Did the trade that sent big man Kendrick Perkins and guard Nate Robinson to the Oklahoma Thunder for bigs Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green make the Boston Celtics better? Probably not. Did it make them worse? Probably not. Though Celtics nation is up in arms over the surprise dealing of their best and grimiest front court defender this was a move based on a lot more on the future than the present. Nobody likes to hear that when a championship is in sight, particularly when it is being viewed through a shrinking window.
Remember that few gave the Celtics a hope in hell of getting back to the NBA Final last year before they started a dominant run through the eastern conference playoffs, even with a fully healthy Perkins anchoring the defensive middle. They eventually blew a 14-point lead in an epic Game 7 battle versus the Los Angeles Lakers, a game they played without Perkins after he sustained a serious knee injury that kept him out of action for 43 games to start this season. In his absence the Celtics beat the Miami Heat (twice), Chicago Bulls (2-1), San Antonio Spurs and his new team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Impressive, But that’s not what prompted them to ship out the eight-year Celtics veteran.
While acquiring oldies but goodies in Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal in the offseason to make up for the loss of Perkins in the early going was sound insurance, it wasn’t just a policy plotted to buoy the front court while he rehabbed, it was also to keep some beef in the bucket in case Perkins didn’t fully recover in time to be his old self. With the O’Neals hobbled all season following various injuries Perkins’ January 25th return was essential to the Celtics current success just as the impending return of the O’Neals will be to their playoff ride. Beefing up their front line with a more than servicable Krstic and young, underrated stud in Green is nothing to sneeze at but that wasn’t what prompted this swap either.
Wax all you want about the value of sports loyalty but its roots are most often found curled around a large cheque. The bighest bidder. That wasn’t likely to be the Celtics. After all, they reportedly offered Perkins a $22M deal, about $8M less than the 26-year was apparently seeking. If he had performed at an even higher degree than he has for the last three seasons during the Celtics’ big run he could have demanded even more. He priced himself out of Boston at $30M. Was general manager Danny Ainge supposed to watch that number inflate to the point of getting nothing for his defensive star at season’s end?
Like Denver and Utah the Celtics were not prepared to be left empty-handed as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors essentially were last summer when LeBron James and Chris Bosh flamboyantly left for Miami, leaving their former teams to recover in a “what happened?”, drunk-tank kind of way. Perkins is no James or Bosh or Carmelo Anthony or Deron Williams but with the O’Neals looking more like the one-year rentals they were expected to be and Kevin Garnett valiantly playing in the twilight of his career, Green represents a present and a future more stable than one with Perkins may have started to look like. Lost in the tears being shed for (and by) Perkins is the fact that he shunned a reasonable extension while injured – fully in his right to do – and then took it hard when the Celtics, who are paying Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo a combined $51M this season (and another $56M in 2011-12) balked at his suspected price tag.
Also lost in all the huffing and puffing about Perkins is the potential of the incoming Green, a younger building block forward who scored twice as many points but clocked three less rebounds than Perkins in 11 more minutes a game. His 43.7% shooting mark is concerning but he’ll be forced to be more efficient in less opportunities playing among the Celtics’ top four. Green’s player efficiency rating (PER) was a +14.5 to Perkins’ +11.4 at the time of the trade and with no falloff in quality support in Boston a drastic change in impact is unlikely. Not so fast for the Thunder though, who announced that Perkins would be missing three weeks due to an injury to his other knee. That was followed with his untimely comments that Oklahoma was one of the situations he was really pushing his agent to explore when the season ended and his free agency tour began.
“God works in mysterious ways,” was Perkins’ cliche summary of the trade. So the Celtics actually did him a favour? Spin or spiritual? Bewildered Celtics fans, don’t cry too much for your beloveds. Cry not for the departed. Cry maybe for Green, who could have said something like, “I was looking forward to leaving everything we built on and off the court in Oklahoma and the joy of playing alongside two of the leagues top 10 players. I was telling my agent that whenever I become a free agent, I want the Celtics to be first on my list.” but didn’t. For a man considered to be the worse end of the deal – and the dispensable part of the Thunder’s big three behind Kevin Durant and the emergence of Russell Westbrook – Green will still be expected to be a big contributor on a real contender. How he responds could spin this trade further.
The truth is, with durability issues in the front court the Celtics will only go so far as Rondo, Allen and Pierce take them. The trio will be pushed harder in the playoffs without Robinson on board and rookie Avery Bradley having a low-impact first season. Guard Delonte West, out since November with a broken right wrist, is still in rehab for the injury and is without a firm return date. On the other end front court fragility now has solid support in the Glen Davis, Green and Krstic combination. Perkins was known for being able to check Dwight Howard but the Celtics are less concerned about the Orlando Magic this season than they are the Miami Heat and at full health they still possess a deeper well of quality big men than any contender in the eastern conference and perhaps second only to the Bulls in collective talent.
At worst the Celtics gave up 50 extra pounds of handy beef, the weight difference between Green and Perkins. That weight allowed Perkins to do some very impressive things to opponents in a very muscular way. The straight outta high school rock will ultimately do the same for the Thunder and if he can return to full health they should be considered legitimate contenders to the western conference crown. Can you honestly say that they Celtics don’t still hold that rank in the east?
Miami Heat power forward Chris Bosh was criticized steadily during the free agent process sweeping across the NBA these days, and not for his decision to bolt the Toronto Raptors after seven seasons. In media circles Bosh was being poked for doing a stateside tour of playoff games sites and their local media while never once addressing the fan base in T.O. that first brought him fame.
On Tuesday Bosh broke that silence with a guest appearance on FAN 590 radio a week after joining LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to form an electrifying trio for the Miami Heat. Before that however, his whirlwind tour of interested parties included a blackout of Canadian media and a barrage of twitter messages that drew the ire of fans and even some media.
“At no time did I want to offend anybody or make anybody upset,” said Bosh. “I just wanted to reach out to the fans everywhere. If people felt betrayed I’m sorry for that.”
Still, despite seven years of service ending with an abrupt and controversial slam Bosh has no regrets about the rollercoaster car he let fans in on. No doubt there will be a lot of eye-rolling that his Toronto media appearance comes at the end of the ride, when most of the important questions have already been answered.
“I’m happy with the way I handled things,” said Bosh. “I don’t think I got out of line at any time.
“I stick by my decisions. If I could do it over I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Bosh is unlike any other basketball star the city has seen. Its first franchise player Damon Stoudamire whined his way into a trade out of town to his hometown Portland Trailblazers after a soured relationship with team management. Ditto for Tracy McGrady who forced his way back to his home state of Florida. Vince Carter did likewise many years later and then – from his new home with the New Jersey Nets – admitted to dogging it on the court while playing with the Raptors. Bosh committed none of the above infractions and while he may not have been as dynamic a player as the above-mentioned trio, from beginning to end he was the team’s best ambassador and rarely, if ever, stopped pushing his game.
“I miss Toronto,” said Bosh. “I will always miss it. I have nothing but good to say about organization and the city.”
It is a city that is sure to react strongly when Bosh returns as part of the most hyped combination of players this generation has ever seen. As part of the Wade/James gang he will already being feeling a more intense spotlight but for him the wattage will increase each time he steps across the border and returns to the Air Canada Centre twice a year. Stoudamire, McGrady and Carter all received a violent delivery of boos and jeers for years after their defections. Bosh may have been more loved but that won’t change the salt-in-the-wounds feeling most northern hoops fans are still smarting from a week after the Bosh era ended for them.
“As far as the boos are concerned,” said Bosh. “I hope they don’t.”
Alas, Bosh has always been much smarter than that.
Nobody can hide from the truth and with one game remaining in the NBA regular season the Toronto Raptors are still ducking. Trying to play the new underdog role as they sit outside the playoff picture sounds like a last ditch ploy at self-motivation in a self-destruct season.
How do you know that the Raptors are uncomfortable with who they are? That they have yet to secure an identity that lasts more than a few weeks? The answer can be found – at least in part – in the moves that have gone down over the last month within and around the team.
A total of four changes to the starting line up have been made during the last three weeks. The broken face that ended Bosh’s season last week forced a move at power forward but it remains the only change that wasn’t by head coach Jay Triano’s own design. The changes began by returning Jarrett Jack to the bench in favor of adding Calderon’s handles and experience to the frontline. Rookie DeMar DeRozan was sent to the bench as well and after a disappointing season and an ill-advised night on the town Hedo Turkoglu’s act finally wore thin with the team. He was benched for a game and disciplined for going out to eat after claiming he was ill and pulling himself out of a blow-out contest at halftime.
Scrambling to find the right mix of players in March is insanity for a team in a battle for the last playoff spot in the east. The various reasons behind the moves, at the end of the day, don’t matter. Either does the emergence of Sonny Weems as a go-to scorer and Amir Johnson as a capable performer on both sides of the ball. Even if you are in love with DeRozan’s upside – if not his current side – he represents a youth movement quietly brewing in the Raptors’ background. Add a newly minted Andrea Bargnani and a young point guard in Jack, not to mention another lottery pick should the Raptors fail top qualify for the postseason, and suddenly the squad seems to be built more for the future than the now.
Listening to Triano give props to his team’s effort after a drubbing at the hands of the Chicago Bulls on Sunday- the team that took over the eighth seed with that win – was an insult to anybody who bought a ticket or watched from home. Triano is a class act and would never throw his charges under the bus but there is a difference between that and simply telling it like it is. Sugarcoating the team’s toughness issues and motivational shortcomings is to downplay a glaring weakness that nobody in the organization seems capable of fixing. It is perhaps the one thing that keeps this team, year after year, from getting over the hump. It is what keeps them faceless.
With the Bulls’ win over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night all the playoff seeds have been set in the east. All except for the eighth spot. To claim it the Raptors must beat New York at the Air Canada Centre on the final day of their season while hoping that the Charlotte Bobcats, who have already claimed their playoff spot, beat a Bulls teams that will be playing the second game of a back-to-back to end their schedule.
In Jett Johnson’s SWAY Sports feature “The Last Stretch” he predicted that the “race for eight” would be decided on the last day of the season and so it shall be. Still, win or lose, the Raptors have serious decisions to make. There is a core of signed players like Turkoglu, Calderon, Bargnani and Jack circled around an unsigned Chris Bosh, who seems further from the team than ever before. His supporting cast is an expensive, hard-to-move collective that may not appeal to him they way they did last summer. His huge All-Star season seems for naught now, and the confounding way this team disappears when it matters helped to make it so.
Alas, even Bosh must be questioned. He was selected the NBA eastern conference player of the week before he injured himself but it isn’t all about the numbers. His aggression has taken a significant slide and his tendency not to force the issue inside has hurt the Raptors. His free throw attempts took a serious dip upon his return and without him the stand-around-and-watch syndrome of some of his frontcourt partners is coming back to haunt them. Without Bosh the team sunk and being more than a one-man show is necessary for success in the L. Bosh could not have liked what he saw in his absence, both during his post all-star break, injury-induced six game sit or now with his season over.
General manager Bryan Colangelo, after returning just four players from his 2008-09 roster, might be faced with doing it all again. Armed with a new contract extension he has some room to stretch but with a second straight season ending on the outside of the playoffs a possibility, how thin is the ice?
Nobody knows for sure and perhaps that is one of the problems with this squad. Mystery surrounds injuries, movement and even accountability at every turn but there is no mystery to the truth. The Raptors as-is are dysfunctional and it is nothing that a playoff appearance will ever fix. The team is a leaderless band of splintered ideologies that rarely mesh and without a uniting presence, be it player or coach, the dysfunction will continue. Its coach and franchise player most often forges a team’s identity. The concern in Raptorland is that it might already be what’s happened.
Two games into the 2009 NBA Final and the story with the biggest impact has been the return of Jameer Nelson. The All-Star point guard returned to these playoffs after a four-month layoff, just in time for Game 1 of the Final where he played 23 minutes including the entire second quarter. Independently there were positive and productive signs for Nelson but team-wise, an ultimately inferior result as his Orlando Magic lost 100-75 to the Los Angeles Lakers. Which might beg the question; who runs this team anyway? Was Nelson’s importance so heavy for the Magic’s ultimate success that three rounds of increasingly impressive wins could not outweigh it?
Before Nelson’s official comebackance it seemed the players were blowing the trumpets at his return while coaches and management downplayed it all the way. Hard to believe that one man’s decision went into making the call that could potentially – and has – drastically changed the series. There are the doctors and trainers and therapists and coaches and general manager and of course, Nelson himself. It’s been reported that Nelson spoke with both replacement starter Rafer Alston and reserve point guard Anthony Johnson to gauge their comfort level regarding a possible return. Both reportedly welcomed it. Convinced? GM Otis Smith accepted it. Head coach Stan Van Gundy pushed and backed it.
And it has backfired.
The fluidity with which the Magic has played with in the biggest games of their postseason has gone missing. The Game 6 first round series clincher versus Philadelphia in Round 1 without a suspended Dwight Howard, the homecourt grabbing Game 1 win over Cleveland in Round 3 and the Round 2, Game 7 win in Boston come to mind. Suddenly open shots have turned into ugly dares and confidence has waned. Something is off in the chemistry, despite an impressive overtime battle in Game 2. If not for 18 points from forward Rashard Lewis in the second quarter the Magic would have been blown out before the half. After shooting under 30 percent from the field in their Game 1 loss the Magic shot a more respectable 41 percent but ultimately just as ineffective. Center Dwight Howard has been a mute, totaling six field goals on six for 16 shooting for a series total of 29 points.
Sure the bigs on the Lakers are using all kinds of length to disrupt Howard from getting the ball in the post, but the fact that they shrink on him so much means Orlando shooters have a second more to fire away. Missing their shots is a product of hesitancy and rhythm. J.J. Redick, another guard that has cut into available backcourt minutes this series, has been a victim of this. Nelson’s return can’t help but contribute to that look in some way. He handles the rock, dribbles plenty and controls tempo – but not too well at the moment. When he’s out there the Magic look out of sync. After 23 minutes of burn in Game 1 Nelson was checked to a more understandable 16 minutes and change in Game 2. He started the first three minutes of the fourth quarter in Game 1 when Van Gundy inexplicably played him in the final frame despite a 29-point deficit. Nelson was also strangely re-inserted into that game with just over four minutes remaining with the Magic on the wrong side of an 89-65 score. Johnson never got off the bench.
In Game 2 Nelson was managed more conservatively and played in just four minutes of the fourth and not at all in the overtime period. The Magic, until Gasol’s seven-point OT outburst that sealed a 101-96 Lakers victory, had looked more comfortable and assertive. In fact, Nelson played just seven second half minutes. Yet Alston did not play in the fourth Q either and by the time he got back in the game midway through OT he was cold and ineffective. So much for dynamic guard play. Seems outside of Mikael Pietrus the backcourt rotation has gotten straight loopy.
Alston, by the way, is 3 for 17 from the field since his minutes have become a guessing game in the championship series. He has just one steal and a total of six assists over 50 minutes after averaging nearly 13 points, four assists and two steals in the first three rounds. Van Gundy’s insistence on “sticking by” Nelson may have worn off some but the damage may have already been done. This isn’t to say the Nelson is the cause for the hole the Magic finds itself in. Nor is he, or Van Gundy for that matter, responsible for missed easy looks and. Van Gundy’s tactical resume improved in Game 2 but the trick will be to repeat the performance.
Is that where Miami Heat president Pat Riley saw the crack in the armor? When Riley fired Van Gundy as head coach of the Heat midway through the 2006 season it was because Riley felt that Van Gundy had reached his peak with the team, and would not be capable of navigating the favored Heat to a title. Riley took over as bench boss and the Heat went on to capture the NBA title. That left Van Gundy with a bit of a perception to shake and he has in many ways with his job coaching the Magic to the second best record in the eastern conference and through a tough postseason hit list. Still, he’ll have to make some tougher decisions that stick if he is to totally shed the tag applied by Riley and the firing.
Chemistry is tricky and there are some players who are so good that there is no dispute as to whether or not they will play coming off an injury if they send the word. Players whose absences leave holes so large that any chance of their return is salivate over. Players so good that their returns are essential. With the way the Magic had adapted to life without their starting point guard, and despite the All-Star year he had, Nelson is not one of those players. Not in this scenario.
“We love having him back,” Alston told Florida Today. “He symbolizes so much of what this organization is about. But it’s difficult brining a guy in for the Finals. There’s not much wiggle room for error.”
The decision to alter the complexion of the roster so significantly and so late in the postseason was unnecessary. The Magic would have been better served leaving Nelson out for Game 1 to see if the gritty play and winning ways could continue without him. He’s much better shooter than Alston and point guard pressure is the fastest way to get to the Lakers, but that is all dependant on if Nelson is ready to apply that type of pressure. So far the answer is no.
Chemistry and confidence are fragile things, especially when talking about a collective, like a basketball team. The Magic had a bubbling confidence and swagger heading into the NBA Final but the Lakers’ aggressiveness and length, particularly in the paint, has been tough for Howard and the Magic to counter. Shooting has been streaky at best and while the Magic showed signs of life in the hustle department the defensive lapse at the end of Game 2’s overtime was discouraging for one of the NBA’s top defensive squads.
Who’s responsible for the above-mentioned warts? In part or whole the tag can be applied to many, but none more directly than Van Gundy. There is a more general drawback that speaks to the core of the team. That they have been unable to make a quick mental adjustment to a major line-up change at arguably the most difficult position on the floor. The mental management has not been there and at this point, the resolve should be concrete. Role definition is just as critical. The aches that ail the Magic in this series are plentiful and while the majority of it has been brought on by the Lakers themselves, making the decision to bring back Nelson one of the few obstacles the Magic could have controlled.
They didn’t and how do you go back? Now it’s out of hand. Now it’s looking more like subtraction by addition.