Thursday, March 04, 2004

Tryin' Real Hard to Be the Shepherd

When the Celtics opened the season against Miami, their starting lineup featured:

G Mike James
G Paul Pierce
F Kedrick Brown
F Vin Baker
C Mark Blount

That squad, with big minutes from Tony Battie and Eric Willaims, clobbered the Heat. It did contain however: a back-up shooting guard playing the point, a borderline NBA-talent at the three, and an overpaid power forward who drank too much. Battie and Williams helped, but both were tweeners and Eric was going to be gone at the end of the season anyway. On Monday, Boston took Orlando apart using the following starters:

G Chucky Atkins
G Paul Pierce
F Jiri Welsch
F Brandon Hunter
C Mark Blount

This time the major bench players were Ricky Davis and Walter McShootsTooMuch -- nothing to brag about -- but at least the first five have improved. That's right, I said improved. Look, right now Danny Ainge is about as popular as Tiger Woods at a Klan rally (heyooo), and has made more questionable decisions than George Bush filling out a multiplication table (heyooo heyooo), but things aren't all bad. Sure he overvalues draft picks, and yeah, he probably should've gotten more for Antoine, but this team has become watchable. There were a couple of months in there (including the end of the Jim O'Brien era) where it physically hurt to look at them. The offense was its typical OB atrocity, and the defense was just good enough to make it the team motto, but not ever able to actually take a game over. They were bad, and they had no hope of getting better.

This has not, in reality, changed much. These Celtics are pretty lousy, but there are a few good signs. They now have the youngest roster in basketball (not easy to do when you're untold millions over the cap). Brandon Hunter is going to have trouble scoring on anything other than offensive rebounds, but he can really board. The Charles Barkley comparison is inappropriate, but anyone think he won't frequently threaten a double-double? Jiri Welsch has a lot of exciting ability, and is the sort of kitchen-sink guy that championship teams seem to have around. Chucky Atkins is overpaid, but he plays the point. He is a legitimate, surefire, bona fide #1, something the Celtics haven't seen since Sherman Douglas (shocking but true). Is he great? No. Is he good? Ask again later. But he knows the position. He can push and he can slow it up, he passes when he ought to and he shoots when he should -- and frankly, at this point, I'll take it. They weren't going to be able to use the Chris Mills cap room anyway, so shouldn't Celtic fans applaud Ainge for putting it into a player? Maybe Chucky's not the ideal one, but at the very least, he can help Banks learn the position. Every time a major market team says they're going to rebuild, fans start out behind it. They insist they'll be patient and understanding, and then they freak out. "Wait, I didn't know the team was going to totally stink!" Well guess what Sully, they totally stink. And if Ainge were a bit more up front about his mystical "3 year plan", this might go a little easier. But I look at the starting five and I see players with upside and skill sets that the Celtics haven't had in a while. My brain tells me this isn't going as well as it could, but my heart saw Paul Pierce come off a double screen on Monday and started to swoon. Maybe with a coach that cares about offense and a little luck in the draft, Boston could make things fun again? I don't know the answer to that question, but at least I'm starting to ask it. Two months ago, I wouldn't have even bothered.