Back in the fall of 2007 I wrote several articles on the Aces and Spaces makeup resulting from emptying the cupboard to assemble the Big Three. The youngsters Rondo and Perkins plus the addition of Posey and House and later PJ provided just enough support to bring home the championship with the All-Stars still in their prime. Fast-forward two and a half years and the team is much more balanced but also less dominating.
Certainly the Big Three have dropped off with time. We all expected as much all the while hoping against hope that they would defy logic and withstand the ravages of age. Alas, no elixir from the Fountain of Youth appeared and we are left with the Pretty-Good Three. On the other hand the hoped-for progress of Rondo and Perkins has been a pleasant surprise. Together they comprise a starting Fierce Five that, when healthy, may actually surpass the Big Three and Kids. The caveat of course is "when healthy." With aging stars there is no legitimate reason (hope, but not reason) to expect them to all be healthy at the same time, nor to stay that way. Hence the supporting cast has become much more important.
I would posit that part of the reason for the string of nagging injuries to the Big Three (or at least Pierce and Garnett) has been the unavailability of the supporting cast assembled by Danny Ainge. The backups have put their thumbs on the problem; or rather their thumbs have been the problem. Big Baby's brain fart of a rumble with his pal and Marquis Daniels' torn tendon have resulted in two thumb surgeries that have cost the pair 55 games missed (and several more sub par while working back into game shape). Also Tony Allen has been slow to recover from his maladies dating back to last season. The consequence has been to deny the team the opportunity to blend and develop a smooth working relationship or rotation. Also a casualty has been the chance of rest for and reduced load on the Big Aging Three and the oldest member of the cast, Rasheed Wallace. Finally, Doc, rather than dialing up the combinations to exploit mismatches and cover weaknesses, has been reduced to cobbling together lineups from those physically able to perform.
The Championship team featured an awesome first five and a strong sixth man in Posey. Beyond that were capable subs through the eighth spot (nine after the addition of PJ). The current team offers a strong starting lineup and excellent backups (although only backups) at four, maybe even all five, positions. An interesting side note is that these backups each offer a skill set considerably different from the starter at their position. This might even be an asset but it does mean that the substitutions are far from seamless and that the teammates must alter their mindset when playing with a backup rather than the starter. The starting five no longer offers the star quality of the Championship team but the younger duo are much improved and overall the group may average out about the same. Unfortunately since only one player has the ball at a time, superlatives have always had a greater impact than the averaged strength. I think few would argue that the second five on the current team is much stronger than the backups of the 2007-08 team. The ultimate question may be whether 48 minutes of excellent basketball can be as successful as 40 minutes of tremendous ball and eight minutes of holding the fort.
If the entire troop is in good form and all are contributing to the best of their abilities then this aggregation may carry the day. One aspect oft overlooked is that the starters for most teams take plays (and sometimes days) off. They don't get back on defense, or don't hurry down court trailing the break, or don't take that extra step to get in position. Sometimes this means an easy bucket for the opposition, sometimes a foul due to reaching from out of position, sometimes the break fizzles because there is no trailer, sometimes an opponent waltzes in to steal a rebound, and sometimes a player settles for a poorer shot because there is no cutter or screen. All these little sins of omission can be minimized by the utilization of depth. Fatigue makes cowards of us all--it is tempting to grab a rest, and stars are used to conserving energy when they are not in the center of the action. To truly take full advantage of the supporting cast Ainge has provided, each player needs to play hard every minute they are on the court. If they trust their teammates to take up the slack, and wear down the opponent, when they are on the bench then their own max effort upon their return will be against slightly tired defender. This is a recipe for success, but it must be ingrained. It won't happen "just because" when the push comes to shove and the play is for all the marbles.
It will be interesting to watch the integration of Nate Robinson into the team. Most ballyhooed has been his energy but I think there are other aspects that may be of even greater effect. Rondo has been noticeably tired late in some games. Nate's ability to spell Rondo should mean several things not the least of which is that Rondo should have more energy when he is playing. Advancing the ball past mid court should be much less of an adventure than with House playing the point. It should also be possible to get into the offense before the defense is set up and even if they get back there should be enough time to explore several options rather than one. When the shot clock does dwindle, Nate is capable of generating his own shot--a facet completely lacking in the second unit heretofore. His presence and the pick-and-roll attack should create ample opportunities for cutters and jump shooters alike. Nate assuming the point on the second unit allows Daniels to concentrate on backing up the swing positions. Pierce and Ray Allen should both benefit from this.
Finally, while the Celtics have a smothering half-court helping defense, they seldom challenge the advance of the ball. With Nate, Rondo, Tony, and Marquis they could make bringing the ball up court a difficult task. Even if they don't get the steal or 8-second turnover, bleeding off the 24-second clock would allow opponents little time to run through their offensive options. The beneficial counterpoint to this attacking defense is generating offense off defense. Those same four ball-hawks make a pretty potent lay-up drill.
Bottom line is that the stronger the second unit becomes, the more potent that allows the starters to be. As this team continues to morph from top-heavy talent to solid rotational strength, it could allow the offensive and defensive pressure to become unrelenting. Is Nate another step in that direction? Is it enough? Stay tuned.