers should scare this team considering they beat them on opening night in Cleveland and should have defeated them last month, even without Paul Pierce.

Tony Allen
Tony Allen finds himself competing for backup minutes with newcomer Michael Finley.

2. The Celtics seem to be having problems with weak teams such as Washington. Is it time to panic or do you think the Celtics can still beat elite teams in the playoffs? -- Ray (Boston)

A: This sort of piggybacks off the last question, but, yes, I think the Celtics actually match up better against teams like Orlando and Cleveland than some of the more athletic teams in the East that have given them so much trouble. I'd go so far as to say that Boston would be better served avoiding teams like the Bucks and Hawks then encountering teams like the Magic and Cavaliers. I'm not necessarily saying Boston couldn't get past those athletic teams (nor am I suggesting that Cleveland and Orlando would be a picnic), but it's clear the aging Celtics have struggled against young, athletic squads this season.

3. How do you think Michael Finley will fit in with the Celtics? How much playing time does Finley deserve? -- Rayshawn (Boston)

A: Welcome to the Michael Finley honeymoon period! It got off to a nice start Tuesday night as he made his first two shots in a Boston uniform while scoring five points over eight minutes against the Bucks. I expect we'll see his minutes tick up a bit, particularly in games that Boston doesn't have to lean on its starters late. If he can show an ability to consistently make perimeter jumpers, he's likely to settle into a contributing role off the bench. The one concern here is that Tony Allen has essentially been inactive the past two games (two total minutes vs. Wizards and Bucks), so there's going to be competition for those backup minutes -- but additional minutes could be found by spelling Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.

4. What do you think the Celtics will do with the last available roster spot? Maybe sign Larry Hughes? -- Andre (New York City)

A: The guess here is that roster spot No. 15 is now tagged with "break in case of emergency." The Celtics have 13 healthy veteran bodies for 12 active roster spots. With slim pickings on the scrap heap, I think the team is content to move forward with what they've got. Now, if Rajon Rondo turns an ankle, or Paul Pierce gets another fluke injury, that could change the team's needs. But the Celtics don't need an additional body right now and has actually run with 14 players for much of the season after cutting ties with rookie Lester Hudson. Adding another veteran body would seemingly just cause more headaches by forcing coach Doc Rivers and his staff to deactivate another body.

5. As a lifelong Celtics fan raised in New England, I often wonder why the team stops using a certain play when it works. When Boston started the season, it was pass, pass, pass until someone had a great shot. In some of the losses, it's all stop and pop. They don't look like my boys. What's going on? -- Valerie (Port St. Lucie, Fla.)

A: After he registered a mere three shots -- missing them all -- in Tuesday's loss to the Bucks, even Ray Allen called out the Celtics for their lack of consistent ball movement. Forgive the pun, but I don't think this was an "isolated" incident. Far too often, Boston's starters seem to get caught watching the ball-handler, waiting for him to create something 1-on-1 against a defender. That's led to far too many desperation jumpers from Rajon Rondo this season with the shot clock winding down. This team thrives when the ball is moving and sometimes that means guys have to be more active moving without the ball.

6. Was Bill Walker a necessary part of the Knicks deal? Do Boston's practices give rookies and bench players the opportunity to earn playing time? -- Steve (Melbourne, Fla.)

A: I think it's fair to assume that both Walker and J.R. Giddens were collateral damage in making the Eddie House-for-Nate Robinson swap work financially. If the contracts had matched up on their own, neither Walker, Giddens, nor Marcus Landry probably would have been uprooted in the proceedings. While it's only natural for Celtics fans to be a bit up in arms after Walker produced a pair of 20-plus-point outings recently, it's worth nothing that he's cooled a bit, scoring 20 total points in the past three games (though he did shoot a robust 60 percent by connecting on 9 of 15 attempts in those games). Boston's roster was simply too deep for Walker to get a fair shake and, given the lack of blowouts this year, he didn't even have the luxury of trash time to log needed game action. Ultimately, I think Robinson has upgraded this bench and the trade still tips in favor of Boston, for now.

7. Do you think Nate Robinson and Michael Finley make the roster next year? The Celtics certainly need shooters off the bench. Also, do you see the Celtics using their draft picks or maybe picking up some young and talented free agents in the offseason? -- Kenyatta (Jackson, Miss.)

A: The Celtics boast eight players with expiring contracts (and Paul Pierce owns an early-termination option). Needless to say, there could be some wholesale changes this offseason. That said, I do think Pierce and Ray Allen return. It'll get interesting from there. I think Marquis Daniels and Nate Robinson will price themselves out of Boston with their quality play, while the Celtics will have to evaluate whether role players like Scalabrine, Tony Allen, and Shelden Williams are worth bringing back at reasonable money. With only six players -- Pierce included in that count -- under contract for next season, Boston is going to need bodies (and cheap ones at that). Rookie Marcus Landry will get evaluated with his play in Portland the next couple weeks, while it would seem Finley is nearing retirement (or maybe becomes a late-season addition for a contender). As for Boston's potential in the free-agent market, the team will have to identify low-cost veterans in the mold of Daniels and James Posey who will come cheap for a chance at a title.

Rasheed Wallace
Celtics fans should get used to questionable 3-pointers, because Rasheed Wallace isn't going anywhere.

8. Do you envision the Celtics trying to trade Rasheed Wallace this offseason? If he doesn't step up his game soon, then I don't see the reason for keeping him around. -- John (Bedford, Mass.)

A: John, let's make you the general manager of any other team in the NBA. What are you going to give the Celtics in return for Wallace? Mind you, your team is taking on a player who will turn 36 before the 2010-11 season begins and is set to earn another $13 million over the next two seasons. Even with Wallace favorite Larry Brown and fellow UNC product Michael Jordan at the helm in Charlotte, I'm not sure you could even convince the Bobcats to make a deal that nets anything worthwhile in return. So buckle up for two more years of questionable 3-point attempts.

9. The Celtics need everyone to stay healthy if they want to win in the playoffs. -- Devon (Omaha, Neb.)

A:OK, that wasn't really a question. But that's as good a way as any to wrap up this week's mailbag. There's no denying the Celtics absolutely must avoid the injury bug that's pestered the team over the past five months in order to be successful beyond Tax Day. Even then, they still need a little help. Boston's postseason success will be dictated by the playoff path it travels and whether the team ever actually begins to play with consistency and focus. The Celtics may very well look back and lament how their regular-season struggles prevented them from developing into the team they need to be in the postseason.

Bonus Question: Just wanted to say you're a great writer. I love how you constantly update your Twitter and really love the Celtics coverage. Keep doing what you're doing! God Bless. -- Drake (Coppell, Texas)

A: OK, so this isn't really a question, either, but we very much appreciate the sentiment. Drake's already a Celtics Chat All-Star (come check us out most Friday afternoons) and we appreciate everyone who stops by the site on a regular basis. The passion that die-hard Celtics fans show makes all the effort worthwhile. So if we don't say it enough: Many, many thanks to everyone who reads on a regular basis. Keep the questions coming and keep challenging us to be better at what we do.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.