As the Celtics approach the midpoint of a season that has seen them valiantly struggle through a frustrating series of minor and moderately serious injuries to almost every key player except Ray Allen and Kendrick Perkins, the time is ripe to discuss the team’s most pressing personnel need for the balance of the regular season, and more importantly, the playoffs.
After watching Rajon Rondo continue to redefine the point guard position this season as he takes the next step toward his eventual (we hope) destination in the TD Garden rafters, it seems counterintuitive that the most glaring hole in the Celtics’ roster is at lead guard. Nevertheless, given Eddie House’s deficiencies as a ball-handler and playmaker, and that Marquis Daniels – who is out for several more weeks with a broken thumb — lacks extensive experience as a conventional point guard, it is clear that the Celtics need a competent floor general to keep the offense running smoothly when Rondo takes the breathers that his body will increasingly require as the 82-game grind progresses.
And as horrifying as it is even to mention the possibility of Rondo missing significant time with an injury, Danny Ainge will be in dereliction of his basketball operations duties if he fails to secure an insurance policy to keep the team afloat if such a nightmare scenario occurs. Fortunately, while Danny has remained tight-lipped regarding the Celtics’ plans for the roster vacancy created by the release of Lester Hudson, it is very likely that one of his chief motives –along with saving money — for dropping Hudson was to facilitate the acquisition of a more accomplished backup point guard.
All but the most casual Celtics fan knows that Tyronn Lue has been sitting behind the team’s bench and attending practices all season in the made-up role of “Director of Basketball Development”, gaining valuable experience for a possible future coaching career while also serving as the team’s default option to back up Rondo in the stretch run of the regular season and playoffs.
At 32, Lue’s age is not an issue in and of itself, and his many years in the league would help him keep up with this savvy and experienced Celtics’ squad. Indeed, after serving as a de facto assistant coach all season, it’s safe to assume that he would hit the ground running in the team’s offensive sets and defensive scheme once he put on a uniform. However, Lue’s career was indisputably in decline the last two seasons, and it’s been nearly a year since he had the opportunity to play on a regular basis. Celtics fans are all too familiar with the effects of such a substantial layoff after watching Stephon Marbury struggle to shake off the rust at the end of last season.
However, from a skill standpoint, Lue was still an adequate backup for the Bucks during the first half of last season. While he’s never been particularly adept at creating shots for teammates off the dribble, he continued to shoot well from mid-range and the perimeter (including from behind the arc, where he’s a 39% career shooter), and took care of the ball while playing more than 13 mpg for Milwaukee. On the downside, his lack of size and strength, in combination with his somewhat diminished quickness, make him a liability on the other end of the floor. In fact, because putting Lue on the floor at the same time as Eddie House would create potentially damaging mismatches on defense, it would be impossible for Doc Rivers to use Lue for significant stretches with the Celtics’ current second unit. Moreover, Lue clearly isn’t qualified at this point in his career to fill in for 24-30 minutes a night should Rondo get injured.
Ideally, then, Danny will find, on the free agent market or through a trade, a superior alternative to fill this gap on the Celtics’ bench. It seems obvious that the Celtics would prefer to go the free agent route to preserve both the depth of their roster this season and the flexibility that they’ll need to put together the best possible team for next season and beyond.
Nearly all of the current free agent point guards have – like Lue – been out of the league since the end of last season. Consequently, evaluating the players in this group feels a bit like it used to feel to rummage through the bargain bin of old CDs at Tower Records back when CDs and Tower Records still existed. Only two players stand out as potential upgrades over Lue:
1. Antonio Daniels
While he turns 35 in March, Daniels remains a big, strong and athletic option at backup point guard. Cleveland came close to signing him at the beginning of the season before deciding that Boobie Gibson and Jamario Moon provided sufficient backcourt depth. Daniels is still adept at breaking down defenses in the halfcourt, and his athleticism and decision-making are assets in transition. As recently as 2008, he started 63 games for the Wizards, dishing out nearly 5 assists a game while maintaining an assists-to-turnover ratio close to his 3.3/1 career average in that category. He’ll never be mistaken for a pure shooter, but he can knock down an occasional long-2 or 3-pointer to keep defenders honest and open up opportunities for him to penetrate. Defensively, he has outstanding lateral quickness for a 30-something-year-old player, and at 6’4”, 205 lbs. is capable of defending both guard spots. His size obviously makes him better suited than Lue to play alongside the diminutive House, and his offensive skill set is also a better fit with House’s spot-up shooting game. However, while Daniels would make an excellent backup for Rondo, he’s never been a pure, playmaking point guard. As a result, if an injury kept Rondo out of the lineup, the Celtics would still need Marquis Daniels, House, and Paul Pierce to shoulder some of the responsibility for running the team’s halfcourt offense.
2. Brevin Knight
Knight, unlike most of the candidates under discussion, was a starter for most of his career. In fact, his refusal to hide his dissatisfaction with coming off the bench the last few seasons is part of the reason teams shied away from him in the free agent market last summer. Over the course of several years in the league, Knight earned a reputation as an elite playmaker in the halfcourt and transition, averaging more than 6 assists a game with an assists-to-turnovers ratio of 3.25/1. At 34 years old, he can still beat his man off the dribble to create open shots for his teammates, and pushes the tempo in transition aggressively and adeptly. His poor perimeter shooting isn’t much of a drawback for a Celtics team full of good jump shooters. Defensively, Knight’s small stature (5’10”, 166 lbs.) creates some of the same problems for the Celtics’ second unit as Lue’s lack of size, but Knight is a smarter and more tenacious perimeter defender than Lue. And while Lue has learned the Celtics’ system on both ends of the floor over the last few months, Knight — as one of the smarter players in the NBA over the last decade – should be able to learn the system quickly. Knight is also a proud player who probably has a chip on his shoulder after getting spurned in last season’s free agent market. As a result, the Celtics could expect him to play with extra competitive fire on both ends of the floor. In sum, Knight is simply a better player and point guard than Lue, and could capably fill in as a starter playing 30 mpg if the Celtics need him to.
Of course, Daniels and Knight are both in their mid-30’s, and would need to shake off the rust from being out of the league for 8-10 months. If the Celtics want a younger and/or sharper option, there are a few players on NBA rosters whose teams might be willing to trade them due to a glut at the point guard position. Tony Allen’s ($2.5 million), Brian Scalabrine’s ($3.4 million) and J.R. Giddens’s ($1 million) contracts all expire at the end of the season, making them attractive trade bait for teams looking to create additional cap room for the coming off-season’s expected free agent bonanza. However, the Celtics have their own reasons for maintaining payroll flexibility for next season (i.e., salary increases for Pierce, Rondo and Kevin Garnett, re-signing Ray Allen, and competing for an additional quality free agent), and are presumably very reluctant to take back any significant, non-expiring contracts in a trade. Therefore, the Celtics will probably seek to trade their own expiring contract(s) for a point guard (and possibly a throw-in player to balance the salaries exchanged in the trade) whose contract also expires at the end of the season. Thus, the Celtics’ potential trading partners will only trade expiring contracts for expiring contracts if they — like the Celtics – get a player in return who they actually think will help them win this season, and possibly beyond.
With all due respect to fan favorite and all-around good guy Scal, Tony Allen is the only expendable player on the Celtics’ roster for whom other teams might possibly want to trade. To the surprise of Celtics fans who watched him bumble and stumble his way around the court after returning from his thumb injury at the end of last season, Tony has played very well for the Celtics since returning from yet another injury (ankle) last month. He once again looks like the explosive dribble penetrator and strong, athletic defender t
hat fans remember from three seasons ago. Even Tony’s always-questionable decision-making has been solid on both ends of the court since he came back. Teams that saw him play well in significant minutes filling in for Pierce might have an interest in adding him to their bench for the stretch run and playoffs. A look around the NBA reveals three quality backup point guards with expiring contracts whose teams might be willing to trade them to the Celtics for Tony Allen.
1. Jamaal Tinsley – Memphis
Celtics fans’ number one nemesis from the last decade, Chris Wallace, might finally make some amends –however modest — for bringing Vin Baker to Boston and sending Pau Gasol to the Lakers. Tinsley has been backing up Mike Conley for most of the season, but the recent emergence of former UConn standout Marcus Williams, (and Wallace’s recent decision to pluck Celtics castoff Lester Hudson off waivers) makes Tinsley expendable in Memphis. Moreover, as the surprising Grizzlies make a push for the playoffs, they could use Tony Allen as an upgrade over rookie Sam Young to back up O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay. They also have Jerry Stackhouse’s $2 million expiring contract to balance the salaries exchanged in a deal involving Tinsley and Tony. And if the overachieving Grizzlies fade from the playoff race, they might decide to release Tinsley and let him sign with a contender like the Celtics as a free agent.
While Tinsley is a year younger than Lue, he has a history of back, knee and assorted other injuries that caused him to miss significant time in four of the last five seasons that he played in Indiana. In addition, Larry Bird and company found Tinsley’s off-court conduct (Tinsley fans might recall the late-2007 incident outside an Indianapolis nightclub in which a group of assailants shot at Tinsley’s convoy of vehicles after a verbal confrontation, wounding the Pacers’ equipment manager) and locker room attitude so odious that they exiled him from the team for the entire 2008-09 season (and were prepared to pay him the remaining $14.7 million on his contract while he sat at home for the next two seasons before finally deciding to buy him out for nearly $11 million on the eve of an arbitration hearing with the players’ union last summer).
However, Tinsley started for the Pacers for 7 seasons, and was emerging as one of the better pure point guards in the league before his off-court issues started affecting his on-court performance. While his issues with the Pacers scared off most teams last summer, many league executives still considered him a quality starting point guard. Indeed, Tinsley has rewarded the Grizzlies’ gamble by playing well in his 17 mpg on the court, running the team effectively and deferring offensively to his less experienced teammates. He has always been a pass-first point guard, having earned a reputation around the league as an astute and gifted – if somewhat turnover prone – playmaker. At a solidly built 6’3”, Tinsley is also a competent and physical defender, which would allow Doc to play him with House on the second unit. The veteran-laden Celtics would welcome his high basketball IQ on both ends of the floor, and if Rondo got injured, Tinsley could do more than any other player on this list to help the Celtics raise an 18th banner.
2. Carlos Arroyo – Miami
After starting several games over Mario Chalmers, Arroyo was recently demoted to third-string when the Heat signed Rafer Alston as a free agent and made him their starter. So as they make a push for a decent playoff seed to please a frustrated, free-agent-to-be Dwyane Wade, the Heat might decide to trade the superfluous Arroyo in order to upgrade their weak stable of bench swingmen. While Arroyo only makes $1.1 million, the Heat have plenty of expiring, deadweight contracts that could make a trade for Tony Allen feasible.
At the age of 30, Arroyo is younger and fresher than the other players on this list. He has also made strides in his understanding of the game as his career has progressed, which is reflected in his improved assist-to-turnover ratio over the last couple of seasons. A good ball-handler and passer, Arroyo is an effective scorer and playmaker, particularly in pick-and-roll situations. While he lacks range on his jump shot, he runs an offense effectively off the bench. His biggest deficiencies are on defense. While he has good size at 6’2”, 200+ lbs., he lacks the lateral quickness and desire — both physically and mentally – to defend high quality point guards. So while the Celtics’ offense would be in good hands with Arroyo backing up Rondo, the second unit would defend like a sieve.
3. Anthony Carter – Denver
Carter’s inclusion on this list might make some fans cringe after watching him make a couple of critical unforced turnovers against the Lakers in last year’s Western Conference finals. However, Denver might be looking to move him to address other needs now that rookie Ty Lawson has emerged as a top-level backup for Chauncey Billups. While they already have second-year swingman Aaron Afflalo coming off the bench, Tony Allen would contribute much more offensively than the Nuggets’ young defensive specialist. Like most NBA teams, the Nuggets are also carrying one or two modest-sized expiring contracts that could balance Carter’s $1.3 million salary with Allen’s $2.5 million deal.
At 34, Carter is still an elite on-the-ball perimeter defender who plays with great energy and desire. While he’s a below-average shooter, and lacks creativity and instincts as a playmaker, he takes care of the ball (with the exception of those turnovers against the Lakers) and manages to find his teammates when they’re open, as evidenced by his career average of 4 assists in 20 mpg. A career-long backup, Carter can still fill that role well, providing strong defense and making sure the offense doesn’t break down while the starter rests. However, were Rondo to get injured, Carter couldn’t play big minutes in his place.
As this list demonstrates, there are several point guards in need of a new home who can help the Celtics more than Tyronn Lue. If Danny wants to maximize the team’s chances to win another title this season, he will try his best to acquire one of them.