Boston Celtics: 7 Burning Questions Heading into Next Season

Gabe Kahn@@sgabekahnContributor IAugust 28, 2012

Boston Celtics: 7 Burning Questions Heading into Next Season

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    After a thrilling seven-game series against Miami ended the Celtics’ season, the team was thrust into a state of uncertainty unseen since the start of the new Big Three era in 2007.

    Would Kevin Garnett retire? Would he leave via free agency? What about Ray Allen? Was he wounded enough by Boston’s repeated attempts to trade him—not to mention the loss of his starting job—to walk away? And if those guys left, would Paul Pierce demand a trade so as to avoid yet another rebuilding project?

    There was opportunity, too. With Allen and KG’s contracts coming off the books, the Celtics found themselves with ample space under the salary cap. Would they use it to try to sign a marquee free agent, say Deron Williams? And if they did that, what would happen to Rajon Rondo, the team’s dynamic point guard?

    Despite the various possibilities, only one of those scenarios came to pass. Allen left money on the table and elected to sign with the World Champion Heat, a painful defection despite his decreased minutes and effectiveness in Boston.

    But it wasn’t all bad news for the Celts, not by a long shot. President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge had what looks to be one of his best offseasons since bringing KG and Allen to town, bolstering the bench with Jason Terry and Courtney Lee and bringing back the talented Jeff Green, who had missed the previous season with heart surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. Ainge also selected a player who many experts believe to be one of the steals of the draft in power forward Jared Sullinger.

    Still, the answers to June’s questions only lead to new ones about this year’s team. The answers will be the difference between the Celtics returning to contender status, something they seemed on the cusp of just a few short months ago, or just another middling playoff team struggling to make it to the second round.  

7. Will the Rookies Contribute?

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    Even in a draft as stacked as this one, Ainge has to be thrilled to come out with Sullinger at 21. Yes, there are health concerns, specifically the herniated disc in his back that caused lottery teams to back away slowly from the Columbus, Ohio native, but he played just fine in summer league action.

    If he holds up, he could be an unexpected boon at power forward and take minutes—and maybe even the starting position—away from Brandon Bass. Sullinger isn’t likely to be a superstar, but he could be a very solid pro.

    However, if Sullinger doesn’t perform up to expectations, either because of injury or simply because he’s not ready, the Celtics' rotation could get a little tight.

    The Celtics' lack of size could be exposed, particularly if Green is forced into becoming Bass’ primary backup. Not only would the Celts suffer on the boards, but Green wouldn’t be available as often to back up Pierce at small forward, leaving that position thin.

    With the Celtics unlikely to re-sign Mickael Pietrus, one longshot to fill his role—should he make the team—is second-round draft pick Kris Joseph, a pleasant surprise during the summer leagues, for whatever that’s worth.

    Who else needs a solid performance from the rooks? Ainge, who can ill afford a second straight disappointing draft. He was already forced to sell off last year’s first and second rounders, JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore respectively, and change to the Rockets in a sign-and-trade for Lee.

    Ainge has a pretty solid record in the draft, with Avery Bradley being his most recent gem, but if he selects three straight first-round busts (Fab Melo of Syracuse, taken by the Celtics at 22, is a very strong candidate to fall into that category), his bosses might start to wonder if he’s still the right man to be picking.

6. Are the Celtics Big Enough?

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    By re-signing KG, the Celtics ensured that their defense would remain elite and that they would continue to be productive at the center position. But good as he is, Garnett doesn’t have a wide body and the returning Bass is undersized at 6’8”.

    Last season, the Celtics were outrebounded by 4.4 rebounds per game, the third-worst rebounding differential in the league. Even worse, they ranked worst in the league in offensive rebounding differential at 4.1 per game.

    There are reinforcements. Chris Wilcox, who amazingly joined Green among Celtics players sidelined from heart surgery, returned. Green will play power forward for stretches, at least. And Sullinger, provided his back is healthy, is another big body who could add some muscle down low. Ainge even added veteran center Jason Collins to the mix.

    None are necessarily major upgrades. Even if they have both fully recovered from their heart ailments, Green and Wilcox are undersized at power forward and center, respectively.

    Even though expectations are high for Sullinger, he’s a rookie and his accomplishments at Ohio State mean nothing in the NBA. Collins, for all his veteran savvy, is well past his prime and potentially the worst rebounding center in the entire NBA.

    Now that the Celtics are Rondo’s team, they’ll need to put more of an emphasis on crashing the boards and defending down low to maximize their opportunities in the open court where Rondo is most effective.

    But can their overall depth make up for this lack of size?

5. Can Jeff Green Rebound from Heart Surgery, Revert to the Player He Was in Okla.

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    Everyone in the league will be pleased to see Green suiting up once again. When word came out about his condition just prior to the season, not only was the remainder of his career in question, his life was, too.

    Now that his return is official—he just signed a four-year, $36 million deal—we can begin to think about more mundane matters, like will he ever become the player Ainge thought he was getting when he acquired Green as the centerpiece of a deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson?

    That player, a hybrid forward who can outquick most fours and overpower threes, was a mainstay on his old team but rarely made appearances on the Celtics. Green’s ability to return to that form will have a lot to do with the Celtics’ success.

    Green has all the talent in the world and size that is both unique and valuable. If healthy and effective, he can take pressure off of Pierce and provide a new look down low, along with the ability to run with Rondo. But if he presses like he did with the Celtics the first time around, he’s unlikely to give them all that much more than Pietrus did, which is to say not all that much.

4. Will the Bench Mesh?

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    Ainge saw how the Celtics' lack of depth hurt the team in the playoffs when it was left without Wilcox or Jermaine O’Neal at center, Green at forward and Bradley at guard. It was slim pickings with Pietrus, Marquis Daniels, Greg Stiemsma and Keyon Dooling as the primary backups, leaving Coach Doc Rivers with few options, none of them good.

    Now the bench looks like one of the best in the league. Most notably, Ainge signed Mavs gunner and former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry using the full mid-level extension to replace Allen’s shooting and provide relief for Rondo.

    Green’s return should ensure a capable backup for Pierce and some quick options at the power forward position and Sullinger will add a young, go-get ‘em dimension. Lee was brought on to start at shooting guard until Bradley is recovered from surgery on both his shoulders. Wilcox and Collins won’t blow anyone away at center, but how many backup centers around the league ever do?

    On paper, the bench is a major strength of the team, but as everyone knows, the games are played on the court.

    Terry was a shrewd signing, but he could rub his teammates the wrong way. Though partly by design, Terry shoots a lot. His role in Dallas was to be a spark plug off of the bench and he was at that, averaging 15.1 points per game but needing to take 13.2 shots, second on the team to Dirk Nowitzki, in order to get them. Will his talented fellow bench warmers appreciate a ball hog like Terry, even if his methods have led to success before?

    What about Lee: Will he have any gripes about being pushed to the bench once the starting two-guard reclaims the job he earned last season? And he has already been thoroughly dissected, though Green and Sullinger appear poised to flourish, it’s difficult to count on them.

    These are open questions, but if they do put it all together, watch out.  

3. Will Age Finally Catch Up to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett?

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    This will be at least the third straight year that we’ve asked this question about the Celtics, but after Allen’s game showed strong signs of decay last season, Pierce and Garnett are fair game.

    Pierce’s physical state is particularly worrisome after his tepid Eastern Conference Finals performance in June. Sure, he had a sprained MCL, but that’s just the type of injury that Pierce has sustained over and over and then popped right back up like nothing ever happened.

    Who amongst us didn’t expect Pierce to pull a wheelchair after injuring the knee in the first round, initially appearing to sustain a career-ending injury and then bouncing off defenders with reckless abandon to get the harm and the hoop?

    That he didn’t, instead shooting below 39 percent for the playoffs, is certainly cause for concern.

    As good as Garnett played last season, the cynic has to wonder how much of that had to do with his being in a contract year. It’s difficult to believe that the ultra-intense Garnett doesn’t go all out on every position—and the smart bet still says he does—but we’d just be putting our heads in the sand if we didn’t at least consider the possibility.

    Even if that’s not the case, just how long can he play at such a high level? Remember, this is a man who’s played 1,380 regular season and playoff games; that’s got to take a serious toll.

    Rondo is now the centerpiece of the team and Ainge has built in safeguards for the remaining two of the Big Three with Sullinger, Green and Lee, but let’s not fool ourselves: If the 2012-13 Celtics have any hope of contending, Garnett and Pierce must be firing on all cylinders.

2. Will There Be Any Fallout from Ray Allen’s Abrupt Exit?

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    Before Allen signed with the Heat, it always seemed like the Celtics were greater than the sum of its parts. The Big Three all subjugated their egos for the sake of the team and, in addition to winning a title, they far exceeded expectations in the postseason in 2009, 2010 and 2012.

    Suddenly, there’s no Big Three, at least not like there was before. There have to be at least some ramifications from that, right?

    It’s possible team chemistry could improve, as the much-talked about friction between Rondo and Allen could not have been easy on everyone else. On the one side, there was the all-time leader in three pointers and one of the most respected players in the league.

    On the other, was a brash, young point guard, with talent and court awareness beyond belief, who believed that the Celtics’ offense should no longer cater to Allen’s diminishing skills.

    Rondo may have been right, but the rest of the team would have had a tough time choosing sides. Had Allen stayed, a turf war between the two could have caused a rift within the team.

    Or his departure could've hurt the team by destroying the mythic nature of the Big Three. If Allen’s exit means the partnership is over, maybe Pierce and KG will return to what made them stars in the first place, getting theirs. They’ve both had loads of experience as the lone superstar on their team, roles they, along with Allen, agreed to dispose of for the sake of team.

    Without Allen, is that agreement null and void?

1. Is Avery Bradley Healthy?

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    The status of Bradley’s shoulders are surely the most important individual factor in determining the success of this team.

    A year ago, this would have been a preposterous statement, but who would disagree with it now?

    Bradley followed up a rookie campaign that might charitably be called a disaster with a season in which he became one of the most valued and indispensable parts of the entire team. Playing the kind of man-to-man defense that would make Bill Russell proud, Bradley routinely shut down opposing team's guards, allowing Rondo to take risks and go for steals that so often led to fast breaks.

    The two guards quickly developed a special on-court rapport. It became a common occurrence to see Rondo finding Bradley, sneaking behind the defense or executing a perfect back cut, for a layup or dunk. Somewhere along the way Bradley, who, it must be repeated, showed absolutely nothing the season before, became a solid jump shooter from the baseline. His shooting percentage rose from 34.3 percent in his first year to 49.8 (and 40.7 percent from beyond the arc) in season two.

    When the Celtics announced that Bradley would have season-ending surgery on his left shoulder during the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Sixers, it almost seemed like a death sentence for the team: Had Bradley been healthy for the series against the Heat, he could have blanketed Dwyane Wade (something he’s done before) himself, allowing the rest of the team to gang up on LeBron James. Instead, it was plain to see that sending Ray Allen, a surefire Hall of Famer in his place, was a downgrade.

    The Celtics lost to the eventual champions in seven games. Who’s to say what would have happened with their best defender?

    If Bradley, who also had surgery on his left shoulder in July, comes back healthy and finds his mojo where he left it, the Celtics could be back in the Eastern Conference Finals, this time with a chance to finish the job.

    If not, they’ll likely be a second-round sacrificial lamb.

    That’s a big if, likely the biggest one of all.