WALTHAM, Mass. — Doc Rivers never had any problem
convincing his players to share the ball last season, as evidenced by the
Celtics' league-leading assist percentage. When the passing game would break
down — which was more often than Rivers liked — the difficulty was a problem
of execution, rather than intent.
Almost to a man, last year's Celtics players were naturally
unselfish. Yet despite the presence of all-world passers like Rajon Rondo and
Kevin Garnett, the Celtics were not an outstanding passing team. They simply
did not have the personnel to move the ball as well as they expect to this
season, with the addition of at least three frontcourt players with excellent
court vision and passing instincts for their positions.
Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger and Darko Milicic add that
dimension to the offense, and Jason Terry is an underrated passer as well. Add
those four to a lineup with Garnett, Rondo and Paul Pierce, and Rivers could
send out a group in which all five players are above-average passers. In fact,
Rivers intends to do just that.
"I don't know if we're more unselfish" this year,
Rivers said Friday at the Celtics' practice facility. "More skilled might
be a better word. I thought last year we were unselfish. We just didn't have a
bunch of great passers. This year we just have better passers. Darko's a
phenomenal passer. Jared's a good passer. Jeff Green's a great passer. That's
three guys we didn't have."
As mentioned above, the Celtics led the NBA by assisting on
more than two-thirds of their field goals last season. They were almost five
full percentage points better than the second-place team, the Bucks, yet their
offensive efficiency was still the seventh-worst in the league at only 98.9
points per 100 possessions.
Much of that blame falls on turnovers. Rondo was a
major culprit, as his 3.6 turnovers per game matched Russell Westbrook for the
fifth-highest average in the league. But the fault was not Rondo's alone.
Almost 15 percent of the Celtics' possessions ended in a turnover, a mark that
was worse than the lowly Nets, Cavs, Wizards or Bobcats. The Oklahoma City
Thunder had the highest turnover rate of 15.25 percent, but the Western
Conference champions more than offset that by playing at a much faster pace
than the Celtics.
(The Thunder averaged 95.3 possessions per game, or 1.5 more
than the league average, en route to the NBA Finals last season. The Celtics
averaged 92.3 possessions per game, or 1.5 less than the league average, and
were bailed out most of the time by their strong defense.)
Rivers and Danny Ainge, the Celtics' president of basketball
operations, recognized that this was a potentially fatal problem. That was why
Rivers' offseason shopping list for Ainge included another strong backcourt
defender, a rebounder, a few backup big men and a playmaker or two.
came through with checks next to every box.