This fall, training camp for the Boston Celtics will take on a vastly different look than in recent years.
What was once a period used to reacclimate and condition will now be used by a brand new head coach to gauge players who are actually battling for playing time and roster spots.
Boston stumbled out of the gate last year, and the team wasn’t helped along by the three season-ending injuries, one to star point guard Rajon Rondo. They finished the season as they started it: average.
Boston will presumably spend the 2013-14 campaign picking up the pieces and trying to fit them back together to shape another contender.
Celtics 2012-13 Results
- 41-40 Record (.506)
- Third in Atlantic Division
- Seventh in Eastern Conference
- Lost in first round of playoffs to New York Knicks (4-2)
Key Stats: The Good and Bad
Quite simply, the Celtics did not rebound last season. Whether it was a skill question or a game-plan question, Boston averaged just 39.3 boards per game. That was good for No. 29 in the league, while their measly 8.1 offensive rebound average was last.
This is something that just isn't sustainable without superstar players. If Boston is to win with that underdog, score-low mentality, they need to rebound. The Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors raked in 45 boards per game last year, tied for second in the league, and the Chicago Bulls grabbed 43.2 a night. Those are the teams Boston should look to emulate in certain ways.
Head coach Doc Rivers never placed an emphasis on the offensive glass. Getting back on defense was always paramount to him and Garnett. However, this Celtics team features some interesting players with a nose for the ball.
New head coach Brad Stevens' Butler Bulldogs averaged a respectable 11.7 offensive rebounds per game last year. He should feel more comfortable unleashing Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace and Rajon Rondo on the offensive glass.
Defense has been Boston's calling card since 2007, when Garnett arrived and changed the Celtics culture.
Upon Avery Bradley's return last season from shoulder surgeries, the team reverted back to that ideal. They finished with a No. 12 ranking in points allowed, giving up 96.7 per game. The team finished No. 6 in defensive efficiency, with a mark of 100.4, per ESPN.com.
For teams without that next level scorer to succeed in the NBA, defense has to be a huge part of it. That is how the Nuggets and Bulls won so many games last year.
Unfortunately, with Garnett and Paul Pierce now with the Brooklyn Nets and Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers, the Celtics defensive backbones are gone. Rondo and Bradley will still form a fierce defensive backcourt when healthy, but behind them is a series of weak individual defenders.
Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace should be fine on the wing. Green proved he could hang with the league's best last season, and Wallace has always had the athleticism to defend the perimeter.
In the frontcourt, however, is a series of undersized power forwards and a perimeter, ball-handling big in Kelly Olynyk. Boston may resort to giving center Vitor Faverani minutes if he has a good camp.
Biggest Storylines Entering Training Camp
The biggest story for Boston’s camp has already pretty much been answered: Rajon Rondo will not be ready for camp, nor will he be good to go for the season opener.
During an interview with 98.5 The Sports Hub's "Toucher and Rich" morning show on Tuesday, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge hinted at a December return for his team's best player (h/t Boston Herald).
Without Rondo, all storylines come with asterisks. Newcomers like Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace and Kelly Olynyk won’t have the benefit of learning the Celtics offense with Boston’s starting point guard. Instead, they’ll try to impress new head coach Brad Stevens with Avery Bradley and Phil Pressey getting them the ball.
With all those questions going unanswered for a time, one of the biggest stories will focus on Brad Stevens and his ability to perform as an NBA coach. Former college coaches have had a rough time making this type of transition in the past, but Stevens is a young guy from a much lower-profile program than your normal candidate.
Stevens will need to show an ability at camp to coach up a group of mismatched and possibly subpar players. If the team comes out of October playing well and looking good, though, he will get all the credit in the world.
If he fails to do so, while he may not be blamed, the storyline will shift to Ainge trying to deal off some of his newly acquired assets.
Key Additions and Losses
Key Additions: Kris Humphries, PF (One Year, $12 million remaining); Gerald Wallace, SF (Three Years, $30.3 million remaining); MarShon Brooks, SG (One Year, $1.21 million remaining); Keith Bogans, SG (One Year, $5.06 million remaining); Kelly Olynyk, C (Two Years, $4.06 million remaining); Vitor Faverani, C (Two Years, $4.09 million remaining); Brad Stevens, Head Coach (Six Years, $22 million remaining)
Key Losses: Paul Pierce, SF (One Year, $15.33 million remaining); Kevin Garnett, C (Two Years, $24.43 million remaining); Jason Terry, SG (Two Years, $11.48 million remaining); Doc Rivers, Head Coach (Three Years, $21 million remaining); Chris Wilcox, C (Free Agent)
*Salary numbers courtesy of HOOPSWORLD.com and feature guaranteed money only.
Biggest Addition: Kelly Olynyk
Danny Ainge will still be looking to deal many of his recent additions. Therefore, the one most likely to be in Boston beyond training camp is 2013 lottery pick Kelly Olynyk.
More so than Kris Humphries or Gerald Wallace, the future is still bright for Olynyk. The 22-year-old seven-footer was picked at No. 13 overall in this summer's draft. The Celtics even made a deal to slide up a few spots in order to make sure they secured their man. That shows the team's level of confidence in him along with a willingness to stick him out there right away.
He was picked before Stevens was named head coach, which is something to keep in mind. However, Stevens witnessed Olynyk's summer league performance first-hand, and the new head coach had to be impressed with what he saw.
Playing time will be decided during training camp. If Olynyk can stay on the floor and shake off a plantar fasciitis injury from the summer, he could be in line for some real minutes as a rookie. His unique offensive game, coupled with his impressive size and handle, should allow him to score at the NBA level.
His defense will be a whole other conversation, but the Celtics can't exactly be picky given their current roster.
Biggest Loss: Kevin Garnett
Paul Pierce was a bigger loss for the general psyche of Celtics fans, but it is the absence of Kevin Garnett that will present the biggest hole.
Jeff Green is ready and raring to go in Pierce’s place, with Gerald Wallace providing a solid reserve presence behind him. They won't be the offensive threat that Pierce was, night in and night out, but they will be alright.
Garnett held Boston’s defense together last season while the team fell apart around him, and the frontcourt now has a host of question marks heading into this season. Brandon Bass just doesn't have the defensive skill or leadership to take over Garnett's role. Jared Sullinger was progressing nicely as a rookie last year, but he also missed half the season with a back injury. Kris Humphries doesn't have the size, athleticism or cachè among these new teammates to do the job either.
Garnett was a steady offensive presence as well. His abilities as a perimeter scorer were a great help to floor spacing. That, in turn, aided Rajon Rondo's court vision and distribution. Kelly Olynyk may turn into that offensive presence, but expecting him to perform with Garnett-like consistency is a bit presumptuous at this point.
Training Camp Battle to Watch: The Power Forward Trio
Rondo’s absenceis certainly throwing a monkey wrench into the backcourt depth chart battle, but the power forward position is where eyes should fall during training camp.
Brandon Bass has been the incumbent starter at the position and the most consistent option for Boston since his arrival. However, after a rough start to last season, Jared Sullinger began to usurp some of Bass' playing time, eventually earning five starts. Unfortunately, just as Sullinger got in a groove, a back injury caused him to miss 37 games.
Further confusing the proceedings is the arrival of Kris Humphries. While he is still a prime candidate for trade bait, Humphries was once a productive, starting power forward in the NBA. While starting every game for the Nets two years ago, he averaged 13.8 points and 11 rebounds per game. The arrival of Reggie Evans ruined his niche last season, but he still started 21 games.
All three players bring a certain aspect to the game. Humphries may be the most active rebounder of the bunch, while Sullinger is a steady rebounder with offensive touch in the paint. Bass doesn't do a lot of banging inside, but has the best mid-range shooting game of the three.
All three are also a bit undersized, so starting two of them will be tough. That means adding Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani to the competition, and possibly even the slipping of Jeff Green into a small-ball power forward role.
There are so many paths this battle can take in training camp, and it will be interesting to see how Brad Stevens utilizes all these possibilities.
Battling for a Roster Spot: Phil Pressey vs. Chris Babb vs. Kammron Taylor vs. Damen Bell-Holter vs DeShawn Sims
The Celtics have 14 players under guaranteed contracts for next season. That includes undrafted point guard Phil Pressey, who is set to earn $490,180, but still has an important training camp coming up. With Rondo out, he can earn real minutes running the second-unit offense.
In addition, four others are being invited to compete at training camp for that 15th spot.
Chris Babb is an undrafted shooting guard out of Iowa State with a sweet three-point stroke. Kammron Taylor is a point guard who has bounced around Europe. DeShawn Simms knows the Celtics a bit more than the rest, as he spent time with D-League affiliate Maine Red Claws recently and has also been starring overseas as a 6'8" small forward. Damen Bell-Holter is another undersized power forward out of Oral Roberts. He averaged 15.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per game last season, but went undrafted.
Overall, none of these players might wind up making the team. Stevens will use them to fill out practices and scrimmages, though, especially if others join Rondo on the sidelines.
If I had to pick one, Babb's 38.2 percent three-point shooting on 5.2 attempts per game seems to be the most needed asset on Boston's roster. Still, don't be surprised to see them go the route of Chris Wilcox or Jason Collins instead, in an effort to grab veteran leadership and fill out the center position.
Biggest X-Factor: Jeff Green
No matter which way you look at the Celtics this season, a lot is riding on how Jeff Green reacts to increased playing time.
He impressed late last season, as he was granted more responsibilities in the offense. That led to a playoff series against the New York Knicks in which Green averaged 20.3 points and 5.3 rebounds over six games. This has led a lot to speculate that Green will blow up next season.
With Paul Pierce no longer starting at his position, the starting small forward role is Green's to lose. One would be wise to remember, though, that Green put up those playoff numbers while seeing 43 minutes a night, which is not a sustainable number.
Green will be getting the lion's share of looks offensively, especially with Rondo out to start the season.
Best-Case Scenario: Green responds to the added responsibilities and big minutes by becoming an elite scorer. We've seen him bust out in spurts, but we always questioned his consistency. If he can keep it together for a full season, he could be in line for a Most Improved Player award come springtime.
Worst-Case Scenario: Green is truly what he has been for much of his career. He can put up good stats, but only on bad teams. He averages between 15-17 points per game, but the Celtics lose 50-60 games, and that $9.2 million he's owed next season starts looking worse and worse.
Celtics Best-Case Scenario in 2013-14
Rajon Rondo arrives early enough in the season to salvage the team's hopes of a successful campaign. If he has a speedy recovery, this Celtics season can be saved.
With Rondo healthy for nearly a full season, there is still potential for the team to be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. His ability to make teammates better along with an increased scoring responsibility could lift the team up beyond common thought.
A healthy group consisting of him, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk could lead Boston to north of 41 wins and into a feisty No. 7 or No. 8 seed.
Celtics Worst-Case Scenario in 2013-14
Rondo is out for a Derrick Rose-like time period, and the Celtics simply don't function as a unit without him.
The team will become a series of one-on-one players, with no capable ball-handling distributor to hold down the point guard position. An injury could also hit one of their other main players, revealing a shocking lack of depth and forcing a young or unqualified player into a starting role.
If Rondo's return is pushed back until the February range, Boston's season will already be a lost-cause. However, it will be tough to keep a player as determined as Rondo out longer than he wants to be. If he returns for half the season, Boston could win just enough games to get them out of the top-10 for June's draft.
In a worst-case scenario, they will win 35-40 games, enough to miss the playoffs and grab the final lottery position.
30-52 record; No. 11 in Eastern Conference
From everything we've heard, Rajon Rondo is determined to get back as soon as possible.
Danny Ainge is also 100 percent in on that fact that Rondo and Stevens are the future of the franchise. Whether this is all window-dressing remains to be seen, but what more can we go on at this point?
Still, even if he does return early, Rondo should suffer from a month or two of what Ricky Rubio went through after coming back last season from a knee injury. Having to adjust to new teammates, personalities and skill sets will only add difficulty levels to his comeback. A December reinstatement may mean that the Rondo we all know won't be seen until late January, or even after the All-Star break.
By that point, Boston will have lost too many games while riding Avery Bradley and Jeff Green to compete for a real playoff spot.
Still, they will spend the final two months of the season above .500, showing fans a preview of what is to come in 2014-15.
If possible, that prediction—like all Celtics-related projections at this point—must come with a Rondo-shaped asterisk. We are simply too far out to tell how soon he'll return and how soon he'll return to what we remember.
Until then, Celtics fans should enjoy the change-of-pace year. Training camp actually means something this fall, and the path to future success will be laid in these coming months.
Or, you can always hold out hope that Rondo mirrors Adrian Peterson and Jeff Green is more Paul George than Ricky Davis.