The summer of 2008 was a great time to be a member of the Boston Celtics. The champs were feted on Letterman, enjoyed a rollicking victory parade and treated like rock stars everywhere they went. When the team reconvened for the start of training camp, however, there was a sense of, “Oh, we have to start over again,” Doc Rivers said.
This year, there’s a noticeable change. “These guys,” Rivers said. “They can’t wait to get started.”
In a sense they already have. Over the last few weeks players have already begun arriving in town and working out in Waltham. The goal is nothing short of a championship and erasing the bitter memory of a Game 7 loss to the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Training camp doesn’t officially begin until Monday when the team holds its media day, but as a new season dawns-- one that carries with it immense expectations and even greater anticipation--here are five questions for the Celtics to resolve before it all begins again.
CAN THE O’NEAL BROTHERS REPLACE PERK?
At the annual NBA coaches meeting, Rivers heard a common refrain: “You’re going to see a lot of pick and roll this year.”
That, of course, is a reference to Shaquille O’Neal who, in case you haven’t heard, isn’t the world’s best pick and roll defender. “We will,” Rivers acknowledged. “That’s fine. We knew that when we did it.”
The Celtics are smart enough to focus on what Shaq can do – namely, offer a viable low post presence – and also come up with schemes that help counter his weaknesses. It sounds good on paper, but we won’t know how Shaq really fits until he gets on the court.
Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal, jokingly referred to as the O’Neal brothers by Rivers, are being asked to man the center position while Kendrick Perkins recovers from offseason knee surgery. They offer an interesting mix, but the loss of Perkins will be felt.
“They’re not going to be able to do some of the stuff Perk does and some of the things that they do, I don’t know if Perk can do,” Rivers said. “It’s never a perfect [replacement]. Perk, verbally, we’re not going to get that. That’s going to hurt us.”
Jermaine O’Neal enters camp as the starter and his first task is getting on the same page with Kevin Garnett defensively. Perkins and KG offered a unique, and often overlooked, combination. It’s a bond that took years to form and refine. The Celtics, as we all know, don’t have years.
As for Shaq, he’s a significant part of a bench overhaul and may be the key to its effectiveness. He offers an entirely new look for the second unit, which struggled last season to establish itself.
HOW WILL THE BENCH ROLES GET DEFINED?
Competition is the watchword for the new-look Celtics bench, primarily on the wing where Delonte West and Marquis Daniels appear to have the inside track to back up Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.
At no point during the time Rivers and Danny Ainge spoke to the press at the team’s golf outing Thursday did the words “Von” and “Wafer” enter into the conversation. That may have just been an oversight, but there was no doubt that the team was happy to have West back.
“Delonte West is a terrific player,” Ainge said. “We're excited about him.”
As for Daniels, Ainge feels that the thumb injury that plagued him last winter was the primary cause for his slide from key bench player to rotation afterthought.
“It didn't work out for him [last year],” Ainge said. “Tony [Allen] earned the minutes, but coming out of training camp, Marquis won those minutes. Marquis outplayed all of our bench players throughout October, November and December until he had the [thumb] injury. We know what Marquis is capable of doing.”
West is facing a 10-game suspension from the NBA to start the season after pleading guilty to misdemeanor weapons charges. As part of the terms of his plea West also faces electronic monitoring, but is allowed to practice and travel for games. Ainge said Thursday that he has, “no restrictions,” once his suspension has been served.
Beyond the wings, Nate Robinson (backup point), Shaq and Glen Davis will have reserve roles, but there is greater depth than there has been in quite some time. Ainge went so far as to say, “I think this is the most talented team we've had in quite a while. Now it's just a matter of it all coming together.”
CAN THE C’S PASS CHEMISTRY 101?
If there is a downside to depth and competition, it’s what happens after the camp battles have been decided.
“The competition for minutes is always good,” Rivers said. “But then after the competition is over, you have to make sure that the guys that are getting the minutes and the guys that who are not getting the minutes still want to be on the same team and work together. That’s always a big factor and it will be a factor this year.”
The sense around the Celtics is that the team’s chemistry will be a defining characteristic of how this season unfolds. Ainge has bolstered the lineup with contingency plans and young, developing players who may break into the lineup at some point.
With Perkins out, and rookie Avery Bradley not ready for the start of camp, the Celtics are going to need all those players because A) they’re health is always a concern and B) Rivers doesn’t want to wear down his veterans during the regular season.
That requires players to continue to buy into the program, even if they are out of the rotation in November.
“If everybody’s in it for the right reason, there are no problems,” Rivers said. “We’ll find out if we have any of those. We’re hoping we don’t. I don’t think we will, but honestly I don’t know. Everyone says the right things in August.”
CAN THEY SOLVE THEIR REBOUNDING WOES?
In Game 7 of the NBA Finals the Lakers had 23 offensive rebounds, Pau Gasol had more offensive boards than the Celtics had as a team and Gasol and Kobe Bryant almost had as many rebounds combined (33) as the Celtics had for the entire game (40).
Rebounding, particularly defensive rebounding, was one of the team’s greatest weakness (along with turnovers) during the regular season, and it became magnified in the white-hot glare of a Game 7. But their problems on the glass go beyond the big men.
“We always put a priority on rebounding,” Ainge said. “Last year, our rebounding wasn't every good in the regular season but it was very good in the playoffs. We got outrebounded badly in Game 7 and it wasn't always the bigs. The Lakers put three guys on the offensive glass. [Ron] Artest really hurt us on the offensive boards. I don't necessarily think it was because we didn't have Perk.”
That collective approach to hitting the glass was also shared by Rivers who added, “I think Rondo and Paul, all those guys, have to rebound better. Everyone’s numbers were down on defensive rebounds.”
The Celtics added size up front, but part of the issue last season was traced to defensive breakdowns, especially in the area of dribble penetration, and that starts on the perimeter. If they are going to be the team they want to be, the Celtics have to get back to being a dominant defensive rebounding team, as they were in 2008-09.
Not having Perkins will hurt, but a healthier Garnett would go a long way toward helping cure those problems. That leads into the final, and maybe most important question from camp.
HOW HEALTHY IS KEVIN GARNETT?
Garnett is now a year removed from surgery. There were times when he seemed tentative last year and times when he seemed like the old KG. There is real hope within the Celtics organization that Garnett will be more consistent, and more confident in his knee.
As the playoffs progressed we began to see more of the Garnett that the Celtics are expecting to see this season. “I think Kevin needed some rest and time off,” Ainge said. “I think he's in much better shape than he was last year starting training camp. I think KG got better as the year went on. You saw him moving better in the playoffs than in the regular season.”
During the playoffs, Garnett dominated the Cavaliers and his matchup with Antawn Jamison. Then he helped lock down Rashard Lewis in the conference finals. The Lakers gave him problems in the Finals, especially Gasol, but the Lakers gave everyone problems and Gasol has emerged as a legitimate superstar.
Garnett’s last superstar season was only two years ago when he finished third in the MVP voting. In his prime, Garnett was the best defensive rebounder in the game.
Those days may be behind him, but there’s no reason why Garnett can’t continue to play at an All-Star level.
There are many things that must break right for the C’s if they are going to return to the Finals, but Garnett’s health and effectiveness remains at the top of the list.