There's not a lot that's different from last year in Boston. The Celtics exchanged one veteran big man (Rasheed Wallace) for two (Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal) and I'm not sure they're better because of it. They're certainly deeper with two of them, but they're not as good defensively because Rasheed is a much better defender than either of the two they got to replace him.
In bringing back Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, the Celtics clearly see themselves as title contenders. And why wouldn't they after almost winning Game 7 of the Finals? But prior to getting to the Finals and coming out of the regular season, they seemed a little too old and the window was closing. You have to wonder whether they might have gone in a different direction if not for a more successful postseason.
Even though everyone is back, the transition has begun already from the Big Three's team to Rajon Rondo's team. Whether they go back to the Finals depends on Rondo and on the veterans being just as good -- or almost as good -- as they were last year.
I don't put Rondo in the highest class of point guards with Chris Paul and Deron Williams and Steve Nash. Not yet. But he's in that next tier with Derrick Rose because, while quite good, he still has plenty of room for growth and is on track to rise to the top tier. And for Rondo to return to the Finals for a third time, he needs to do just that: Move up to the next tier.
Rondo isn't the greatest shooter, but makes up for it with his quickness and penetration. It is just so hard for a defender to stay in front of him. They may back up and give him the jump shot, but that doesn't stop Rondo from penetrating to score for himself or to dish to others. You can't stop him even when stacked up against his drive. His shooting has improved, which is a necessity because the defense gives him gimme jumpers. Now he can make those shots when left open.
Let's not leave out Rondo's rebounding. How many point guards rebound the way he does? Most of them are responsible for being the first guy back on defense to prevent an easy transition play for the other team, but Rondo is battling on the offensive boards. He's a unique player -- he makes me think a lot of Lafayette Lever from the old days, or Jason Kidd with his end-to-end speed, getting the ball in transition and creating and rebounding without being a knock-down shooter. I don't think Rondo is the playmaker Kidd was in his prime, but he's close.
Defensively, there are times when Rondo has lapses and gambles for the ball. But he has the ability to be a terrific defender and he'll make plays for you defensively, even though I'm sure the Celtics would like him to put more pressure on the ball and be more fundamentally sound at times. But that's the balance between giving a talented player the leeway to make plays and living with the mistakes that come from it.
Can Boston expect Kevin Garnett to continue to improve from his knee surgery in 2009? I'm no doctor, but I can tell you a lot of times it's not until the second year that you see a player come back to full strength from knee surgery. That's why I don't think they should be counting on Kendrick Perkins to be reliable until the playoffs at the earliest -- and more likely seeing him back to full strength in 2011-12.
Garnett is in the same position as Tim Duncan: The days of 35 minutes and 80 games are over. The Celtics are like the Spurs in that they don't view the regular season as all-important, because they feel they can win on the road in the playoffs when they need to. I could see this being the year when they give Garnett a night off on a back-to-back and monitor his minutes strictly. If they can win 55 games while protecting him, that would make a lot of sense.
The biggest weakness to come of Garnett's age is his rebounding. He also isn't the low-post threat he once was. It used to be that you had to double-team him in the post, but that's no longer the case (although the presence of Shaq will leave less room for him down there when they're on the floor together). But Garnett has never been that rugged power forward who kills you inside. He can shoot, make the right pass and he knows his assignments defensively. If you see him getting back to eight or nine rebounds a game, that will be a good sign. But no one should anticipate double-digit rebounding from him again.
Allen is a professional, above and beyond. From a very young age, he embraced a discipline and work ethic and approach to the game that 90 percent of players don't understand. Allen's mental toughness is legendary, and that's why he's still able to do what he does. It also helps him being on a team that allows him to play to his strengths and that doesn't ask him to do things he shouldn't be doing, like in Seattle.
Allen had a very tough NBA Finals last season, including a poor-shooting Game 7 [3-of-14] when he might have made the difference by making a couple of big shots. But I don't think that will affect him negatively at all. There are players, like Nick Anderson, who would let a traumatic experience on the world stage linger with them, but my impression of Allen is just the opposite. Allen is one of the best shooters to ever play in the league, and there's a reason he's a great shooter: When a guy is as serious and driven as Allen, and has the body of work behind him that he has, then what does he have to be insecure about? If any doubts crept in his mind, he probably worked that much harder to put them out of mind.
I think Pierce may be the guy whose game suffers the most as he gets older. He's always created his offense by being more physical with a smaller guy or more agile than a bigger guy. His shooting will sustain him as long as he continues to shoot it well and work at it, but you can see regression with him statistically and the problems he's had creating his own offense in the playoffs against Cleveland or the Lakers.
The signing of Jermaine O'Neal surprised me. I'll give him credit for a better year last year, but I have serious doubts about what he brings. He is still a low-post scorer who can demand the double team and score if you don't bring it. But he's a major injury risk and I don't think much is left in the tank. He doesn't move or rebound as well as he used to, though he'll still block shots. The good thing is he is way down the list of options for Boston.
I understand Boston needed size to make up for the absence of Perkins, but having Shaquille muddles it. You won't see the two O'Neals playing together because it won't be one of their better lineups defensively. I give Shaq the edge over Jermaine because Shaquille is still the biggest man in basketball, and there will be nights when he'll give you 20 or 25 points. You can count on your hands the number of big men who are capable of doing that, though Shaquille won't do it for 82 games, that's for sure.
Delonte West was a sneaky pickup. He was a key component for contending teams in Cleveland. And assuming all his off-court troubles don't stand in the way, he might make a big difference in Boston. His ability to play both guard spots allows him to back up both Rondo and Allen. He could be the backup at point guard they've been looking for.
Nate Robinson is the most worrisome guy in the backcourt. He's a total wild card who goes in and out of coaches' doghouses -- from doing something remarkable to doing something boneheaded on the court. He does have talents, but he has never shown an ability to harness them and play with consistency and contain his emotions.
Glen Davis has always had a good array of skills and he can rebound on the offensive glass. But defensively, he's not that good on the boards and his length is usually an issue.
I'm sure a big motivation for bringing back Marquis Daniels was the loss of Tony Allen. Daniels can play and defend three positions, and so among the backups he may be the best defender.
I don't think you'll see any major changes to their defensive system now that Lawrence Frank has taken over that end of the court. They have veterans who are used to playing the style that was set up by Tom Thibodeau.
Where Doc Rivers shines is his big-picture understanding and his ability to relate to his players, having been a player himself. It's his ability to have a voice that draws the Celtics to a unified goal. He is one of the best in recent times in being able to do that with his guys. It took the Big Three coming to Boston before that was realized. Once he got a team that was built to win, he was able to do what he does so well: manage egos, have a feel for his team and know what buttons to push and when.
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