Technically, the Celtics (40-14, first in the Eastern Conference) finished the first half of their season back in late January. But with the All-Star Game come and gone, it seems an appropriate time to evaluate the team and assess its current strengths and liabilities. We’ll break it down by the three major positions, then further break it down by starter and bench. Plus, there are polls!
Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen: Rajon Rondo has the most assists in the Eastern Conference and averages the most assists per game in the NBA. The Celtics have four legitimate scoring threats in their starting rotation, and consequently Rondo’s shooting numbers have gone down this season. But a point guard’s first job is to integrate and execute the offense, and for Rondo that means delaying his growth as a shooter. Otherwise, Rondo continues to improve each year. His steals per game and assists per turnover have each grown incrementally every year of his career, and he’s actually blocking slightly better this year as well (.2 blocks per game vs. .1 in the ’08-’09 and ’09-’10 seasons). Rondo has long since put to rest any fear that he can’t lead this veteran Celtics squad, and now there’s no telling what his ceiling is. Given an injury-free season, he could break the record for most assists in a season in 2012.
Rondo’s passes come from such a myriad of angles and body positions that they often seem like magic. Now you see it, now you don’t, now it’s in the hoop. But if Rondo’s passing is magic, then Ray Allen’s shooting is art. Every time he shoots, Allen jumps straight up. He releases the ball at his jump’s apex every time. Simply put, his form is perfect, his shot beautiful, and this year we’re seeing it better than ever. Allen’s .501 shooting percentage and .457 three-point percentage are both career bests for him.
There are 11 Celtics home games left in the season. Let’s say two games don’t air on CSN. That means Tommy Heinsohn will call around nine more Celtics games before the playoffs. How will Allen’s newly acquired three-point crown affect Heinsohn’s penchant for histrionics?
Reserves: The Celtics are lucky to be getting Delonte West back. West is a far better second point guard than Nate Robinson. West can facilitate better, and he doesn’t depend on his jump shot as much. Robinson can hit the trey, but he’s streaky. That makes you cringe every time he shoots. He’s best suited to be a shooting guard, but he doesn’t command the same confidence that Allen does, and the second unit as it currently stands lacks a strong inside presence. West’s ability to drive to the basket can help that, and it will open up jump-shooting forwards like Glen Davis by forcing defenders to rotate in to defend him.
Beyond Robinson and West, the Celtics don’t have much. Marquis Daniels is a strong defender, but he’s at least a month away from returning after bruising his spine. That just leaves rookie Avery Bradley and journeyman Von Wafer. Neither are bad players, but these are your third-string guards for sure. Bradley has shown potential, but you don’t want to rush a rookie too quickly for reasons both physical and mental. Wafer plays pesky defense, and can occasionally hit a three-pointer, but that’s all you can expect out of him.
Overall, the Celtics are unlikely to try and trade to improve this position. Once Daniels gets healthy again, the Celtics will have three experienced guards (including one pure point guard) to play off the bench to spell Rondo and Allen.
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett: Paul Pierce isn’t scoring as much this year (18.8 points per game, as opposed to 22.3 points per game for his career), but he’s also not taking as many shots. Consequently, his .498 field goal percentage is the highest it has ever been. He’s not shooting as well from behind the arc (.385 three-point percentage, the lowest since shooting .354 in the ’05-’06 season), but he’s making up for that at the free-throw line (.845 free-throw percentage, second highest of his career). For a player whose bread-and-butter is drawing the foul and getting to the line, this is the far more important stat. His rebounds and assists are also up from the ’09-’10 season, and his turnovers per game have declined each of the last five seasons. His steals per turnover average has also climbed each of the last two seasons over the previous one. Pierce continues to perform at an elite level.
Kevin Garnett’s biggest growth this season has been his rebounding, up from 7.3 last season to 9.0 this season. Much of that can be attributed to his knee fully healing, and it looks like the calf-muscle strain he suffered earlier this season has healed completely. His steals per game are also up to 1.5, the highest since joining the Celtics. Garnett loves to use his long arms to disrupt plays, either with steals or rebounds. Both his scoring (1.279) and shooting (.518) efficiency ratings are above his career average as well.
Reserves: This is where the Celtics are the absolute neediest. Right now, there are only two forwards on the bench: Davis and rookie Luke Harangody. Davis currently has to split time between playing power forward and center, which he does very well. He is definitely a candidate for the NBA Sixth Man award this year. Harangody has the box-out abilities and jump shot to be a small forward, but he has yet to develop the aggression needed to slash like Pierce can. With Daniels (who can play small forward) out, that means there isn’t really a backup for Pierce on the team. Hence, the interest in Shane Battier, small forward for the Houston Rockets. Offensively, Battier isn’t much: 9.7 points per game, 2.0 assists, 4.7 rebounds, .744 free-throw shooting percentage. But, as Michael Lewis wrote, Battier is a defensive genius, able to consistently force shooters to their lowest-percentage shooting spots. The only question is whether or not Battier’s defensive skills are worth it for the offensive liabilities.
Kendrick Perkins: It’s kind of remarkable how quickly Perkins has inserted himself back into the starting rotation following his recovery from a knee injury in last season’s NBA Finals. In just 11 games (six as a starter), Perkins’ minutes have essentially returned to 2010 numbers (27.4 vs 27.6 minutes per game last season). Perkins’ rebounding is up (from 7.6 to 8.2), but his blocking hasn’t come back yet (from 1.7 to 0.8). That makes sense, since blocking is not just about physical factors such as jumping ability and body control but also mental factors such as timing and knowledge of opponent’s shooting habits. As Perkins continues to play, he’ll start to remember how the other centers play, and he will get his blocking back.
Reserves: This is another spot where the Celtics are in need, but not because of lack of bodies. This time, it’s because of a lack of healthy bodies. Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal have both missed significant time this season with injuries, and their age makes recovery time a bigger concern. Shaq is obviously the better offensive center of the two, and he might have the upper-body strength to be the best rebounder of any center on the team. But even Doc Rivers isn’t sure when he’ll be back. Jermaine O’Neal, meanwhile, has only played in 17 games this season. He might be ready to go in early April, but does anyone think that will be his last injury with the team? Personally, I haven’t liked Jermaine O’Neal since his involvement with the “Malice at the Palace” in 2004. But if the Celtics want to contend for another NBA title, they’ll probably need to go through the Orlando Magic, and that means having lots of centers to body up Dwight Howard, disrupt his shooting and get in his head with hard fouls.
Making matters worse is rookie Semih Erden, who showed promise this season, but has been hampered by a strained groin. He hasn’t played since February 6 against the Magic, and he hasn’t played significant minutes since January 27 at the Portland Trailblazers. Right now, the Celtics only have Davis backing up Perkins, and Davis isn’t really tall enough to play center, plus he sometimes has to play power forward. Centers are hard to come by, so the Celtics are unlikely to trade for one, since it’s unlikely they’d get anyone good or not injury-prone. But this is a team that cannot afford another injury at this position.
The Celtics are probably deepest at guard and weakest at forward, and their biggest concern now is going into the playoffs healthy. They’re not scared of the Miami Heat, and they’re two games up on the third-place Chicago Bulls. Doc Rivers can play even looser with the end of this season than he did with the end of last season, because this team has not shown nearly the tendency to blow late-game leads that it did last year.
The Celtics have 28 games left before the playoffs. I predict they go 19-9, but still finish in first place.