Any discussion of improvement has to begin with the health and play of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. If they were playing as they did in November, even November 2009 much less 2007, the Boston Celtics would be an entirely different team. The supporting cast that Danny has assembled is an excellent complement to a well tuned starting five. None of them are an adequate replacement for any member of those starters.
When the Big Three Era began I opined that in three years the team needed to be in a position to let the older stars begin to transition into lesser roles. Today I still feel that way but Danny's efforts have been to complement not supplant the aging warriors. That would have worked, at least through this season, if the trio had remained hale and hearty. Nine (3x3) seasons of good health for mid-thirties players was never a high percentage play.
It still could have a positive outcome this year. The bitch of it is that it seems impossible to know what course of action gives the best chance of Pierce and Garnett returning to a high level of functioning in time for the playoffs. Should they be shut down for a week? Two weeks? Should they sit out the second of back-to-backs? Should they be limited to just enough run to stay warm, say five minutes on the court and four off? Can their bodies get well (or at least better) while playing? I don't think Paul and Kevin can tell you. We are in uncharted waters here. It is not like players get older more than once so that they know how best to do it. Doc has talked upon occasion about the need for the Big Three to play significant minutes (I think we're talking 30 here not 40) in order for them to keep their rhythm. Was the 35-minute routine of the fall too much? Was it part of the reason that they began to break down?
Let's say, for the moment, that a regular routine of 30 mpg will allow them to round into shape (good shape not bad or broken) and is sustainable. That leaves about 40% of the game (18 minutes) needing to be filled by production, not just treading water. So what will it take to get true production out of the second unit? In November both Big Baby and Tony Allen were out. A second unit of Sheed, Williams, Daniels, House, and one starter was pretty effective. It even worked with Giddens or Scal (Walker was still out) as the fifth member of the backup unit. Then Daniels needed thumb surgery, House got and stayed cold, and Wallace went from hitting everything to nothing. Since then House is gone, Marquis has gone out and returned, Davis and Tony Allen are back, and Nate and Finley have been added. There are several problems, some major, some minor, some with solutions, some that will just have to remain limitations.
The second unit had developed to be lacking firepower, especially from outside. House never really hit his stride this year. Sheed came out blazing from the three-point line, dropped off and has never recovered his touch. Baby couldn't hit the jumper when he finally returned. Scal never got any kind of a rhythm going. Daniels was never an outside threat and even his mid-game was sub-par following his return from thumb surgery. After the addition of Nate, the Mighty-Mite seemed to bring the outside shooting House had been unable to provide this year. Just as, maybe more, important was the fact that he could create his own shot and jumble defenses to create openings for others. Wallace slowly seemed to accept his reduced efficiency from outside and spent more, and more effective, time in the blocks. Daniels returned to form with his cuts and herky-jerky drives producing baskets anywhere from 12' on in. Finally the late addition of Finley brought another outside threat and a bit more size to relieve Pierce. Michael can not likely continue his insane percentage shooting but will be a valuable contributor even if he settles down into the 40's. Slight upgrades, returns from the injured list, a more rounded mix, and good recipe ingredients portend better results from the second team.
It is often mentioned that the Celtics sets, both offensive and defensive, are more complicated than most. They also require recognition and reassessment from the players as duties, assignments, and responsibilities are fluid and reactive. This is not the man-on-man, I got number 12, throw it to me and I'll do something game so prevalent in the NBA. It has created problems with not only the dim-witted (Hello Gerald Green and Marcus Banks) but also slow adapters (Leon, Big Baby, Giddens, Walker, Williams, and Mikki all struggled). So far Nate seems eager and not slow-witted and Doc had rosy comments about Finley (Sunday's Herald, "Rivers said Finley is the best player he’s ever coached in regards to picking up sets on the fly. While Finley said it’s a work in progress, he’s feeling comfortable in his new surroundings.") Doc helped the adjustment for Robinson by giving Nate a Knicks' play so he was the teacher and the rest of the team was the newbies, at least for one set. As mid-season additions go this melding promises to be much more seamless and painless than most.
With Nate and Finley replacing House and Tony the athleticism may be about even but the ball handling, outside shooting, and ball movement are much improved. After lengthy absences, both Davis and Daniels are regaining their rhythm and confidence. If Sheed continues to work in the box, this second group will improve with familiarity, both with the system and with each other. More production from the second unit means more and better relief for the starters and that should pay benefits across quarters, games and the season.
There are some flaws with individuals that could be improved. These aren't new developments so changes are hardly a given. Perk could drop 2 turnovers and fouls a game by not trying to "improve" his picks with a shoulder, hip, or slide. The odd part is that this actually suggests a lack of faith in his teammates who if they use the screen properly don't need the improvement--just run closer to the rock, I mean Perk, I mean pick. Big Baby has been our most effective offensive rebounder. He can vastly improve the effectiveness of this effort by recognizing when he is surrounded by opponents who can out jump him (meaning everyone) and that the crowd means he has teammates open so a kick-out pass not only avoids a block but also is a likely assist. With half the team hitting their mid-thirties individual energy is in limited supply. By recognizing that the depth has been improved, experienced (older) players should not (not have to, or need to, just plain NOT) fail to box out, hustle back, fill the lane, or close out on the outside shooter. If you are in the game play hard, if you need to rest come out!
It is late in the season. Fortunately there is still time for improvement. The pieces are in place to provide that improvement. There is every chance for a synergistic effect between improvement on the second team and effects for and upon the starting unit. If Pierce and Garnett get even close to "right" and the backups gel then the Green could hit the playoffs playing their best ball of the year.
Honest opinion, no they won't improve enough. Health won't improve enough. Second team can't improve enough to compensate for drop off in Big Three. But I do think that Ainge gave them the best chance he could, and stuck with them at the deadline when he probably should have begun the rebuild.