Effects of Injuries, Minutes, & Schedule Are Cumulative

It is hard to believe that the same team played Toronto on Friday and Chicago on Saturday. Even though the Bulls are better than the Raptors, they aren’t that much better. No, this reversal of fortune had every bit as much to do with the Green as with the opponents, probably more. Unfortunately, I don’t think this was an “on any given night” phenomenon either.

Yesterday, before last night’s debacle, Gerald Alden treated us to an article he entitled “We Are The Perfect Storm.” It was my favorite kind of article. One that left me in thought, partially attuned to his analogy and still full of “buts.” Gerald opined that the Celtics storm was one in which “a rare combination of players and circumstances aggravate their opponent's situation drastically.” He details this as “The right mix of players, the right coach to give them the killer mindset, the exceptional desire and passion to excel in every game, and the tremendous discipline to act together as a team ... and a whole lot of other intangibles, should be in the proper place at the proper time.” Good stuff that—the formula, the ingredients, and the description.

Still, some aspects of his comparison struck me as off target. No team excels in “every game.” In the best case they play hard in every game, but even then they don’t always play well. The starters have been inconsistent, as has the starting lineup. The bench has been even more inconsistent, as has the availability of players to man that bench. The Big Three, as well as the other current and former All-Stars have all had excellent, and atrocious, games as individuals. The right mix of players was an apt phrase, emphasis on the word mix. Only two starters have played all 36 games, and only three backups. Three rookies have seen significant time, and the least of those has been the only 1st –rounder who spent all the summer, most of training camp, and a sizeable portion of the season injured. Much is made of top-ten picks but the two rookies logging 20 minutes per game between them are bottom-ten picks from the end of the second round.

The “right coach to give them the killer mindset” has been a master strategist whose game-to-game tactics are often restricted/dictated by who shows up in rubber soled shoes. Several times he has “lost” a starter within minutes of tip off (before and after). Doc, who foolish posters in the past have wished for injuries so he would not have too many choices to confuse him, has cobbled together a patchwork quilt of a rotation that has
stayed on or near the top of the league standings. He has managed this without a single center fully healthy and all too often fielding a front line that does not need to stoop going through a normal doorway. He has led his team into games where his two deepest positions (PG and C) had only two kinds of players, injured and out altogether. He often has limited the offense to a subset that his inexperienced players forced into action actually know. He once had an awkward moment just to know what it felt like. He doesn’t always drink beer, but when he does he prefers . . . it cold.

Much is made of the stars on the Celtics. Occasionally you see some line about how they could field a 2003 starting All-Star team. Probably, but that was longer ago than the average NBA career. They have a handful of players who figure prominently in the top-20 lists of all time statistics—so would Jordan, Magic, Bird, Olajuwon, and Barkley but while they played, like our former All-Stars, in the 90’s none of them will play a game this year. They have no players who are a lock as a top-5 player at their position in 2011, regardless of their career standing. Yeah you could make a case for Rondo or Pierce or Garnett but it would be a debate. Point is that most of the big names on the Celtics are on the downhill portion of their careers, some pretty far down the slope. Only Rondo is in the top five in any major statistical category for 2010-2011. Which brings me to the system, the Celtics’ Way, Ubuntu. A major potion of their success is predicated on putting players in positions to succeed. They don’t have to jump the highest or make shots of the greatest degree of difficulty. What they need to do is make open shots, move themselves and the ball to create openings and opportunities, and find the teammate with the best edge at the moment. In many respects this system is the star. It allows good players to make great contributions. There is no focal point on which the opposition may concentrate because the focus is constantly shifting being driven by the defense’s choices, or rather their neglects. Aging star players don’t have to carry the team on their backs but rather only to excel during the clutch, and even then there are multiple options.

The one obvious omission in this analysis is the architect of this 2010-11 roster, GM Danny Ainge. Danny has assembled this 2012-expiration-date blend of last decade’s All-Stars along with veteran role players, the two young starters kept in the cup board emptying trade acquiring Garnett and Allen, and three raw rookies thrust into action by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (and apocalypse horsemen Injury and Antiquity). One measure of Ainge’s genius is the fact that we sit among the select few atop the Association in spite of the longest and most lustrous injury list in the league. Another is the fact that from this lofty perch, we are discussing a two year window—this the season after the end of the original three-year-window that was the generally acknowledged limit when the Big Three were united. Were those not remarkable enough, Danny did this starting with an early July roster with only Rondo, Garnett, Davis, the recently crippled Perkins, and a soon-to-retire Wallace under contract. Even Doc was contemplating retiring to Florida to become a fulltime parent watching his young athletes in the Rivers’ clan compete in their various sports in various schools.

So if things are going so well, why are we collectively waiting for the other shoe to drop. Well, partially because there have already been a stunning number of eggs dropped before making it to the omelet mixing bowl. A deep flexible roster has been reduced to barely enough players to make up an “actives” roster. The training room floor is littered bodies that were to provide that vaunted depth. Now part of this was old joints of aging players acting up, a somewhat expected development as most doubted the O’Neal’s would be available for every game. But Jermaine has missed more games than he has played, Shaq is limited to 20 minutes or less (and has been markedly less effective the last month), and Garnett is (hopefully) returning from a two-week absence due to the dreaded “non-contact” injury. Three young players, who we would less expect to be out for months, have undergone surgery and are enduring multiple month rehabilitations. We’ve had weeks where point guard has been manned by the least injured; and quarterback Rondo has racked up a nagging (or disabling) injury every month so far.

As the injuries mount the depth recedes, the minutes mount, and the rest dwindles. Spelling the aging players, perhaps even giving them the occasional game off, has gone out the window as Doc struggles to put enough players on the court to avoid having them drop dead in their sneakers. Practice has become a long-lost pipe dream fading in the distant past. And then the January schedule picks up the pace. There is some truth to the saying that “I’m not the man I once was, but I’m every bit the man once that I ever was.” The obvious problem is that there hasn’t been enough minutes eaten, nor bodies available, to permit the measured approach that allows the aging stars to stay at a high level. Now I believe that one of the symptoms of 30-plus athletes is uneven performance; but add to that the stresses of players out, long minutes, nagging injuries, and a hectic schedule and you have the recipe for more downs and fewer ups. The legs aren’t there for second half jumpers. The energy isn’t there to push the ball up and get back on defense. Off-ball movement stagnates, passes are slightly off target allowing defenders to recover, rotations slow down, players aren’t quite as ready to shoot or quite as close to the basket so shots are rushed, flat, and front-rimmed.

As players fell by the wayside, one kept waiting for the quality of play to drop. When Rondo and Garnett took to the sports jackets at the end of the bench, the frayed seams started to show. The well-oiled machine had developed a stuttering shimmy and ball and player movement faltered, passes were late and off-target, and wins were a struggle. Pierce and Allen played more, and then even more, trying to shoulder more of the load. One or the other began staying to play with the second unit since its experienced anchors (Delonte, Nate, Davis, and Shaq) were either pressed into starting or sporting a cast. The Celtics held together for a number of ugly wins, and one pretty good one over a San Antonio team sporting the leagues best record. Rondo returned and within a couple of games the ball movement improved. The Chicago debacle actually came as something of a surprise. The night before the system wove an impressive win allowing a cohesive effort by the starters in relatively short minutes and an impressive contribution by the bench including a breakout game by short, slow rookie power forward Luke Harangody. Twenty-four hours later and nobody could shoot, shots were forced, rotations slow, and rebounds a rarity. I’d say they lacked patience but there were so many shot-clock violations that it seems a foolish accusation. The whole team looked like they were running in knee-deep water and the results were longer and longer shots or around-the-basket attempts forced into a forest of blockers. If there was a bright spot to take away from that game it was that every player that touched the floor sucked—if you are going to have a bad game, maybe it is better to all have it together and get it out of the way. The only player with a positive +/- was Shaq and every one of his four rebounds would have fallen through a hula-hoop attached to his head--he didn’t move either, but then again he never moves a whole lot.

That’s not to say that the outlook is negative. Garnett should return this week. Perkins and West are now weeks away rather than months. Both O’Neal’s are playing and Semih is back from groin/thumb/virus problems and didn’t seem to favor his shoulder as much as when he went out. As the complement of big men returns to health, the load for the O’Neal’s should lighten—which I think will improve their quality of play. Delonte’s return will free Nate to play the two guard on offense; and with the second unit shored up, the minutes for Pierce and Allen should drop to more reasonable levels. Hopefully Rondo’s forced absence will have allowed his hamstring and foot problems to wane and he doesn’t seem to be favoring the ankle that took him out originally. Oddly I think that Big Baby Davis might benefit from Garnett’s return as much as anybody. Glen has upped his quota of shots and dropped the quality of looks in Kevin’s absence—both have drastically lessened the efficiency of his game. When Perkins returns I think both Shaq and Jermaine will drop down into the 15 mpg range and perhaps play only one of two on back-to-back’s. I think both are gutting it out right now and believe they will be more effective with a lighter load. I’m sure there will be more injuries but hopefully we have weathered the worst of it.