Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, let it be known that, painful as it was and much as it might have cost the Celtics a shot at returning to the finals, there is a silver lining to Avery Bradley requiring surgery on both shoulders:
The arrival of Courtney Lee.
We don’t know if President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge would have felt the need to trade several past and future draft picks, not to mention various others from the scrap heap, for Lee had the Celtics’ defensive whiz not gone down in the playoffs last spring. What’s important is that Lee is here now and it would be difficult to find a player much better suited to run with all-star point guard Rajon Rondo.
Now, Lee is not the perfect player and there are certainly holes in his game. He doesn't get to the line nearly enough, averaging just 1.6 free throws per game over his career. He doesn't rebound nearly enough for a wing player of his size. He seems to believe that his left hand is akin to good china—something to be used only for special occasions, and even then very, very cautiously.
But he has his strengths, too, and Rondo is particularly adept at finding open players with pinpoint passes through the thinnest of spaces. Lee is exactly the player you want on the receiving end of those passes.
With respect to Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris, Aaron Brooks, Goran Dragic and even the up-and-coming Kyle Lowry, Courtney Lee has never played with a point guard anywhere near as talented as Rondo. Lee’s primary weakness is that he has trouble creating his own shot. That simply will not be a problem when he’s on the floor with Rondo.
As anyone who’s ever played with or even watched Rondo on a semi-regular basis can attest, the point guard has a knack for putting players in the best position to score. Starting power forward Brandon Bass, for example, scored a career-high 12.5 points per game last season , even though he played alongside Kevin Garnett, a very talented player, but not someone who commands the same level of attention as Bass’ old front-court mate in Orlando, Dwight Howard. Much of Bass’ success on the Celtics came from playing alongside Rondo, who always seemed to find him in his sweet spot, approximately 12-15 feet away from the basket.
If Bass, whose offensive moves are, to be kind, limited, was able to flourish in the Celtics’ offense, Lee should be able to make huge strides. Though he doesn’t have the departed Ray Allen’s touch—and really, who does?—Lee can still stroke it from the outside. He averaged 40 percent shooting on threes the past two seasons and he’s deadly from the corner. Lee's ability to dribble past a defender and take a pull-up jumper on a closeout—think Tom Brady stepping up in the pocket to evade the rush—will be invaluable in creating space for his more-heralded teammates like Paul Pierce.
In addition to his skills from the perimeter, Lee has made a nice career of cutting to the basket for easy buckets. Rondo loves the backdoor play—as he demonstrated time and again with Bradley last season—and Lee ought to be good for at least a couple of those per game. Garbage points count just as much as the rest.
Speaking of easy baskets, the soon-to-be 27-year-old brings something to the C’s that they haven’t seen much of from the 2-guard position: athleticism. Lee can run with the best of ‘em. When he’s in the game it’s unlikely that we’ll see Rondo by himself on the break as his teammates huff and puff in the backcourt, something we witnessed with what seemed like regularity last season. Moreso than Bradley, Lee plays above the rim (with an uncanny ability to catch and dunk the ball with one hand) and should be on the receiving end of plenty of highlight-reel alley-oops by season’s end.
On the defensive side of the ball, the 6’5” Lee is relatively long for the position and can stay in front of his man, if not put a clamp on him. Though he won’t make anyone forget about Bradley, his steadiness will allow Rondo to freelance—hopefully not too much—and use his long arms to poke at the ball and create fast break opportunities off of steals without worrying about helping on Lee’s man.
Probably most important to Rondo is that Lee is not Allen. My personal theory is that Rondo’s biggest problem with the NBA leader in three pointers had more to do with how Allen played than his declining abilities. Throughout Allen’s career, plays were called for him: All those single, double and triple screens were plays run for Allen and Rondo was sick of catering to the sure-fire Hall of Famer. Unless a three pointer was absolutely necessary, the brash point guard much preferred setting up the offense through Pierce or Kevin Garnett and getting Allen his treys off double teams and layups from cuts to the basket.
Anyone you can think of who might be better suited to that kind of play?
The truth is, that fits the description of two players, but one of them is likely going to be out until December, maybe longer. The acquisition of Lee gives the Celtics some breathing room for Bradley to recover at his own pace and not rush back before he’s fully healed.
When he does return, the Celtics will have a lot to think about with regard to the starting lineup, because even Bradley will have a hard time fitting in next to Rondo as well as Lee.