The Celtics enter the 2011-12 season with far less optimism than at any other point in the Big Three/Core Four era. They were passed by both the Heat and Bulls in the Eastern Conference pecking order and their time as a legitimate contender appears to be ending quickly, if not already D.O.A.
Their offseason began with promise but quickly soured after David West's decision to spurn them for the Pacers and the revelation that Jeff Green will miss the season and undergo heart surgery for an aortic aneurysm.
West would have been perfect for the Celtics, who are trying to get smaller and more versatile, while spacing the floor with jump-shooting big men. The Celtics are also trying to play at a faster tempo by surrounding Rajon Rondo with players who can run and finish on the break. They had big plans for Green, but his absence is tempered by the reality that his physical exam probably saved his life.
In their place the Celtics have a deeper bench than they’ve had in years, but it remains to be seen if the pieces will fit around Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Their health remains the ultimate concern in a jam-packed schedule that will have them play 66 games in just 124 days beginning on Christmas Day against the Knicks.
“I don’t know if I’m satisfied or not [with the quick training camp] but it doesn’t matter and that’s what I keep telling our guys, it doesn’t matter,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “Whether you’re ready or not, on the 25th I swear they’re going to start the season. Listen, if you’re not ready you’re going to get your butt kicked, and if you’re ready you've got a chance of winning games. I would love to do more things. They would love to do more things. The bottom line is no excuses.”
If the Celtics can make it through the season intact and have their four best players performing at an optimum level, they will once again be a dangerous opponent come playoff time. That’s their biggest hope as a new season begins, and it’s almost certainly the last time Rondo and their veteran stars can say that together as a group.
Here are five key questions for the upcoming season.
IS RONDO READY TO LEAD?
This is the most important internal question facing the Celtics. Rondo clearly took a step back last season and while injuries were a major part of his inconsistencies, the Celtics need to know if he is a part of their long-term future. Constructing a team around Rondo will require a very specific plan, which is one of the reasons Danny Ainge made a run at acquiring Chris Paul.
Despite Rondo’s young age, All-Star pedigree, extremely reasonable contract and considerable playoff chops, his trade value wasn’t enough to entice New Orleans to make the deal.
Once again it’s up to Rondo to prove his worth. He worked out hard during the offseason and came to camp with what appears to be a rejuvenated attitude. Beneath that suddenly charming exterior remains a cold, calculating genius and a ruthless competitor. Anyone who still questions his heart would be wise to revisit his gruesome shoulder injury against Miami and his grim determination to continue playing.
Rondo has been granted access into the hallowed domain of the Big Three. Now it’s time for him to take the lead and never look back.
CAN THE BIG THREE MAINTAIN?
Pierce and Allen didn’t miss a single game due to injuries last season and they enjoyed phenomenally efficient seasons as a result. Garnett missed only nine games because of a strained calf and his level of play returned as close to his pre-injury level as could be expected.
They were the biggest reason the Celtics won 56 regular season games, but if any of them get hurt or begin to show their age, this season could get real ugly, real fast. Pierce’s bruised right heel is already a cause for concern and an injury to either Garnett or Allen could prove devastating due to a lack of depth at their positions.
Garnett remains the key to the frontcourt rotation. Rivers plans to use him in shorter bursts, but still keep his minutes around 30 a night. Allen is the only proven shooting guard on the roster at the moment and obviously an important component of their halfcourt sets. Pierce is Pierce. He’s the best offensive player on the team and their first line of defense against LeBron James. If he’s out for an extended period of time or if his injury lingers throughout the season, they will be in trouble.
Ultimately, the Celtics will go as far as their veterans can take them and it will be one of Rivers’ primary tasks to try and guide them through this final ride without wearing them out by April.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to win games and we’re going to do whatever we can do to preserve our guys,” Rivers said. “Even the young guys, this is going to be grueling.”
CAN THE RESERVES OFFER SUPPORT?
If there has been one bright spot in the abbreviated Celtics camp, it’s been the addition of veterans Keyon Dooling, Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox, along with the return of a healthy and happy Marquis Daniels. In a normal season that would give Rivers a solid nine-man rotation, full of role players who know how to play.
The bench has been a constant concern since the championship season. The Celtics were woefully thin by the end of the 2009 season and it wasn’t until the playoffs in 2010 when the supporting cast headlines by Rasheed Wallace and Tony Allen began to click. Last year was a total disaster from about the middle of the season when injuries and agendas wrecked a promising start.
“Last year we failed miserably,” Rivers said. “Me [included]. We didn’t do the bench [well] and the bench didn’t save us ever. It lost some games for us but it didn’t save us in a lot. This bench, the one thing I do like, they’re not going to back up. That doesn’t mean they’re going to play well, but I like that they’re a tough group. They respect the starters but that’s about it. That’s all they’re getting.”
Depth remains an issue and there are questions about whether E’Twaun Moore and Avery Bradley can provide enough support behind Allen. This season will test Rivers who will have to manage his stars’ minutes, experiment with different lineups on the fly and work his younger players into the mix. Still, Ainge deserved credit for assembling a capable backup unit from scratch without harming the team’s longterm flexibility.
ARE THEY STILL THE FAVORITES IN THE ATLANTIC DIVISION?
This has never been a concern for the Celtics, who have cruised to four straight division titles, but they will have competition this season from New York and Philadelphia and it will be interesting to see how hard Rivers pushes for playoff positioning and homecourt advantage.
The Knicks added Tyson Chandler, who will make them a much better defensive team, but they will be forced to rely on Mike Bibby and Baron Davis at the point and their depth is woefully thin. The Sixers didn’t do much to add to their team, but they are the kind of athletic team that also plays with discipline that could prosper from the arduous schedule. If the Nets can somehow land Dwight Howard, he and Deron Williams would become a dangerous combination.
It’s highly unlikely that the Celtics will be able to keep up with Miami and Chicago for the best record in the conference. Simply maintaining their hold on the division and securing homecourt for at least one round in the playoffs is a reasonable regular season achievement.
WILL THERE BE ANOTHER MAJOR MOVE?
Ainge has positioned the franchise for a major rebuilding project next summer with only about $35 million in salary commitments to five players: Rondo, Pierce, rookie JaJuan Johnson, Bradley and Bass who has a player option.
That potential cap space offers immense flexibility beyond the ability to offer Howard a max contract offer this summer. Teams that are under the cap can acquire useful players in trades at minimal expense, like the Nuggets did when they acquired Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer for draft picks.
The Celtics understand this and they don’t figure to blow that space on second and third-tier players like so many other rebuilding teams have done in the past. It’s a classic mistake that has stalled the development of teams like Detroit, New Jersey and Milwaukee who tried to remain quasi-competitive at the expense of a proper roster reconstruction.
Ainge doesn’t have to tear the Celtics down to rebuild. The expiring contracts of Garnett, Allen and Jermaine O’Neal will do that for him. But he will have to get creative in the trade market. We already got a preview of that strategy in his failed bid to land West, but the Celtics were limited in what they could offer in a sign-and-trade move and West elected to take fewer years and a higher annual salary with Indiana. Ainge won’t have to operate under those same restraints next summer.
The question is whether he’ll make a move before July 1. Moore and Johnson will become trade-eligible by late January and Ainge has other assets in Bradley, O’Neal’s expiring contract and draft picks, including a top-10 protected pick from the Clippers. He has so far resisted trading any of his All-Stars, but as he proved during the Paul chase, he’s certainly not afraid to go for broke.
“I think our guys still feel they can win and we’ll just have to see,” Ainge said last week. “It’s hard to know when guys are getting older how much they have left. They surprised me the last couple of years. I remember two years ago when it wasn’t looking very good the second half of the year and they got to Game 7 of the NBA finals on the road. These guys have a lot left in the tank. I think we’ll know more about that a month or two into season.”
Team MVP: Rondo. There may not be a more interesting player in the league than Rondo when he plays with a chip on his shoulder. This is his year to establish himself as a premier point guard.
Top reserve: Bass. He’ll play both frontcourt positions and could post career-high numbers, given his offensive importance to the second team.
Top rookie: Moore. He’s more advanced than the typical rookie and there’s opportunity for playing time behind Allen.
Predicted record: Around 42-24 should be enough to win the division (52-30 in a normal season).
Playoff prediction: A first-round win and a second-round loss to either Miami or Chicago. The Celtics won't go out quietly, but the gap appears to be too large even if everything goes right this season.