The vaunted class of players the Celtics signed, re-signed or otherwise acquired in 2012 has so far failed to live up to its “scary good” billing. Kevin Garnett has been an unmitigated success, but Jason Terry has suffered more long shooting droughts than hot streaks, Jeff Green has been largely ineffective, Darko Milicic is no longer with the team and Chris Wilcox has battled illnesses and injuries. There is still ample time for them to improve their grades, of course, but the midterm report on the Celtics’ offseason signings is a resounding “needs improvement.”
Then there is Courtney Lee, whose performance this season, like the Celtics’ performance as a whole, is a work in progress. Lee has been far from bad. He has been solid, even excellent at times, despite playing time that has fluctuated based on matchups, the availability of the rest of the guards on Boston’s roster and his own effectiveness. As Avery Bradley works his way back to form after missing the first 30 games to recover from double-shoulder surgery, Lee’s place in the rotation is only now coming into focus.
Lee began the year as the starting shooting guard, which had been the plan all offseason while Bradley recuperated, then shifted to the bench after five games. He has started six games since then, mostly to fill in while Rajon Rondo served a suspension or dealt with minor injuries, and as long as Rondo and Bradley stay healthy, Lee is likely to remain on the bench for the foreseeable future. Rather than taking his removal from the starting lineup as a demotion, Lee has welcomed the predictability that will come with knowing his place as a reserve.
“As far as my role, my role’s always been the same,” Lee said. “But as far as the rotation, that’s been different. I started, came off the bench, started, came off the bench, sixth man, seventh man, you never know. That’s the only thing about it. Other than that, my role’s always been the same.”
Lee’s role as a pressure defender and an athletic occasional scorer with the ability to perform spot duty bringing up the ball has made him somewhat redundant with Bradley, who is a superior defender but a bit less polished on the offensive end. This has led to Lee being mentioned in trade rumors, since the overlap in talents with Bradley would seem to make Lee expendable. That assumption, however, is deaf to the lesson the Celtics have already learned with another of their superlative defenders.
Garnett is every bit as good an interior defender as Bradley is on the perimeter. Considering all the extra responsibilities a big man has, Garnett may be even more valuable. Yet the Celtics encounter a massive problem when Garnett leaves the court. They have no big guys capable of performing anywhere close to Garnett’s level on defense — or offense, for that matter — and the drop-off results in the Celtics performing, on a statistical level, on par with the worst teams in the NBA.
Those struggles have brought all sorts of panicky proposed solutions. There was the early-season nibble on Marcin Gortat, the ongoing fascination with as-yet-unsigned 35-year-old Kenyon Martin, and the temptation of DeMarcus Cousins, who allegedly just needs a swift kick from Doc Rivers to put him in line. This is where Lee supposedly comes in. If the Celtics already have a ball-stopper in Bradley, they can deal away another decent ball-stopper to shore up the middle.
Still, if the Celtics had a backup big man who was Lee’s equal as a guard, they probably would not be in such a dire position. By removing him, the Celtics could be fixing one problem while creating another one. If Bradley experiences a setback, the perimeter defense could be right back where it started at the beginning of the season — or worse, since Lee would be gone, and Terry and Leandro Barbosa have never been known as shutdown defenders.
Lee has started to find his way in the Celtics’ system of late. After he chipped in 13 points and five rebounds in Friday’s win over the Pacers, Rivers, Bradley and Paul Pierce noted how Lee is gradually beginning to look comfortable in his ever-evolving role.
“Courtney’s really been playing well as of late the last few weeks,” Pierce said. “I think he’s starting to understand what we need from him. He’s picking his spots. He’s getting to where he’s going to get his shots from. He’s playing terrific defense. He’s getting out, running the lanes on offense. I think he’s getting more and more familiar, more and more comfortable with the system, and he’s just going to get better as time goes on.”
Lee himself admits that he is not nearly the defender Bradley is. If the Celtics must decide between dealing one of them, it really would not be a very hard decision. Yet there is value in being able to give Bradley a rest and replacing him with another capable defender, especially when that defender is a professional, 27-year-old veteran who accepts and embraces that role.
“Avery’s a tremendous defender,” Lee said. “I mean, the stuff he’s doing, I’m out there looking at him like, this dude’s crazy. He’s turning them. He’s right there. He’s quick. I was like that my first couple years, but a few years in the league get to you. He’s a great on-ball defender, man. He’s doing a lot of good things, and when I come in, I just want to pick up defensively where he left off at.”
As Lee continues to grasp what the Celtics expect of him, games like Friday should become more frequent. Do not be so eager to declare Lee expendable yet.