Shamrock roundup: Celtics season preview
The Celtics regular season kickoff Tuesday night against the Miami Heat, directly following ‘King James’ and Co.’s ring ceremony, will provide a bitter reminder of what could have been last season—and motivate them for the one ahead.
And while the faces of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo will be familiar to Celtics fans, this was a busy offseason for personnel wiz Danny Ainge. The team started with only four players under contract, so there should be plenty of fresh talent to work in to coach Doc Rivers’ rotations this year.
There’s no denying, of course, that a main storyline of this Celtics offseason has been the departure of Ray Allen to Miami. Both sides have had their say in the media, but it boils down to this: Allen wanted more opportunities to shoot, and Rivers (and Rondo) didn’t think that was in the best interest of the team. Of course if it’s shots he wants, his logic in going to Miami is debatable but that’s an issue for a different column.
The rumors of a tense relationship between Rondo and Allen are probably overblown and, in any case, irrelevant. Professional athletes are just that—professionals. All-Star-caliber players like Rondo and Allen don’t let personal grudges get in the way of winning. Ever worked with someone you didn’t get along with? I thought so.
Celtics fans can also take heart in Allen’s replacements. Bombastic former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry is only an incremental downgrade in terms of shooting prowess, plus he handles the ball with more alacrity than Allen has for the last few years.
The more intriguing addition as concerns upside is 6’5” shooting guard Courtney Lee. A four-year pro, Lee boasts a well-rounded skill set on both sides of the ball. He doesn’t allow easy dribble penetration when guarding a perimeter ball handler and disrupts passing lanes for steals. On offense, he’ll be an athletic running mate for Rondo on the fast break, and he shoots the three-pointer from the corner as well as anyone in the game. He took a pay cut to come to Boston and his good faith will be rewarded: With defensive standout Avery Bradley injured to start the year, Lee will get the starting nod at two-guard.
Alongside Lee, steadfast captain Paul Pierce will resume starting duties on the wing for the fifteenth straight year. ‘The Truth’ had a slow start to last year and was hampered by a knee issue during the playoffs, but turned in his typical quality numbers when healthy.
Don’t expect that to change, as Pierce has looked to be in midseason form throughout this year’s exhibition schedule. Sure, he’s a year older—and slower—but even as a 21-year-old rookie he never relied on speed. He’s one of the craftiest scorers in the game, and his high basketball IQ should keep his points per game average near 20.
Along with Pierce, Kevin Garnett’s veteran leadership, tenacious defensive attitude and silky-smooth mid-range jumper are back for another three years. Garnett’s play down the stretch was a big reason for the Celtics’ deep playoff run last year, and he was arguably the most valuable player not named LeBron James in the entire postseason. He’s developed a deep bond with Rondo both on and off the court, plus he’ll have two new rookie mentorship projects in Jared Sullinger and seven-footer Fab Melo.
Speaking of Rondo, look for a breakout campaign from the dime-dropping maestro. He knows now that he must lead this team, and his attitude with the media thus far this year reflects that leap in maturity. If Rondo takes it upon himself to look for chances to score more aggressively—and by all indications, he worked on his shooting touch this summer—he could help keep the Celtics offense from the periodic stagnation it was prone to last year.
Brandon Bass will remain the starter at power forward after re-signing with the Celtics, and his mid-range game should continue to benefit from setting picks for Rondo. Like Lee, the LSU product may have garnered a more lucrative offer on the open market, but the list he gave to his agent only had one city on it: Boston.
Backing up both Pierce and Bass will be the Celtics’ best chance at a secret weapon this year in Jeff Green. The centerpiece of the 2011 trade that sent Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder spent last year recovering from heart surgery, but he’s back, and hopefully better than ever. Green measures in at 6’9” and 235 pounds. That means he could stretch up to the power forward position, but his athleticism also makes him a candidate for minutes as a small forward.
In a league that has trended towards smaller lineups (see the Miami Heat in last year’s playoffs for a prime example), Green represents a rare and valuable commodity. His combination of size and speed makes him the type of player—if such a thing exists—that can make life tough for a determined LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony.
Admittedly, Green hasn’t yet put up the type of regular season numbers that justify the terms of his new contract. But he spent the first few years of his NBA career playing alongside a statistical black hole in Kevin Durant, and never had a chance to settle into the Celtics’ system before learning of his heart ailment. To (incorrectly) quote John Lennon: All we are saying is give Green a chance.
Chris Wilcox and Darko Milicic will shore up depth in the front line—though it appears neither will be healthy to start the year— and veterans Leandro Barbosa and Jason Collins will fill out the back- and frontcourts respectively.
The Celtics’ road to the championship may be riddled with the potholes of age and the curves of burgeoning chemistry, but this team has been specifically designed to take a run at the established-power Heat. If any team in the Eastern Conference has a shot at unseating the defending champs, it’s this one.
Check out the first mile of the marathon tonight at 8 p.m. ET locally on CSNNE or nationally on TNT.