The Celtics begin the season with a starting lineup that has aged a year.
This is probably a good thing in the case of Rajon Rondo, who should be a year wiser. But the actuarial charts do not emit encouraging signs regarding Ray Allen (36), Kevin Garnett (35), Jermaine O’Neal (33), and Paul Pierce (34). Of this group, only Allen and Pierce have managed to avoid long injury absences in recent seasons, though Pierce (right heel bruise) missed most of the preseason and is questionable for Sunday’s season opener against New York.
The Celtics’ choices after last season were: either radically reduce the average age of the starting lineup, closing the window on the era of the Big Three; or reinvigorate the bench, in hopes of providing enough relief for the starters to make another run at a championship.
The decision was made to make a run at a title with the 30-somethings, backed up by 20-somethings.
So, at the opening tip-off, the Celtics will look familiar.
Rondo will give the ball an exaggerated dribble to test its bounciness, wipe his hands on his trunks, then start going through his drill.
First, he will look for Allen or Pierce running off screens. If those options are covered, Rondo will attempt to penetrate, hoping for a pick-and-pop assist to Garnett or O’Neal. If the shot clock is winding down and every option is covered, Rondo will have to resort to taking what the defense is giving him, usually an open jump shot.
Rondo’s ability to develop into a consistent jump-shooter will go far in determining how far the Celtics go.
Not many non-shooters evolve into effective perimeter threats five years into their professional career. But Rondo’s eagerness to meet challenges, plus his command of the Celtics’ system and an increasing comfort level with his own identity (partly thanks to contract security), give him a chance to convert his outside game from a liability to an asset.
“It’s just important for Rondo,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “Another year in the league, he’s more comfortable. He knows they are going to give him shots. It’s just going to keep getting better each year.
“You can be an average shooter, a good shooter, you can be a threat, for sure. I’ve done it, a lot of people have done it. All you have to do is make a couple, you don’t have to make them all. You make a couple - I don’t care how many times your coach tells you your guy’s making jump shots, that makes an impact.
“The more he makes shots, especially off pick-and-rolls, they can’t just go under every time, which rolls up the whole play.’’
This is the one dynamic in the Celtics’ offense that can improve significantly. Allen will likely remain among the most accurate 3-point threats in the league. Pierce should continue to challenge career scoring records. O’Neal is a force on the low post and will convert a high percentage of open shots. Rivers is encouraging Garnett to produce more offense, but this will depend on Rondo’s setups - which will require Rondo to get the defense to respect his jumper, instead of allowing opponents to double-team his teammates.
The choice to upgrade the bench seemed to be the right one, but it was based partly on the return of Jeff Green. But with Green out of action because of a heart defect, the reserve equation has changed.
Instead of having Green, a proven double-figure scorer, as Pierce’s backup, the Celtics will now go with Marquis Daniels and Sasha Pavlovic.
Daniels has been rejuvenated following spinal surgery and seems capable of providing the strong defense and dependable post offense the Celtics expected when he was signed as a free agent two years ago. Pavlovic impressed the Celtics with his one-on-one skills in a backup role in Cleveland and he will be expected to help jump-start the offense.
But, until - and if - the newcomers learn how to execute the halfcourt offense, when the Celtics go to the bench it will be like bringing in a totally opposite-style team. That group will be athletic, dynamic, younger. Brandon Bass (26), Keyon Dooling (31), and Chris Wilcox (29) bring experience and leadership, but their main contributions will be to energize the situation.
In place of a cohesive second unit, there could be a lot of chaos. The Celtics hope Daniels, Dooling, and Pavlovic can control the chaos enough to bring out the best in their younger fellow reserves.
In recent years, the Celtics have gone for bench experience - James Posey, Stephon Marbury, Nate Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal. Now, the theme for the bench is simply to up the tempo with aggression, speed, and ups.
There is little doubt the Celtics are a playoff team. But the contracted regular season will be about managing minutes and preserving energy for the postseason.
If the Celtics are to have a shot at reaching the Finals, they will need Rondo to be calmly draining 20-footers and upping his free throw percentage. Then, all of a sudden, a lot of things will seem easier for the first unit. And, if the talent on the Celtic bench can be harnessed to produce a coherent scoring unit, there will be less stress on the starters and some garbage-time rest periods.
The Celtics veterans know how to be resourceful and stay resilient once they get to the playoffs. The trick will be to arrive in the postseason with momentum and energy to burn.Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.