10.22.2012

Fresh Blood and a Bag of Chips




Ah, Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics.

Damn, has this been a great time to be a Celtics fan or what?

Maybe I'm getting older, but I've come to appreciate rooting for the underdog in Boston. Perhaps my experience as a Red Sox fan has rubbed off on my Celtic fandom because I've changed. Where once I expected my Celtics to be revered by the league for their ability to dominate from stem to stern, I now expect the Green to be dissed by the media, and forced to earn their respect game by game, win by win. This is all good. Life in a nutshell, as far as I'm concerned. I still measure the season's outcome the same way as ever -- only championships are saluted. Kudos go out for heart, desire, teamwork, and sporadic
instances of greatness. But only championships are celebrated.

Which brings me to installment #2 in the series I call Sensational or Sleepwalking?

What can we expect from the Boston Celtics this year?

Will it be a season where we claim moral victories because a championship again proves elusive? Or might we set our sights a bit higher and start the season with realistic title aspirations? No one knows the answer to this question, but that doesn't prevent us from analyzing it to death.



Today's analysis will focus on how adding "fresh blood" to the roster might impact the end result. As I've noted elsewhere, repeating as world champions is difficult, but even more difficult if you have exactly the same roster that won the championship. This seems counter intuitive. If Roster A just proved they were the best team in basketball, why wouldn't you want that same team back to defend the title? Well, you certainly wouldn't want major roster changes. I agree on that point.

However, new faces can bring some added energy, a fresh commitment, and some attitude that might be missing from a team that just played 100+ games en route to a championship. It takes effort to build chemistry, but if the chemistry is already there from last season, maybe you take it for granted. Games you took seriously early in the season one year prior are now discounted as less meaningful than games played in late May and early June. In short, the temptation to rest on your laurels and pace yourself is enormous (note the counter example is the 2008-09 Boston Celtics who started the season 27-2, before their bubble burst).

How else does fresh blood impact the equation?

Well, depending on where you insert the new faces, changing a roster around can dramatically alter how opposing teams prepare to play you. Last year represented year #5 of the New Big Three in Boston. Chances are pretty good that opposing teams knew the Celtics fairly well after competing against Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce for such a long time. Now Ray Allen is gone, replaced by Courtney Lee, and last year's starting forward, Brandon Bass, has joined a second unit of Jeff Green, Darko Milicic, Avery Bradley, and Jason Terry, none of whom, except Bass, finished the season on the playing floor for the Celtics. Anyone venture a guess how teams might prepare to play against this unit, especially since it might be January before the second team hits its stride?

The starting unit will also be different. While it will still include Garnett, Pierce, and Rajon Rondo, the reins of power have now been officially passed to #9. What does this mean? Will he elevate his game to a new level? Courtney Lee, as it turns out, is not just a three-ball shooter, but also a fierce defender of 2s and 3s, something Ray Allen never was. How much does Lee by himself help the Cs improve their league-best defense? As a rookie, Jared Sullinger is a bit of a question mark, too. But we do know that he can rebound a little, pass a little, and shoot a little. When you think about it, the question is the same whether your name is Doc Rivers, Pat Riley, Kobe Bryant, or Joe Schmo the NBA Fan: How will these new faces change the face of the Celtics offense? I submit the answer will not be trivial.

Last but not least, we come to the subject of chips, not as in Frito Lay, but the kind we find resting on people's shoulders. Chips that might materialize from (1) being projected a Lottery pick, but falling to 21 (Jared Sullinger); (2) being traded for the Celtics starting center, but never really finding your niche, and then being out a season after heart surgery (Jeff Green); (3) being bounced around the league and never finding a role where you are either truly appreciated or truly thrive (Darko Milicic, Courtney Lee); being doubted as MVP material (Rajon Rondo); being questioned as a contributor due to your age, health problems, or diminishing role over the years (Jason Terry, Chris Wilcox, Leandro Barbosa). Throw into the mix Jason Collins who apparently feels the need to arrive in camp in the best shape of his career. I wonder what he feels like he needs to prove?

Whoa. That's a lot-0-guys who feel they have something to prove this season. You can't really ask for more than a roster full of what Rick Pitino once called PhDs, players who are poor, hungry, and driven. If Doc Rivers' claim to fame is getting a roster to overacheive and play above their talent level, it is reasonable for fans to expect Doc Rivers himself to overachieve this season if his roster is filled with PhDs. Fresh blood does a lot for you. Setting the bar higher and keeping you from extended bouts of sleepwalking are certainly two of them.

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