"The Celtics are good" is a statement that smacks of damning with faint praise.
Ask yourself this question: Can the team the Celtics are putting on the court in December win the Championship? An honest answer would be: Maybe, if no one else gets hurt, they don’t wear down, and they have a little luck. But you have to be a little queasy with the center position being manned by a senior citizen playing far more minutes than anticipated while already showing signs of wear and a rookie just an arm-jerk away from surgery. At least as concerning is the floor general, energizer bunny, and only young star being limited by a series of wheel problems.
So what has to happen to raise those title chances from passable to good, or better yet to strong?
I believe the Big Three can be great playing thirty minutes a game. Push that to forty and while the spirit is strong the body begins to weaken. The legs slow with fatigue, the shots get flatter and catch the front iron more often, the rebound has to come to the player rather than the player going to capture the rebound, the defensive rotations lag as the players know where to be but are just a little slower getting there, and shots are contested from a couple of feet rather than inches. Father Time will have his due and the only way to lessen his demands is to pack the available effort into a shortened time frame. The corollary to this is to eliminate back-to-back games where possible.
Unfortunately the NBA schedule makers are unyielding so the solution becomes one of selective games off for the older players. Both of these tactics work toward a strategy of getting the most, and the best, out of the aging stars. However the games run a full 48 minutes (and too often more for the Celtics this season) and the contests often come back-to-back and occasionally 4-in-5 or 5-in7 nights. To implement this strategy and keep a highly competitive team on the floor requires that the backup players be a force in their own right rather than just stop-gap solutions.
Going into the season that backup group appeared quite imposing with the-O’Neal-not-starting, Big Baby Davis, Marquis Daniels, Delonte West, and Nate Robinson looking like a middle-of-the-league starting five and truly dangerous as a second unit. The Celtics have trotted that quintet out onto the floor exactly zero times in the first 23 games and are certain not to play that group until mid-season or later.
Yet there is the challenge.
To get any stronger the C’s need another center (Hello, helllloo, Jermaine are you there?) to share the load until/unless Perkins gets back. This would allow Erden to work in shorter stints and the coaches to tutor him in games—there is just no getting around him having to learn on the fly.
The other part of the fallback plan that needs to work better is Von Wafer to provide some useful minutes at the two guard. This may never come to pass. Wafer plays defense hard every second outing, trots out a usage rate of 100% (6 trips, 4 shots, 2 turnovers) or makes a couple of nice dump-off passes, looks enthusiastic or disinterested, cheers lustily or ignores fallen teammates and team huddles. Yet, to say that he is inconsistent is a step up from being consistently bad. He is going to be called upon, at least briefly, as long as Delonte is out. How long (and how well) he plays will vary depending upon how engaged he is and whether he is having a TEAM day or a ME day. Unless he figures out that the butter is on the Celtics side of the bread rather than the “I” side, he will become a postscript as soon as West returns. The team needs help at shooting guard, whether or not that can be Wafer remains to be seen. For the Celtics to move up from good to very good requires these two players to step up.
The real upside would be Jermaine getting healthy (and staying that way) so the O’Neal’s can tag team, Perkins coming back to anchor the middle, Delonte returning to quarterback the second unit (and freeing Nate to be the dangerous streak scorer), Von Wafer fully engaging and finding the Ubuntu switch, and Avery Bradley growing comfortable enough to come in for some short spurts providing 94 feet of hell that leaves opposing point guards desperate for a point forward. Put these supplementary pieces into proper play and the Celtics go from highly competitive to scary good.
The aging core is optimized and the second unit becomes a force in their own right, punishing the opposition with hustle and pressure and ratcheting up the stress rather than providing breathing room. Bring these options online and the Green rises from top group of teams to leader of the pack.