When it rains, it pours for the Boston Celtics. I put together an article two weeks ago to discuss the Celtics’ need to have a healthy Avery Bradley to complete their team and ultimately make a run in the Eastern Conference. That team dynamic that I was referring to took some devastating blows with the season-ending injuries of rookie forward Jared Sullinger by back surgery and point guard Rajon Rondo by torn ACL.
Sullinger, who had just recently been plugged into the starting forward spot, had some notorious back woes in college and fell into the Celtics lap on draft day due to those issues. The team was very much aware that this type of situation may arise over the course of Sullinger’s career, but they chose to take a chance and hope they would be rewarded. The surgery was something Sullinger would inevitably need, but the Celtics hoped it would not be this early. Though it may end up making Sullinger a more productive player in the future, the surgery leaves the Celtics thin in terms of front-court depth.
While Sullinger’s presence will be missed, the loss of Rondo is a greater concern to Boston’s chances this season. Rondo, who was leading the league in assists with just over 11 per game, tore his ACL in a double-overtime loss to Atlanta on Jan. 26. According to reports, the All-Star point guard thought he merely tweaked his knee late in the game and presumably played both overtime periods with the tear. It was announced two days later that Rondo’s discomfort was indeed the result of a torn ACL, and he would require season-ending surgery. Rondo accounted for nearly 35 points per game through his points and ball distribution, something that the Celtics will not be able to replace in an instant. Without Rondo, the team lacks a true point guard to lead the offense, throwing a wrench into defensive schemes as well.
Experts believe that the injury bug has effectively ended any chance the Celtics had to make any type of noise in the postseason. The belief is that the team now has too many holes in the roster and that they lack the height and playmaking abilities to compete with teams like the Miami Heat, New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets. While people see all of these things working against the Celtics, I see the situation as a blessing in disguise, reinforced in the team’s recent play since the injuries.
What the experts tend to forget is that the Celtics were a small team to begin with before losing Sullinger’s presence. They have a non-traditional center in 6-foot-11-inch Kevin Garnett to anchor the starting five, and they have found a way to manage with him roaming the middle since the second half of last year. After Garnett, the Celtics have a foul-beleaguered Jason Collins and Chris Wilcox, who is more of a finesse player than a bruising center. They have managed with those three to this point, but the Celtics will most likely look to find more depth in the coming weeks before the Feb. 21 trade deadline.
There is little wiggle room in the payroll for the team to make any type of big splash, so it is more likely they will take on a player with an expiring contract or one with a back-loaded multi-year deal. Several names that will most likely be linked to Boston include Denver’s Timofey Mozgov, Dallas’ Chris Kaman and Phoenix’s Marcin Gortat.
One thing the experts have all acknowledged that can be agreed upon is that no one player can replace Rondo. With no replacement in sight, it falls on Celtics coach Doc Rivers to implement an offense that will help the combat the loss of Rondo and that will be tailored to the strengths of the personnel he has.
Rivers will use any tandem of Leandro Barbosa, Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley, and Jason Terry to fill his backcourt, with Lee and Barbosa being most comfortable running the offense. Without a true distributor among the group, the Celtics will most likely need to move the ball a lot more instead of running isolation plays that only Rondo could have executed.
Rivers will also have the option of using forward Paul Pierce in a point-forward role that would help open up the floor a bit but still allow the same kind of kick-outs or drives Rondo could produce. The team has utilized all those options in their three Rondo-less games thus far and have produced three convincing and hard-fought wins.
This is not the first time the odds have been against the Celtics, and they have flourished like no other when they have been the underdog. Everybody can write them off if they dare, but I can assure you that Celtics and their believers will get the last laugh on that one.