Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers hopes he's the on giving the consoling speech after next year's Eastern Conference Finals.
The Boston Celtics are just 13-13 after 26 games and barely clinging to the final playoff spot in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Despite the slow start, Celtics coach Doc Rivers still has plenty of time to transform this team into a championship contender.
Boston’s .500 record is not at all indicative of what this team will look like come playoff time. The Celtics welcomed 10 new players to the roster this past offseason and they are still waiting for guard Avery Bradley to return from shoulder surgery.
Once Bradley works his way back into the rotation and the rest of the newcomers figure out their roles, Boston will end up comfortably making the postseason.
Last year’s Celtics surprised most NBA fans and analysts by pushing the Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston president Danny Ainge did a masterful job of retooling the roster this offseason—adding more youth to an aging core—which will keep the team in the championship hunt for another year or two.
Boston returned only five major contributors from last season, so the bonus falls on Rivers to integrate the new pieces into the Celtics’ system.
With the high roster turnover and Doc’s recent track record, most fans have been patient as the team finds its way. Sometime around the All-Star break, Rivers should have the Celtics looking like one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Since winning the 2008 NBA title, Boston has returned to the championship-or-bust pedigree that was absent since the late ‘80s. Here are five ways that Doc Rivers can maintain that standard of excellence and guide the Celtics toward title number 18.
With Ray Allen gone, Rajon Rondo will become a bigger presence for the Celtics on, and off, the court.
Rajon Rondo’s status as the Celtics’ best and most important player has become evident over the past two seasons. With so many new players on the roster, it’s more important than ever for Rivers to keep Rondo fully engaged and playing at a consistently high level.
No matter which side of the Rondo-Ray Allen “beef” you fall on, it’s impossible to deny that Allen’s professionalism and work ethic will be missed in Boston. No one expects Rondo to take on Allen’s personality, but Rivers will have to constantly encourage Rondo to carry himself like a team leader.
Getting suspended for two games for fighting with Kris Humphries is not what Celtics fans have in mind.
Entering his seventh NBA season, Rondo can no longer defer to veterans like Garnett and Pierce to be Boston’s most influential leaders. If he truly wants to be recognized as one of the NBA’s premier players—and one of the all-time great Celtics— Rondo has to accept the responsibility of being a great leader, as many before him have.
Rondo must take another step forward in his growth and development this season. Rivers needs to continue to do and say all the right things publicly, while privately taking his floor general to task.
Jared Sullinger could become a huge draft bargain for the Celtics this year.
When the Celtics selected Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo with the 21st and 22nd picks of the first round, many fans and analysts thought that Boston was getting good value at both spots. So far, the returns have been mixed.
Sullinger has been solid in limited minutes this season. He has appeared in all 26 games thus far and is averaging 4.7 points and 5 rebounds in 17.1 minutes per night. While his minutes have been reduced a bit over the last 10 games (down to 14.9 a night), he is rebounding at a better rate over that same time period (5.7 boards per game).
Melo, on the other hand, has been a complete non-factor this season. He has gone back and forth between Boston and its Developmental League affiliate, but Melo has yet to earn a minute of court time for the Celtics.
Depth in the front court has been an issue for Boston for a couple of years now. While it's difficult to expect two mid-first-round picks to contribute meaningful minutes to a team with championship aspirations, the Celtics need to get more out of Sullinger and Melo throughout the rest of the season.
An injured Avery Bradley was the only thing keeping Boston from the NBA Finals last year. He'll be a key to the Celtics title hopes this year too.
A strong case can be made that Avery Bradley emerged as Boston’s most important player last season. He surpassed the Big Four as the Celtics’ best player, but his absence in the playoffs likely cost the team another trip to the NBA Finals.
He missed the entire postseason after injuring his shoulder late in the regular season. Bradley has also missed all 26 games this year.
Bradley filled in admirably for the injured Ray Allen during the 2011-12 regular season. Soon after being inserted in the starting lineup, he became Boston’s best on-ball defender, and one of the top perimeter defenders in the NBA.
As Bradley’s role with the Celtics increased, so did his confidence on the offensive side of the court. He used a combination of aggressive drives and surprising touches from the outside to become a legitimate scoring threat.
In 34 games after the All-Star break, Bradley averaged 10.4 points in only 24.9 minutes per game. Those numbers increased to 15.1 points in 32.9 minutes in 15 games last April.
More impressive than the scoring average, however, were his .522 field-goal percentage—including .500 percent from three-point range—over that 34-game, post-All-Star sample. They were signs that Bradley was ready to take on a more significant permanent role with the Celtics.
Along with his defensive prowess, the loss of Allen to the Heat created a bigger need for Bradley to contribute this season.
As difficult as Bradley has been to replace, Boston must give him as much time as he needs to rehab. They need him healthy to make an extended playoff run, and the Celtics proved last season that they don’t need home-court advantage to advance.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett need to make sure that the new players buy in to Doc Rivers' message.
Ainge worked hard to inject the Celtics with more youth this offseason. But Boston’s title hopes will ultimately be decided by the play of its playoff-tested veterans.
Rivers will have to carefully manage the regular season minutes of Garnett, Pierce and newcomer Jason Terry—much like Greg Popovich has done with his veteran core in San Antonio. All three players are 35 or older, but their health is vital to another championship run.
Unlike the Spurs, Boston’s core of young players are mostly new to the Celtics. Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass and Jeff Green have all struggled for most of the year. That has made it difficult for Rivers to monitor the minutes of Garnett and Pierce.
The inconsistency has not made Rivers’ job easy this season, but he must find a way to get greater contributions from more players on the roster. If he cannot put it all together soon, the Celtics could find themselves one-and-done in the playoffs, if not outside the postseason altogether.