Celtics Depth Tested Early and Often

The preseason blogosphere was alive with the trumpeting of the amazing depth of the 2010-11 Celtics. During the New Big Three era the Green has never even gone two-deep in legitimate options. Suddenly the conversation was how many positions boasted a bona fide third string player worthy of minutes. Of course there was that old injury caveat—IF they were healthy. True to form, a month into the season, the Celtics have seldom even been able to suit up the allotted twelve players “active” for a game. That they have “played through” with a robust 75% win rate is a testament to the heart and professionalism of the players (Rondo, Erden, either O’Neal, Davis) playing hurt, Danny Ainge’s construction of a deep flexible roster, and Doc’s adaptability as he has yet to take the court with a full arsenal, nor will he for months to come.

An imposing complement of Big Men comprised of four, count them, four centers and three power forwards has translated into WOIA (Whatever O’Neal Is Available) and a rookie with a chronic shoulder injury manning the Center position and the forward duo of the rejuvenated Garnett and the less-and-less babyish Glen Davis, who also logs significant time at center, along with seldom used rookie Harangody. From a stable of seven, the Green have been struggling to field four serviceable bodies.

Small forward began two deep and fortunately has stayed two deep. The guard corps looked robust on paper—until you factored in
Delonte’s suspension and now broken arm which will limit him to a handful of games for the first four months of the season and rookie Avery Bradley’s ankle rehabilitation that has allowed him to participate in just three practices since camp started October 1st. In fact last week Nate’s foul problems sidetracked Marquis Daniels from his role as backup to Pierce and forced him to assume point guard duties leaving SF thin.

And the Celtics keep rolling along. You have to be impressed by the way in which Davis and Daniels, both solid in their primary roles of backup at SF and PF respectively, have been able to contribute playing out of position as the need demands. Their performances have been pleasant reminders of the far-reaching effects of The Celtic Way, reprised as Ubuntu but a long-standing tradition of players suborning their individual preferences to the needs of the team, a staple of the Celtic juggernauts of the past. Always an Auerbach tenet, Doc’s revival of this philosophy sets the Celtics apart, and above, the typical me-first credo of the league.

Just as the number of shots dropped for each of the Big Three as they came together, Shaq and Jermaine have basked in a reduced role within the successful team concept. Defense is hard work and seldom comes up in contract negotiations or on the ESPN highlights; but led by the uber-intense Garnett the Celtics seem to move as a choreographed unit helping, covering for teammates, and trusting them to do the same. The latest convert to The Celtic Way, and there has seldom been a more unlikely candidate, may be Von Wafer who drew acclaim in the locker room for his solid defensive effort in a 5-minute appearance last week. With a stat line of solid zeroes which would normally leave the recipient sullen and sulking, instead Von was the center of attention of his teammates—will wonders never cease!

Anchored by the New Big Three, the starting unit has taken in stride the loss of Rondo for three games and life with WOIA manning the center position. The second unit, never at full strength and never established, has played far less consistently—unless you consider inconsistent and constant. That backup group has only fielded Daniels, Davis, and Robinson on a nightly basis and even they have not always been in the same positions. This was supposed to be a Celtic strength with Delonte and Nate at guard, Marquis at small forward, Big Baby at power forward, and The-O’Neal-Not-Starting holding down the center position. Turmoil has been the rule rather than the exception with Delonte available for only four games, Nate filling in as a starter for Rondo in three, and the two O’Neal’s in short pants together only for a single game. As far as that promising third string, Von Wafer seemed out of place—lost on defense, hesitant on offense, clueless about Ubuntu, and without a single positive thing to say with the all important body language. Actually his 5-minutes of defensive glory last week has been the high point thus far. At least he was warmly recognized for the turn around. As far as the three rookies, Avery Bradley is still in the shadow of recovery from surgery (on the day of his signing) to remove a large bone chip from his ankle, Semih Erden has provided desperately needed but not particularly productive minutes gamly playing in spite of his shoulder that would have already been operated on under different circumstances, and Luke Harangody has been an afterthought (not surprising for an undersized un-athletic 2nd rounder) whose presence in uniform on game days speaks more to the relative health of the team than to his current ability to contribute. That fifteenth player, in case you are counting, is Kendrick Perkins, out for another month, or two, or three, or more with rehab from about as serious a knee surgery as possible with out the dreaded microfracture or amputation.

Perhaps the best comparable is the Portland Trailblazers. A preseason contender, top two centers out for an extended period, depleted guard corps—but they are floundering around .500 and their media is full of discussions of blockbuster moves they might, could, should, or will make. The Celtics, on the other hand, sit atop the Eastern Conference and the discussions revolve around trap games, Rondo’s remarkable sleight of hand and eye, Garnett’s and Shaq’s trips to the fountain of Youth, and how the Heat are generally despised.

And help is on the way, although most of it will be a while. Von seems to be finally getting it (it being The Celtic Way-fer) and if his defense is adequate his outside shooting would add another threat to the second unit. Avery Bradley might even get to practice some and his defense and mid-range game could pair nicely with Nate on that second unit. Delonte and Kendrick might both return around mid-season. Jermaine, well Jermaine might return soon, or later, or not at all, who knows. Doc seems convinced that Semih’s shoulder will pop out at some point; let’s just hope that Jermaine will make it back before that occurs.