The 2012 Boston Celtics: A Shorter Road To Banner No. 18
Now that the NBA lockout has ended, all 30 teams are scrambling to fit three months' worth of personnel decisions into one-third of that time. The Boston Celtics have been one of the least active franchises, instead choosing to go into the 2012 season with their "Big 4" intact for what will be a final run at banner No. 18.
The Celtics open the 66-game season on Christmas Day against the new-look New York Knicks. They may benefit from a shortened season as they are one of the oldest teams in the league, but playing at New York on opening day will certainly be a telling story for Boston.
Last year's Celtics won an impressive 56 games, even while plagued with injuries. But their five-game ousting from the 2010-2011playoffs at the hands of the Miami Heat was ugly, and the team must rebound in 2012 with virtually the same squad.
The list of players that will not be returning to Boston this season is less than significant compared to league standards. Six players from the team's 2011 playoff roster will suit up elsewhere, though none were ideal Celtics starters.
Glen Davis, aka Big Baby, was shipped with guard Von Wafer to Orlando in exchange for 26-year-old forward Brandon Bass. Baby will be forever remembered for his contributions toward the Celtics' 2008 Championship and his ability off the bench as a sixth man.
Wafer, who had spent the 2009-2010 season out of the league, appeared in 58 games for Boston last season. He averaged 3.2 points off the bench, but was on the floor a combined five minutes in the playoffs, mostly in mop-up duty.
Guard Delonte West, who was in his second stint with Boston last year, signed a one year, $1.2 million contract with the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. West was suspended to open the year, and hampered by injuries throughout, appeared in just 24 games with the team. He managed 5.6 points per game off the bench, and a 6.6 point average in nine playoff appearances.
The Celtics again find themselves short on big men heading into this season, as centers Nenad Krstic and Shaquille O'Neal won't be returning. Shaq retired after an injury-riddled final season, and Krstic signed with Russian basketball team CSKA Moscow during the lockout. Both disappointed last year, but Boston has struggled to find anybody that can play the "true" 5.
Finally, former three-point sniper Troy Murphy has played his last game in green. He was signed off the junk heap mid-season in 2011, and averaged just 2.6 points in 17 Celtics appearances. He didn't see the floor in the playoffs and will have trouble finding a home this year.
The Fresh Faces
The Celtics quietly acquired a few new pieces to their roster, the biggest of which being power forward Brandon Bass. Swapped for good friend Glen Davis, Bass will make just $4 million over the next two seasons, a much cheaper alternative than Big Baby's $26 million.
Bass has averaged 7.7 points per game over his six seasons, but is coming off a career year, where he averaged 11.2 points to go with 5.6 rebounds. He will serve as the first guy off the bench, and be on the court when the team features its smaller lineup.
Boston also traded a second-round pick for Ray Allen's backup, shooting guard Keyon Dooling. The 12th year veteran played in 80 games with the Milwaukee Bucks last season, averaging over seven points per game off the bench. Dooling replaces West as the team's primary backup guard.
Chris Wilcox averaged 17.5 minutes off the bench for the Detroit Pistons last season, and Boston signed him to back up starting center Jemaine O'Neal. Wilcox is a true power forward, but will be needed at center due to the team's lack of depth. 2011-2012 will be his 10th season, but only once has Wilcox managed to play over 65 games in a season.
The Celtics also have two rookies in camp, though either may end up spending significant time in the D-League. JaJuan Johnson, the 27th pick in the draft, is a 6'10" power forward who finished his career at Purdue as the No. 7 all-time scorer, as well as second all-time in blocked shots. He was a consensus All-American his senior season, and will benefit from the tutelage of Kevin Garnett and Wilcox.
Johnson's counterpart is former Purdue teammate E'Twaun Moore, who was taken 55th overall by Boston. Moore left Purdue as the third all-time scorer, and was recognized his senior season for his 3-point shooting. However, the guard was sporadic with his scoring ability throughout college, and will certainly need fine tuning in the D-League before slipping into the guard rotation.
The Starting Five
The 2010-2011 Celtics' starting five return for a final run, including the oft-injured O'Neal. Only Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce are under contract after this season, and the Celtics will certainly then enter a rebuilding period.
Rondo enters his fifth consecutive season as Boston's starting point guard, and is widely regarded as one of the best in the league. The only knock on Rondo is his spotty shooting ability, but he has averaged over 10 points per game as a starter. He ranked second only to Steve Nash in assists last year, and is always a triple-double threat. Already hobbled by an early ankle injury, Rondo will have to stay healthy for the playoffs in order for the team to be a legit threat.
Ray Allen will probably retire after this season, but still showed flashes of brilliance last season. The NBA's all-time 3-point leader turned 36 in July, but posted a career-best 44.4 percent from beyond the arc to go with 16.5 points per game in 2010-2011. Just as with his fellow starters, the shortened season should ease Father Time's impact on his game.
Captain Paul Pierce enters his 14th season with Boston, and posted better numbers last season than in 2009-2010. Pierce is still capable of averaging 20 points per game, but his playing time will have to be limited to keep him fresh for the playoffs. He is already hobbled by his heel, and losing Jeff Green for the season is a gigantic loss to the team, so it remains to be seen how many minutes he will see in an average game.
Starting power forward Kevin Garnett will continue to be a force in his 17th season, but will also have his minutes limited. He rebounded in 2010-2011 after two injury-plagued seasons, averaging almost 15 points and nine rebounds per game. More then ever, Boston will need his rebounding ability due to their lack of depth at center. Garnett's health is the most vital of the starters, especially when Jermaine O'Neal inevitably gets injured.
O'Neal hasn't played a full season since 2003-2004, and there is no reason to assume that will change. Playing in just 24 games last season, O'Neal averaged a little over five points and three rebounds per game, numbers that will have to significantly increase for Boston to have a chance. He won't average more than 25 minutes per game, and even with the short season the Celtics will surely have to address their center depth through trade or free agency at some point.
The Returning Supporting Cast
The Celtics did a poor job of filling out their bench this offseason, especially considering the state of their starting five. Their new acquisitions will be leaned on heavily, but their returning bench players are far from championship caliber.
Jeff Green was considered the most important piece of Boston's bench, but he will miss the season with an aortic arrhythmia. Instead, Sasha Pavlovic and Marquis Daniels will back up Pierce.
Pavlovic, who was released by New Orleans and signed on March 3rd of last season, appeared in 17 games for Boston last year. He made little impact, and hasn't had a solid season since 2007 with Cleveland. Unless he impresses in training camp, he may not even make the team.
Daniels enters his third season with Boston, having missed 64 games over the past two seasons. When healthy, he is capable of six-plus points per game off the bench, which will be much needed this year. He will serve as a backup for the guards and small forwards, and remains one of the better shooters off the bench.
Second-year guard Avery Bradley saw action in 31 games for Boston last year, and that will likely increase this season. However, he is still developing and falls behind Dooling and Daniels coming off the bench. Until Boston's season finale against the Knicks last year when he scored 20 points, Bradley never scored more than five points in a game. He will have more opportunity this year, but the majority of it will come in garbage time.
The Grind Of the Season
Even with a lockout-shortened 66 game season, Boston still faces a significant challenge with its aging roster. The team has 19 back-to-back games in just five months, and they spend almost the entire month of March on the road.
The once easily-dominated Atlantic Division is now one of the more competitive in the league thanks to trade additions in New Jersey Nets and New York. The Philadelphia 76ers are still an extremely talented team, but the Toronto Raptors will be one of the league's worst. Boston will face the Knicks and Raptors four times each, and the Nets and Raptors three times apiece.
The Celtics have 26 games against 10 the league's best teams. They face conference opponents Chicago, Miami, New York, Orlando and Atlanta 18 times, and Western foes San Antonio, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Portland and the Lakers a total of eight times.
Against the West's worst, they have only five games. Included in the list are Golden State, Minnesota, Utah, Denver and Sacramento. With 22 games against the worst ten teams in the league, the Celtics are forced to play two-thirds of their schedule against potential contenders.
As important as a hot start is to every NBA team, the final two months of Boston's season will determine their playoff outlook. March features 17 games in just 30 days, 11 of which are on the road. Even worse, the stretch includes a five-game West Coast trip that will be played in just seven days.
The final month of the season includes 15 games, 14 of which against teams from the East. The Eastern Conference playoff seeding will likely be determined in that final few games, especially due to the shortened season, so every game is equally important.
The 2010-2011 Celtics finished 56-26, equating to a .683 winning percentage. Translate that to a 66-game season, and Boston's record is 47-19. There are a lot of factors that alter that prediction, but the Celts will have to win 40-48 games to finish in the conference's top four.
The 2011-2012 Boston Celtics: Final Prediction
The bottom line is the Celtics are going to make the playoffs, but are no longer the best in the East. Chicago, Miami and Orlando are all younger, more talented and better poised for title shots this season.
The best chance Boston has at making the NBA Finals is to earn a Top 2 seed for the playoffs, giving them home court advantage in most scenarios. Chicago and Orlando are two of the best rebounding teams in the game, which directly counters the weakest aspect of this Boston roster.
As painful as it is to admit, it is hard to see this squad advancing past the conference finals this season. However, with a little luck and any type of boost on the boards, Boston may get a chance to face off with the West's best in June.