In reading many of the obituaries today for the 2008-09 Boston Celtics, I was a little disappointed to see so many articles talking about the lack of Kevin Garnett.
Focussing on Garnett masks the truths about this year's Celtics team. It should be clear to Celtics fans that with or without Garnett, the 2008-09 team was not going to repeat. To think otherwise not only would disguise the flaws of this year’s team, it could stand in the way of an honest assessment and the adjustments necessary to contend next season.
Garnett’s injury and, to a lesser extent Leon Powe’s, played a role in Boston’s departure from the playoffs. With a healthy KG, Boston likely gets by Orlando. But people who think they would have beaten Cleveland are kidding themselves.
This was a flawed team.
The year began and ended with questions at backup point guard, backup center, the hole where James Posey once fit in, and lack of consistent production off the bench. That they were able to win 62 regular-season games and advance to Game Seven against the Magic is a testament to the players and coaching staff.
However, when you are the Boston Celtics and defending champions, the goal isn’t regular-season success or winning a playoff series. It is about titles, and that is why the focus needs to be on what it will take to raise banner No. 18.
Long before KG injured his knee, I began to have doubts about this team even while they were winning 19 in a row back in November and December.
Paul Pierce was playing major minutes, which underscored a fear I had entering the season: that the loss of Posey and Boston’s inability to bring in any sort of replacement would ultimately prove a major obstacle.
Pierce was repeatedly playing over 40 minutes a game in the early going. In a four-games-in-six-days stretch between November 10 and 15, Pierce played 45, 45, 41, and 41 minutes. His minutes did not decrease as the season wore on either. He averaged 40.3 minutes in February and March.
Ultimately, Pierce, at age 31 and coming off the longest season of his career, played in 81 regular season games (sitting out only the season finale) and averaged 37.5 minutes per game. This number was up from 35 minutes in 2007-08 and was his highest average since 2006.
It isn’t just the minutes, it's what those minutes represented.
There wasn’t anyone on the roster Doc Rivers felt he could rely on to give Pierce time on the bench, even during the regular season.
In terms of minutes, Pierce was far from the only Celtic logging major court time. In the postseason the Celtics' starters all averaged at least 36 minutes per game. Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen both played over 40 minutes per game, and Pierce was not far behind at 39.7
Having Garnett and Powe would have reduced the strain on Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis, and maybe some of those games against Chicago wouldn't have extended to as many overtimes. But the fact that Pierce, Rondo, and Allen needed to log that many minutes is troubling.
Where do the Celtics now turn for help?
In each of the past two seasons, Boston made in-season signings to try to shore up the bench, adding Sam Cassel and P.J. Brown in 2008 and Mikki Moore and Stephon Marbury this year. Waiting to sign free agents during the season is risky. Boston would be well advised to upgrade its roster during the offseason instead.
That search for help should begin with finding help for Pierce. Not just to give him a rest during the regular season games, but in particular, for when the Celtics meet the Cleveland Cavaliers - whether in the regular season or ultimately in a playoff series.
When Posey signed with the New Orleans Hornets, I immediately worried about Boston's ability to contend with LeBron James. Last season, after Boston defeated Cleveland in the playoffs, Pierce remarked how worn down he was from having to contend with James for an entire series. That was with Posey.
Boston has to think about the need to defend James when putting together its team. No one can stop James, but there are players out there who can at least get in his way and make James break a sweat.
Right now the only guy on Boston’s roster who can do that is Pierce, and it is asking too much of anyone to try to take on James at each end of the court by himself for an entire series.
The Celtics need to find help for Pierce and find a player who can lead the reserves on the court as well as blend in with the starters.
An underrated quality of Posey’s was that he could come off the bench for any of the starters except point guard. The championship team had a great deal of versatility in terms of the different lineups it could play at any part of a game. This year’s team sorely lacked that.
A possibility via the free agent route is Phoenix’s Matt Barnes.
The 6’7" small forward would appear to be a perfect fit for the Celtics. Two hurdles to signing Barnes will be getting him away from Phoenix and then, of course, money. What will Barnes be looking for and how much will Boston have to spend?
Boston probably should have signed Barnes a year ago, when the Celtics had the same needs but Barnes’ price tag was lower. He's coming off a career-high 10.2 points per game.
There are other free-agent small forwards who could fill the Celtics’ need: Houston’s Ron Artest, New York’s Quintin Richardson, Los Angeles’ Trevor Ariza. But they would be even more difficult for Boston to sign than Barnes.
As far as the front court, two free agents Danny Ainge should pursue are Denver’s Chris Anderson and Detroit’s Antonio McDyess.
Anderson falls into a similar category as Barnes—the time to get him might have been a year ago, as Anderson has flourished in Denver. This makes it more likely he will choose to remain there, and it would cost more to to pry him away from the Nuggets now.
The 34-year old McDyess played in 62 games a year ago and averaged nearly 10 points per game. He would represent the type of veteran big-man presence Boston could use off the bench as well as another scoring option.
The fates of Glen Davis and Leon Powe, both restricted free agents, will be critically important for the Celtics.
Davis’ postseason play upped his price tag for next season, but Boston has little choice but to re-sign him. How much the Celtics have to pay will likely dictate what else they can do in the offseason.
A debate raged among Celtics fans during the season as to whom to re-sign between Powe and Davis. That debate ended in the playoffs because of Powe’s knee injury and Davis’ play. Powe should not be forgotten though. If he can be healthy by midseason next year, Boston could likely retain him for little money, providing a nice addition to the team come January or February.
In the backcourt, the Celtics have been looking for a suitable backup point guard for two seasons. That search continues this offseason.
Eddie House will likely be back (he has a player option for 2009-10), but he has shown himself to be more of an off-guard than a point.
Would Boston consider bringing Marbury back?
I can’t really see that happening, from either the team’s or the player’s standpoint. But Marbury said and did all the right things in his time with the Celtics. His game was rusty after all his time away, but that rust should be gone come next year. If he would accept being a permanent backup, his ability to provide offense off the bench would certainly fill a need.
From within, the Celtics had three players spend time in the D-League: small forwards Bill Walker and J.R. Giddens and point guard Gabe Pruitt. Walker and Pruitt would be the most likely to provide meaningful contributions next season.
Finding out if any of these three can play will likely entail Rivers taking a chance during important games and letting the young players on the court. This could mean risking a win or two to see exactly what they have.
Rivers has done a great job with this team, but if there is a knock on his coaching, it is that he is slow to incorporate young players.
In 2005 Rivers had Delonte West glued to the bench and the same for Ryan Gomes the following year, until injuries left him no choice but to play them. Both immediately showed they could play in the NBA.
It is difficult to be too critical because I do not know what goes on at practice and how NBA-ready each player is. It is, however, at least possible that the Celtics would have been better served this postseason had they given Walker or Pruitt more playing time in the regular season, even if it meant sacrificing a win or two.
Regardless, Ainge and Rivers need to know what they have in these players and whether any of them are capable of stepping into a more meaningful role next season.
There is also Tony Allen, a shooting guard who has filled in at point at times.
In his five years in the league, Allen has been inconsistent and injury prone. His overall game has not really improved, and any time he has shown a flash of something it has been quickly followed by an injury setback.
Allen has proven he is a different player when he starts (averaging 10.8 ppg in 73 career starts compared with only 6.2 when he comes off the bench). With Ray Allen, though, Tony isn’t starting any time soon. He will need to adjust his game accordingly or continue to be relegated to the end of the bench.
The core of a 62-win team will be back. Considering how Davis played in the postseason (assuming Davis returns), there is no need to rush Garnett back until he is ready. There are, though, still so many questions about KG and his knee:
* How serious is the knee injury?
* Is he going to be ready by opening night, midseason, the playoffs?
* Once back, should we expect Garnett to be at full strength, or are his days as an elite player coming to an end?
Pierce and Allen each had great moments in the postseason but also had long stretches during which they were non-factors. An offseason of rest and a little more support next year from the bench could go a long way to keeping those two ready to play throughout the postseason.
Kendrick Perkins has developed into a quality, legitimate NBA center, coming a long, long way from where he was his first few years in the league.
The only remaining question about the returners is how high is Rondo's ceiling.
He was at times the best player on the floor in the postseason, but he also has times when he isn’t aggressive, when he makes careless turnovers, and when his poor outside shooting hinders the entire offense.
Rondo’s points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage have all gone up over each of his three seasons. In the open-floor and in an up-tempo game, he is as dangerous as any point guard in the game. Now he has to find a way to impose his tremendous abilities in the half-court set when the game slows down
Just two years ago, the Celtics were one of the worst teams in the league. It certainly is nice now to be dealing with one of the league’s best teams, even if they didn’t win a title this year.
But Red, Russell, Havlicek, Heinsohn, Bird, and the others set the bar high for the franchise—the Celtics don’t raise banners for winning the division or the conference. It is about rings.
This team doesn’t need an overhaul, but a few minor additions and improvements are critical if Boston wants to be back on top at the end of next season.