The Boston Celtics are dealing with a classic good news/bad news situation: The good news is that after a stellar offseason, the team now has the horses necessary to beat the All-World LeBron James and the defending champion Miami Heat and win the second championship of the Big Three era, albeit without Ray Allen.
The bad news is that to accomplish that, Jeff Green needs to start at power forward in place of Brandon Bass, and the Celtics are too afraid to rock the boat—and Green’s world—to make that change.
When the Celtics acquired Green in a deadline deal with Oklahoma City in February of 2011 for popular center Kendrick Perkins (along with spare parts going each way), President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge believed he was getting a new-age forward who plays both spots, holding a strength advantage at the “3” and a speed advantage at the “4.” What he got was a frustrating 36 games and a year lost to a heart condition.
It’s easy to see why Ainge was willing to make the most controversial deal of his tenure with the Celtics, one even more hotly debated that the original Antoine Walker trade in 2003. In three-and-a-half seasons in Seattle/Oklahoma City, Green averaged a shade over 14 points a game, scoring in a myriad of ways, be it on the break, from the perimeter or by muscling the ball over smaller opponents in the post. He rebounded well with a little under six boards a game and his defense, though not stellar, was above average. At least on paper, Green appears to be the ideal player for the direction the game is heading: a big, athletic body that can play multiple positions and create mismatches on both offense and defense.
Things changed once he arrived in Boston. Maybe it had to do with the perception that he was the reason a beloved player was gone, or perhaps he was intimidated playing with three surefire Hall of Famers. Regardless, Green was tentative, never knowing when to shoot and when to pass and looking lost on offense most of the time. He averaged just 9.8 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, worse than his rookie averages of 10.5 and 4.7. His slow start didn’t lead to postseason success, either; in nine playoff games he averaged 7.3 points and 2.6 boards. Even though Green missed all of last season it was easy to forget he had ever been around at all.
But Green is salvageable. For it to happen, Coach Doc Rivers must get Green consistent minutes and the best way to do that is to insert him into the starting lineup.
Though most would probably agree that Green is more talented than power forward Brandon Bass, Rivers will likely bring him off the bench like he did after the trade to Boston. For one, the diplomatic coach understands that such a demotion would be hurtful to Bass, who started the bulk of the games last season. But mostly, Rivers will be hesitant put any added strain on a soon-to-be 26 year old player recovering from heart surgery.
Though that’s reasonable and even admirable, if Green is given medical clearance to play as is expected, that should be the beginning and end of the discussion. And if Green starting is better for the team, Bass’ feelings be damned, nothing more needs to be said about that, either.
The bigger issue is that the Celtics seem to believe that Green is more likely to thrive in a bench role than as a starter. The thinking goes that he will be more assertive playing with the backups than superstars like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and not get frazzled by the big stage.
However, before coming to Boston, save for 29 regular season games during his rookie and sophomore seasons, Green has always started. If the Celtics want him to be more comfortable, Green needs the minutes to get there. After his rookie season, Green averaged 37 minutes a game for the Thunder and was nothing if not consistent. Suddenly he comes to a new team and when the game starts he’s still wearing his warm-ups and playing fewer than 24 minutes most nights, 19 in the playoffs.
There are some players who flourish in a reserve role, such as Green’s new teammate Jason Terry. But it was Terry who said last week that when a player comes off the bench, “Every shot is pressure, everything. You don’t get time to kind of feel out the game. You have to come in and be ready to play right now.” If Rivers wants to ease Green into the action, bringing him off the bench is the wrong approach.
Starting Green may be a little rocky at first, especially as he learns to defend power forwards, but throwing him into the fire is the best way to get him back to his happy place where he can be productive again. Should that happen, the Celtics would reap the rewards come playoff time.
Green should be just fine next to his more heralded teammates, too. In Oklahoma City Green played best as a third banana to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and if he’s as good as Ainge—who’s expected to finalize a lucrative four-year contract for Green this week—thinks he is, he’ll figure it out in Boston, too.
If Green returns to form, his size and athleticism will be the Celtics best weapon to take on James. Pierce has done as good a job as most could do covering James over the years, but it was obvious last year that he’s now overmatched and the energy spent on defense is affecting the rest of his game. In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Boston, the Celtics had no answers for LeBron. Rivers threw the kitchen sink against James, even assigning Bass to try his hand for a few possessions.
Things may have ended differently had Green been around for the series and playing like he used to in OKC. He could have taken a turn defending James and tried to tire him out by constantly running the break with point guard Rajon Rondo and making him guard him in the post. Of course James played on an otherworldly level and it’s unlikely anyone would have changed that, but a player who fits Green’s description could have slowed him down, and, in a seven-game series, that could have been the difference.
The Celtics have that player on their roster but he’s lost his mojo. To get it back he needs playing time. Lots of it.
Green needs to start.