The Celtics? second unit is looking better every day — Jermaine O?Neal has signed on, Glen Davis keeps getting better and the C?s are close to an agreement with Nate Robinson on a new contract starting next season. But there?s still one thing missing. Will the Celtics? bench survive the loss of Tony Allen?
When the Memphis Grizzlies agreed to terms with T.A. earlier this week on a three-year deal worth around $9.7 million, they did more than poach the ninth man off Doc Rivers? bench. They took away a key defensive stopper in the Celtics? rotation, a big-time role player that helped make the Celtics a championship team.
Defensive specialists don?t grow on trees. But the C?s need to have one if they?re going to contend for a title next season. If they can?t find the next Allen, there will be a huge chink in their armor just waiting to be exposed come playoff time.
Defense wins championships, and every championship team needs at least one plus-defender coming off the bench. For the 2008 Celtics, who restored the franchise to glory and won banner No. 17, that defender was James Posey. The veteran was able to come off the bench, breathe some energy into the lineup, get the Big Three some rest and give the team quality minutes defending the best player on the other team. In the ?08 playoffs, that meant Joe Johnson, LeBron James and, finally, Kobe Bryant. No small task.
When Posey departed, that left the Celtics with a big hole to fill. Rivers gradually tried to ease Tony Allen into that role, but there were growing pains. There were always mental questions with him. After all, this is the same guy who once ruined his season by tearing his ACL and MCL finishing an irrelevant dunk after the referee?s whistle.
Allen was up and down over the course of his final two seasons in Boston. Injuries were part of the problem — bad knees, bad ankles and the like — but even when healthy, the guy was hit or miss. Rivers adjusted accordingly. There would be stretches of the season when Allen eagerly hopped off the bench as a sixth man; there were other stretches where he didn?t play at all.
But when push came to shove and T.A.?s time with the Celtics came to a head, the guy was a vital part of Rivers? rotation in the 2010 playoffs. No question about it: He was Boston?s go-to guy for a big defensive stop, and he took pride in that role.
Star after star invaded the TD Garden in the postseason this spring, and T.A. accepted each challenge like a man. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant — bring it. He was ready.
How can you possibly replace a guy like that?
A quick look up and down the Celtics? roster isn?t too encouraging.
The C?s just drafted Avery Bradley with their No. 19 pick in last month?s draft, and he?s arguably the best defender in the NBA?s rookie class. But he?s also an undersized combo guard at 6-foot-2, which imposes some limits on who he can guard.
They can consider re-signing Marquis Daniels, who signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Celtics last summer and is now an unrestricted free agent again. Daniels is an athletic, versatile swingman in the Tony Allen mold, but only when healthy and only when he?s committed to playing hard. Judging by his first season in Boston, neither of those is exactly a sure thing.
The third option is an outside hire. We?re a couple of weeks in, but there are still free agents out there to be had on the open market, including a few strong wing defenders. The biggest name? Josh Howard, the longtime Dallas Maverick who was shipped to Washington last winter in the Caron Butler trade. Howard is now unemployed and looking for a new gig, and the Celtics just might be interested.
One way or another, the Celtics will have to fill T.A.?s shoes. It?s unclear how.
Will the Celtics survive without him? Maybe. But will they ever be the same? Absolutely not.
NESN.com will answer one Celtics question every day in July.
Wednesday, July 14: Is re-signing Nate Robinson a priority for the Celtics?
Friday, July 16: Does Michael Finley have anything left?