With today’s news that the Celtics will sign free agent center and notorious draft bust Darko Milicic to a minimum contract, a crowded Boston frontcourt has become even more jam packed. Unfortunately for Doc Rivers, depth doesn’t necessarily equal talent or guarantee success, so he’ll have his hands full determining his rotation by the end of October.
After starters Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass, the C’s will look to some combination of Milicic, Chris Wilcox, Jason Collins and rookies Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo for help around the hoop. Jeff Green could also see some time at the 4, but without a proven backup for an aging Paul Pierce, we’re willing to bet most of his minutes are spent playing small forward this year.
So where does that leave the Celtics less than two weeks before the start of training camp? Over the roster limit, for one.
With 18 players under contract heading into camp (including Milicic) and 14 guaranteed deals, it appears that second-round pick Kris Joseph and summer league standouts Dionte Christmas and Jamar Smith will compete for the final roster spot.
Was adding Milicic worth it if it means cutting ties with a good young player?
Comparing most statistics across positions is a fool’s errand, of course, but what we can do is look at Milicic’s production as it compares to his competition in the Celtics’ frontcourt. If Milicic’s limited talents won’t allow him to crack the rotation, it might make more sense for Boston to keep its young talent instead.
On offense, Milicic leaves something to be desired. According to statistical tracking service Synergy Sports (subscription required), he totaled 0.75 points per possession (PPP) in 2011, compared with .99 for Chris Wilcox and .96 for newly-departed Greg Stiemsma.
Last year when posting up—easily his most commonly used play type at 31.1 percent of possessions—Milicic scored a meager .5 PPP on 25.6 percent shooting. He also turned the ball over on 12.5 percent of those possessions while scoring a field goal or free throw only 28.6 percent of the time. That level of efficiency was good for only 159th in the league.
Wilcox, a less frequent poster (11.8 percent of possessions), scored .67 PPP while turning the ball over only 5.6 percent of the time. Collins, an extremely limited offensive player, posted up only three times and scored once over his 309 minutes in 2011. The same quantity of statistical data isn’t available yet for Sullinger or Melo, but during Summer League action Sullinger’s sturdy frame gave him room to operate when he made his catches in good position while Melo struggled with his footwork on the block.
Of course, the Celtics’ offense is a different animal than that of teams like last year’s Magic or Lakers, who toss the ball into the paint to draw a double team, setting up a perimeter jumper. Rajon Rondo’s improvisational skills lend themselves better to what Doc Rivers has called a “random” system built off of a series of on- and off-ball screens and probing by the ball handler. This attack is better when Rondo’s creativity is paired with an athletic frontcourt that can roll to the hoop after setting screens or simply make a smart cut at the right time.
Milicic, as it happens, is an above-average pick and roll partner who put up 1.19 PPP in those situations in 2011, good for 16th in the league—not too shabby. Collins is a solid option is well, registering 1.08 PPP as the roll man in limited minutes last year. Wilcox seems to be the odd man out in pick and roll efficiency, putting up a paltry .78 PPP last year.
However, what Wilcox lacks in pick and roll play he may make up for as a cutter, where he put up an excellent 1.22 PPP on 26.8 percent of his possessions. He added to that 1.53 PPP in transition on 12.4 percent of possessions. Compare those numbers with Milicic’s .8 and 1, respectively. Collins’ numbers are similar—.88 and 1—though neither big man runs in transition as often as Wilcox.
Of course, in order to get transition opportunities the Celtics will have to make defensive stops—which is where Milicic has an edge and Wilcox loses some of his luster. The Serbian holds opponents to .81 PPP, whereas Wilcox allows a bloated .91, including 50 percent shooting on post up plays. Surprisingly though, it’s Jason Collins’ defensive numbers that stand most. The veteran bench player allowed only .78 PPP last year (better than Kevin Garnett’s .80), while allowing a score on only 38.1 percent of plays.
These statistics may be influenced to some small degree by system or situation, but they’re still the most useful tool in predicting future performance. With that said, here’s what we know about the three veterans on the Celtics bench:
- Darko Milicic likes to post up, but isn’t very efficient when doing so. He’s more successful as a pick and roll player, which may suit the Celtics better anyway. He’s a passable defender, especially in the post.
- Chris Wilcox is a dynamic player in transition and cutting off the ball but avoids posting up and has trouble in the pick and roll. He has big trouble when asked to defend a post up player.
- Jason Collins is far from an offensive presence, but his defensive metrics are impressive for a veteran who is content to ride the bench and stay ready if needed.
It's anyone's guess as to how Doc Rivers will allot his frontcourt minutes. But as long as he keeps these players' unique skill sets in mind, he shouldn't be lacking for versatility off the bench.