It’s been a week since Danny Ainge sent shockwaves through the NBA with his trade deadline deal that sent Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic. As the initial surprise has worn off, a clearer impression of what Ainge was trying to accomplish has emerged.
What is becoming clear is that Ainge was able to gamble with this big shakeup because in Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, he has a foursome that may be unmatched throughout the league and the belief that with those four in place, the Celtics defense will remain strong.
“Our team has been one of the top defensive teams over the last three or four years and we have been all year this year,” Ainge said. “I don’t see why we would give up more points.”
As well as Perkins played with the other starters and as much as he brought to their dynamic, the defense has always, and will always, run through Garnett. His re-emergence this season, especially on the defensive boards, allowed Ainge the latitude to make this move.
For all their success this season – and over the last three-plus years – the 2010-11 Celtics had three significant issues that needed to be addressed: their health, their bench and their offense.
Ainge addressed the first need by sending Marquis Daniels to Sacramento and Semih Erden and Luke Harangody to Cleveland. That opened up three roster spots that have now been filled by Troy Murphy, Sasha Pavlovic and (for now) Chris Johnson. While the O’Neals – Shaq and Jermaine – get closer to returning, the Celtics also have a healthy 7-footer in Krstic.
In the span of a week, the Celtics went from a team that had nine or 10 bodies depending on the day to a full dozen with more on the way. Ainge said before Wednesday’s game with Phoenix that Shaq was about a week away and he continued to insist that Jermaine O’Neal will be back before the end of the season.
“Shaq looks good,” Ainge said. “My concerns are lessening each day. I’m very optimistic in Shaq and Jermaine. Both.”
Second, the additions to the bench are self-explanatory. With Green and Murphy on board, Ainge has added skill and versatility to a second unit that had a clear shortage of both.
“We’re deeper,” Ainge said. “We have a lot of experience on the bench. Our bench has struggled this year, mostly because of injuries. We never really have developed chemistry with our bench throughout the course of the year. Our core bench guys are in place.”
If there is a concern with the revamped second unit – beyond the time it will take to integrate all the pieces – it starts and ends with Delonte West.
West sprained his ankle during the West Coast trip and has missed the last two games. He’s likely to be out Friday as well. It’s not exactly breaking news that West has faced injury problems throughout his career and he is the only reliable backup point guard on the roster.
Take Wednesday night. Without West, the second unit lacked direction and organization and let a 29-point lead slide into single digits. “Throw Delonte in that group, I’m not that concerned anymore,” Doc Rivers said.
But West isn’t there right now and there aren’t a lot of appetizing options left on the free agent market.
“I’m concerned when Delonte’s out, yes,” Rivers said. “Every team has that. Every team has a weakness somewhere. When we’re healthy we’re great and if we’re not then it does put some stress on us.”
But it’s the third reason – their offense – that will benefit the most from all the moves. In terms of efficiency, the Celtics offense is about league average and it is entirely dependent on their ability to shoot the basketball, which they do better than anyone else in the league.
That one skill was enough to trump their other shortcomings, namely offensive rebounding and turnovers where they rank near the bottom of the league. Additionally, despite the presence of Allen and Pierce, the Celtics shot fewer 3’s per game than every team except Toronto and Memphis.
In order for their superior shooting to prevail, the Celtics have little margin for error in their halfcourt execution. No team in the league has a higher number of assisted baskets than the Celtics, which is great in a team context, but it also means they have to work harder on the offensive end to get those shots.
Green gives them something they haven’t had off the bench: a player who can create his own shot. And Murphy gives them a big man who can shoot from behind the arc. Essentially, Murphy is a better version of what Rasheed Wallace was supposed to be, at least offensively.
“When you watch our team play, our big guys get a lot of open shots,” Ainge said. “KG and Glen Davis get a lot of open shots. We really don’t have a 3-point shooter at any of our big positions and Troy can provide that.”
Add Krstic to that mix, who is far better offensively than Perkins, and the Celtics now have their ideal complimentary pieces for their big four.
“I said [to the team] you know, Krstic can shoot,” Rivers said. “I said it a good 50 times. He actually can make those shots. It was great when he made it [against Phoenix]. It just opened the floor wide open for us.”
Now comes the hard part. Rivers has about six weeks to get everyone acclimated to the system and into their roles before the playoffs start, while still competing for Miami for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Getting the best record in the East would not only get them homecourt, but also keep them out of a potential second-round matchup with Chicago and away from dangerous first round opponents like an improving Philadelphia team or the revamped Knicks.
They have already begun the off-the-court process. Allen was the first to reach out to Green after the trade. He took him out to dinner on the road and allowed Green to pick his brain. Utah provided the perfect opportunity for all of them to sit down as a group and get to know one another.
“We hung out in Utah,” Garnett said. “Not much to do, but we hung out. We’re just embracing this new change.”
The on-court stuff will simply take time. Murphy hasn’t played much this year and he was clearly dragging after 13 minutes. He’ll have to carve out a niche in a crowded frontcourt. “We were honest with him,” Rivers said. “There’s minutes but there’s only earnable minutes. There’s nothing given, but we can use him.”
Green will have to adjust to a new role after playing 36 minutes a night in one position in Oklahoma City, but he is ready for the challenge.
“It’s great,” Green said. “It gives me a chance to expand my game. It’s all for one goal. No matter how many minutes I play, no matter what my role, is I’m going to do the best I can to compete in that role.”
Krstic is Krstic. He does what he does and in many ways he’s already assimilated. He’s learned to expect passes to be there when he’s open, especially from Rondo, and Rivers said that both Green and Krstic have noted to him how the ball always seems to find the open man.
The defensive system is another matter. As Rivers said, “They’ve picked it up. They’re just not good at it yet.” That’s what practice is for and they are also banking on the success of the system to trump any individual shortcomings.
It was a shock to see Perkins go, but while it took a few days to see what was happening, the rationale is coming into focus. They just have to make it work.
“Now we’re in the building phase again, which we didn’t think we would be in at this point of the year, but we are,” Rivers said. “We have to get this done. We have to figure out how quickly we can do it.”