Small forward was the thin spot in the Celtics’ armor from the moment final cuts were made. When you need four centers to have a hope of two playable, something has to give elsewhere. At every other position the Green had at least four players that could reasonably play, but behind Pierce and Daniels there were only options that were a stretch. Ray Allen is probably most capable but you both weaken shooting guard and spend the energy of your best shooter fighting taller, heavier, and stronger not-really-all-that-small forwards. Von Wafer is giving up even more height and weight; Delonte more yet; and Bradley is undersized even at the two. Going the other direction Harangody has appropriate height but is slow afoot, short a-jump, and lacks both agility and the experience to help make up for his other drawbacks as a three. Big Baby is the right height but moving him down to small forward turns his advantages into liabilities. In his prime Garnett might have given you some minutes as a terrifying nightmare for three’s but those days were before his arrival in Boston. Besides you weaken PF, lengthen rather than shorten minutes, and big men have become an endangered species with the plethora of injuries.
Nope, there is no really good answer on the current roster. Wafer is the cleanest dirty shirt and, quite honestly, has done a credible job; somewhat to my surprise. So much so that he has altered my perception of the difficulty facing the C’s in light of Marquis’ frightening injury and uncertain future. Von is an inch shorter than Marquis and neither comes close to being brawny; but defense is a startlingly new concept for Wafer and he lacks the wile with which the crafty Daniels augments his borderline (at least at the three) physical assets. It’s not ideal but the Celtics’ defensive scheme supplements whomever has to check the murderer’s row that is the NBA’s most powerful skill position. Seldom does a single player shut down LeBron, Gay, Granger, Melo, Jackson, Deng, Odem, Smith, …--in fact there aren’t many, if any, “nights off” since this is usually the opposition’s most prolific scorer. Von won’t either, but then no likely replacement will.
Still, it’s a need and Wafer’s efforts may have dropped it from critical to pressing, or maybe significant; and exasperating the situation is the strong desire to limit our aging All-Star wingmen’s minutes to the low thirties rather than pushing forty. Compounding the problem, and the difficulty of finding any reasonable solution, are a number of factors—some known, some murky, and some in which the uncertainty is a problem in and of itself.
First, foremost, and perhaps most critical and uncertain is whether Marquis Daniels can/should/will return, will he want to, and when might this occur. Even if/when he could physically return, will there still be a crippling mental aftereffect. This is not the kind of injury which X-rays or an MRI will indicate healing bone or muscle repaired. In fact he may be symptom free within days, almost certainly within a couple of weeks, but that doesn’t mean he is “ready,” nor is there an exact timetable (or even an inexact one) of how long is long enough. Paralysis ranks rather highly on the list of undesirable outcomes of sports participation. Resuming his basketball career presents a real, even if not calculable, possibility of reoccurrence, and this time the loss of movement could be permanent. Lying there on that floor unable to move his arms and legs, Marquis would not be human if he did not contemplate that this was not the way he wanted to spend the rest of his life. This year and last Daniels felled himself by sweeping his head into/across the torso of an opponent. This wasn’t being pole-axed by a Dwight Howard elbow or Andrew Bynum coming down on him or even crashing to the floor after being undercut. When he bodies up LeBron or Nowitzki, reaches in to swipe the ball from Melo or Odem, or cuts off the path of Jackson or Deng (and these are all common examples of Marquis’ pesky defense), will he draw back realizing he is risking life and limb(s)?
For my Celtics I hope he does return. I have been thrilled with the job he has done this season. His game is as full of substance as it is devoid of flash. His play is the most likely to go unnoticed, least likely to make ESPN, and frequently the key to “holding the fort” while the starters rest. He almost never looks great but almost always is effective. He is the most flexible player on the team and has played every position but center. He seldom scores a lot but contributes in myriad little ways often lost on the casual observer. On the other hand, on a personal level I kind of hope he hangs up his cleats . . . umm, sneakers. Paralysis is as serious as death, maybe more so. And yet even as I say that, I realize that although I walk with a limp and am in pain most days, the thirty-five years rumbling up and down the hardwood (cement, grass, mud, or bricks in the Mexican zocolo) were the best years of my life. When I struggle to straighten up or get up from or down into a chair, I may wish the pain in my hip would go away but I never wish I had quit playing sooner. Maybe I just think basketball and quality of life were inseparable.
The really nasty thing for Ainge is that it is unlikely that he will know the answer to the return/no-return question before the trading deadline. The roster is full. If Daniels can/will not return then Danny can use his expiring contract to try to find a more-than-vet-min player. Ainge may not know the “return” answer until well after the deadline and that delays even a buy-out that would free up a roster slot.
So what does the decision tree look like?
Case 1: Marquis will be back by the end of March
Do nothing, tread water with Wafer at three, Delonte and Nate at backup guards. Two weeks in April to work Marquis back into rotation.
Case 1b: Marquis will be back by the end of March or will probably be back
Try to trade Nate for Corey Brewer. Brewer brings defense to the three. While Celtics would not likely make $5M+ qualifying offer (as Minny is almost certain not to do), if the fit is good he may be resigned for something less. If Brewer works out, Marquis’ flexibility strengthens the 1, 2, and 3.
Case 2: Marquis will not be back
While there are possible trades for Daniels contract (Butler, Moon, Anthony), none excite me and all would require some sweetener—rentals for which I am loath to give up any assets. I would still prefer to trade Nate for Brewer which would not eliminate 2b. Moving Daniels and Nate for Battier works salary-wise but it is hard to see Houston’s motivation for doing this—maybe if they are determined to move Brooks and see Nate as his replacement.
Case 2b: Marquis will not be back
Rather than trade Daniels’ contract for some meh stopgap, buyout his contract and add NBDL or FA with promise. Rodney Carney would have been a possibility but recently joined Memphis on a 10-day contract. Joe Alexander has something of a revival of his moribund career but seems to be playing the four. Works in NBDL but he might be more useful against the power three’s and Wafer could defend more finesse types. Patrick Ewing Jr. and Deshawn Sims might be worth a look. But my personal favorite is Tony Gaffney who would already be familiar with the basic Celtics’ schemes and has the height, energy, and length to annoy high-scoring wingmen.
You might notice that none of my approaches involve Bradley or Erden. Obviously I would love to move Nate for something more worthwhile. While the value of Nate vary widely, it only takes one GM that wants to move his frustration for something else (better) or at least a chance for something different. Before the season I rather thought that Wafer would become the expendable one, his defensive efforts and unexpected diversity have changed my mind.