Danny Ainge made a series of moves during the offseason that were interpreted as efforts to fortify the Celtics’ bench. Despite the Celtics’ struggles overall, it would appear that mission, at least, was successful.
The Celtics’ bench scoring is up almost 40 percent over last season, when only the Lakers got fewer points from their reserves. At 13-13, the Celtics are only one game behind their pace through the same number of games last season, when they rode a late-season surge all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. So far, the Celtics are getting the same offensive production from their bench as the Oklahoma City Thunder are getting from their second unit, which includes Sixth Man of the Year candidate Kevin Martin.
Boston’s bench improvement is somewhat misleading, though. Teams with lots of stars often get less production from their benches, since the All-Star starters do a lot of things on their own, and the Celtics had four current or former All-Stars last season. (Miami’s backups, for instance, scored the third-fewest points of any bench in the NBA in 2011-12.) The Celtics are also playing at a faster pace, leading to more than two extra possessions per game than last season, which leads to more scoring opportunities for starters and non-starters alike.
Then there is the sticky matter of the Celtics having no true “second unit” to credit for the improvement.
“I think we’re still searching,” said Jason Terry, who was signed to bolster the bench but has started 18 games to give Boston an offensive boost while Avery Bradley recovers from shoulder surgery. “We still don’t know exactly what that unit is. I’ve been on that second unit, there’s been a lot of different guys in and out of that second unit. Once we get our first unit right, then we can even talk about having a second unit. We’ve got some talent over there. We’ve got some guys that individually are good and talented, but it’s about how we play together as a group.”
When Jason Collins joined the starting lineup last week, he became the ninth player to start a game for the Celtics this season. All of last season, when a lockout-condensed schedule was supposed to increase the need for juggled lineups to keep players rested and healthy, the Celtics needed only 13 players to start at various times. Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox have been the only two rotation players to be used exclusively off the bench. Even Leandro Barbosa, who was signed late in the preseason, got a start when Rajon Rondo sprained his ankle in mid-November.
Bradley’s return, which becomes more imminent every day, should help clarify the muddled lineups. With Bradley starting at two-guard, Celtics coach Doc Rivers can bring Terry and Courtney Lee off the bench as a true second-unit backcourt with Green, Wilcox and Jared Sullinger. There is still the matter of how long Collins will remain a starter, in which case Brandon Bass‘ contribution to the bench would have to be considered as well. But Bass’ presence or absence will not make or break either unit.
The players raved last month about a meeting in which Rivers defined each player’s role. Each one accepted his assignment, but since then the responsibilities have gotten foggy as starters became backups, and back again. For the reserves to find some consistency, the Celtics first need to figure out just who those reserves are.