Grampa Celtic on How KC Jones Used the Bench

The Mark Acres Chronicles: The Last in the Series
May 1988

Five couldn't beat seven or eight, and it certainly couldn't beat nine. The sad reality of the Celtics' playoff demise is that this much-discussed bench crisis never had to be.

This could hardly be termed second-guessing, either, not when everyone watching this team since the fall has recognized that in Reggie Lewis and Brad Lohaus, the Celtics finally had those fresh, young and talented bodies people have been longing for in these parts. Could they have made a difference against the armed might of Chuck Daly's well-stocked Pistons? Probably not.

They weren't ready to play. Could they have made a difference if they were ready to play?

Ah, that's an entirely different matter.

The problem was that K.C. Jones was not merely a conservative basketball man, but an arch-conservative. If he were a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, he'd be in the curia. To him, no rookie glass was ever anything but 99-percent empty, and nothing either Lewis or Lohaus did was going to alter that philosophy. Mark Acres got some time because he was older (25), more experienced in general because of his European background, in possession of one clear skill (rebounding) and a candidate for a position (backup center) in desperate need of improvement.

Lohaus can be forgiven for being confused. He had a strong exhibition season. All right, exhibitions are exhibitions, but why have them if performances of people trying to make your team have no significance? On the night of Nov. 21, Lohaus came off the bench in Hartford and had 10 points and eight rebounds in the second quarter against the Chicago Bulls. Shouldn't that have told K.C. something? Guess not. Lohaus played seven minutes the following night at home against Atlanta. Keep in mind that this was pre-McHale.

The fact is that Lohaus' game performances never seemed to mean anything. On Jan. 4, he had to come in as a backup center in Utah when circumstances dictated help. He played outstanding pivot defense against Mel Turpin, who had been killing the Celtics. He played 21 strong minutes and was praised lavishly by one and all, including Jones. You can look it up. So, what happened? The team returned home Jan. 6 and Lohaus played nine minutes against New York.

He got fairly consistent time during February, and he hardly hurt the cause. He had a very impressive performance in San Antonio (playing timidly on the road was an early unfair rap) Feb. 10, and he scored 12 points on 6-for-12 shooting as a starter against Portland Feb. 24 when McHale was sidelined with a bad knee. Yes, there were some clunkers, but we're talking about a rookie.

By March 15, K.C. had decided he wasn't going to fool with the rookie any more. He apparently had decided that Fred Roberts' limited game and well-documented inconsistency was worth having as his third forward more than a 7-foot kid who could shoot, catch the ball, run, rebound a bit, block shots and generate home-crowd enthusiasm with his hustle. Sure, Lohaus had defensive problems. He was often matched against opponents who were either stronger (he definitely needs time in the weight room) or quicker. But he had the capability of inflicting harm on opponents with that jump shot, if only given the chance.

Lewis, meanwhile, was quite obviously the only person available on the Boston bench who could create his own shot and who had the possibility of becoming an individual source of offense during those dry spells. This kid had the backing of all the veterans. Bird declared during training camp that Lewis looked so natural at guard you'd never suspect he had been a full-time college forward. His frequent garbage-time explosions demonstrated a rare scoring knack.

His story is perhaps even more perplexing. He never really got much quality time, but when he did he was often an asset. On the night of Feb. 4, K.C. inserted him in the second quarter against Milwaukee. Reggie went 2 for 2 and then sat down. That would represent his last appearance in a game where the issue was in doubt until the fourth Atlanta playoff game, more than three months later. Desperate at that moment for a body, Jones threw him into the game during the third period. Reggie wound up playing 11 minutes and shooting 4 for 6 as the Celtics chopped an 18-point lead to two before falling back.

That's truly incredible, isn't it? This kid had three months of rust to scrape off, and he was able to do it, on the road, in a playoff game. It's very hard to imagine how he couldn't have averaged 8-12 points per game as a steady sub for this team.

But Jones simply did not care about player development. The only day he cared about was today. He said so many times that he believed his job was to win every game, to win as many games as possible and to nail down the coveted Home-court Advantage in the playoffs. That made better sense the year before, when the subs he'd most likely employ were Jerry Sichting, Roberts, Darren Daye and Greg Kite. This year, he was dealt a different hand. He had three kids to manipulate, and he was paralyzed with the thought of ever losing a game because Lewis or Lohaus messed up.

Much has been made of the comparison between Daly's use of John Salley and Dennis Rodman the year before, and Jones' non-use of Lewis and Lohaus. Daly let his kids play, and you can see the impressive results of that policy.

K.C. coached the way he had the year before because his only goal was to get the Home-court Advantage. He won two seventh games on the parquet last year, he reasoned, so that must be the only way to go. However, this year his priority should have been different. It should have been making the Boston Celtics the best playoff team it could be. The only way to do that with the talent on hand was to advance the professional careers of Brad Lohaus and Reggie Lewis. If that meant winning 50 games rather than 57, so be it.

Complicating everything was K.C.'s perplexing insistence on maintaining the archaic notion of a "Green Team," a concept that died with the sidelining of Bill Walton. When Jones did play Lohaus and Lewis in non-garbage situations, he generally had them out there with two other subs. If Larry Bird said it once, he said it 20 times: "Put one of those kids out there at a time with four veterans and I guarantee you they'll play much better." Why wouldn't K.C. pay attention?

No one is suggesting that Lewis and Lohaus are potential All-Stars. But they are obvious NBA talents, and on a team crying for help they wound up as sadly unused assets.

Criticizing K.C. Jones, aka Mr. Nice Guy, for anything is like attacking Mother Teresa for not being a very spiffy dresser. But the sad legacy of his final year coaching this team is the pitiful bench situation. He had a great opportunity to blend in the new with the old, and he blew it. Next year, the veterans will be a year older. A championship may not be attainable. This one was.


The Kid said...

It's articles like this that make me question whether even the addition of Len Bias would have been enough to topple the Lakers in '87. We know K.C. didn't like to use rookies much and he might have misused Len Bias in the same manner Lewis and Lohaus were misused.

Lex said...

It's a valid question.

It might have taken Larry to make KC play him.

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