Replacing an interior force like Kevin Garnett is impossible. For the Boston Celtics, the unquantifiable void he left in areas such as experience and leadership has been addressed ad nauseam, and it's obviously significant. But Garnett was also the nucleus of Boston's frontcourt, and how new head coach Brad Stevens chooses to fill the fresh crater he left is the more relevant question.
Apart from Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger (who was suspended for the season opener), the big men on Boston are all new. Kris Humphries, Vitor Faverani and rookie Kelly Olynyk all played big minutes in the first game, and what we saw from each was both hopeful and discouraging.
Judging from how they rebounded the ball in their first game of the 2013-14 season, it could be a depressing year. The Toronto Raptors (armed with a pseudo-fierce front line of Jonas Valanciunas, Tyler Hansbrough and Amir Johnson) pummeled Boston on the glass, grabbing an insane 42.2 percent of their own missed shots.
Thanks to the teeny-weeny sample size we have to work with for the next couple weeks, every statistic should be taken with a grain of salt. But just for reference, behind the Raptors (who lead the league in offensive rebounding percentage), the Cleveland Cavaliers were in second place with 36.4 percent. That disparity is frightening.
Overall rebounding numbers don’t make anything better. On Thursday the Celtics were tied with the Charlotte Bobcats (fresh off allowing Dwight Howard one of the two or three best rebounding nights of his career) as the league’s worst rebounding team, grabbing only 40.7 percent of all missed shots.
Every Celtic who saw the floor in Toronto grabbed at least one rebound—except the seven-foot tall Olynyk. In his NBA debut, the rookie didn’t exactly rekindle thoughts of Dennis Rodman, often finding himself with no chance to grab a misfired ball well before the shot was even released.
Going back to his four years as a phenomenal offensive weapon for Gonzaga, Olynyk’s ability to react on the other end is non-existent. He doesn’t jump. He doesn’t box out. He doesn’t gravitate toward the paint. He doesn’t know what he’s doing on defense. Against the Raptors it was catastrophic.
Halloween is 364 days away, but if you're a Celtics fan, the following clip may horrify you.
Olynyk is all over the place, flying around with no rhyme or reason. For those already looking to trade him, calm down. He’s played 16 minutes of NBA basketball. The sample size isn’t quite large enough yet to make any rash conclusions. But warning signs do exist.
So, is there any good news about Boston’s front line? Of course there is! Big guys are responsible for so much more than rebounding (thank goodness). Humphries, Faverani and Bass all played disciplined basketball, understanding where they were supposed to be and executing Boston’s game plan on both sides of the floor.
Let’s start with Humphries, who was by far the best of the bunch. Throughout the game it became clear that Stevens couldn’t care less about allowing open mid-range pull-ups from the likes of Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and D.J. Augustin. When any of them were in the pick-and-roll, Boston's bigs were was asked to sag off and contain them in open space. Humphries was the most effective doing this.
As seen above, he did a great job staying with speedy guards (he ended up blocking Lowry's layup attempt here). Humphries isn't humongous, but he makes up for it with quick feet, decent timing and understated athleticism.
He also knows where he's supposed to be, which is the most important aspect of team defense. His rotations were crisp and well-timed, especially on the back line. In the picture below, Rudy Gay gets a step on Jeff Green (who, by the way, repeatedly played his assignments way too closely) and drives baseline. Humphries slides over to prevent a dunk and force a tough in-between pull-up jumper.
Gay makes the shot, but Stevens will happily take the effort. Boston's coach needs his under-sized big men to pull off his game plan if the Celtics are to have any chance at winning games this season. Against Toronto, Humphries did.
Watching Humphries play last night, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge must have been through the moon with how his roster’s highest-paid asset performed. (Humphries was also the only Celtic to grab more than five boards—nine in just over 20 minutes—and even logged himself a pretty hockey assist.) If he continues to give great energy, a low-end first-round pick could be on the table from some team looking to give its front line a boost.
Another positive from Boston's season debut came from the Brazilian rookie Faverani. If it weren’t for some needless fouls that had nothing to do with the action, he would be the No. 1 story in Boston right now (possibly behind, you know, that whole World Series thing).
When the Celtics had possession, Faverani was their screener on almost every pick-and-roll. He was fantastic, showing touch, timing and masterful feel for the NBA game in his first regular season performance. The Celtics also threw the ball to Faverani in the post quite a bit, and he handled himself fine, drawing fouls and exhibiting a nice left-handed turnaround hook shot.
But apart from a few moments where he served as a brick wall to penetrating guards, Faverani made a few costly defensive mistakes, mostly related to contesting shots on the perimeter that didn't need to be contested.
Rudy Gay has already released the ball on this foul-line jumper, yet Faverani, for reasons known only to him, decides to try and block it, leaving two of Toronto's best rebounders below the rim to feast. Valanciunas finished the possession with a putback dunk.
That covers the new faces, but Bass shouldn't be forgotten. His mid-range shot, a lethal weapon, is already in midseason form. He stretched the floor and thrived on pick-and-pops. Against Toronto, the Celtics also used Bass in the post, which could be an interesting offensive option for a team that needs as many as possible. Here's his shot chart from the opener.
It's early, and what we've seen comes from a single game, but Boston's front line looks to be making the most of what little it has. Boston will continue to run its offense through the post, and that's a positive until Rondo comes back. But only Faverani is the closest thing the team has to a traditional big man, and he can't play 48 minutes every night.
Stevens tried mitigating the disaster by allowing his guards (namely Avery Bradley) to drop down and attack the glass, but it didn't help. The bigs need to play like bigs, especially Olynyk and Bass (who's never been much of a rebounder). Sullinger will help, but that won't be enough against some of the league's taller front lines.