Rounding into shape

Last modified: 12/11/2011 12:00:00 AM
The Celtics found themselves in a precarious spot when the lockout ended. They had just six players under contract and little salary cap space to play with under the new collective bargaining rules. Filling out the roster seemed like it would be troublesome, or at least time consuming.

Not for Danny Ainge.

When the NBA opened for business this week, no one had to tell Ainge twice it was wheeling and dealing time. In a short matter of days, Boston's basketball boss deftly and creatively reshaped the team around its core stars.

"I like our team," Doc Rivers said Friday after the Celtics' first practice. "I like the guys we have on the team and I like what's coming. I just think we've done a

pretty good job with not having a lot of flexibility. I thought Danny and his group did an amazing job."

It will have to prove to be an amazing job for the Celtics to contend in the Eastern Conference and beyond. Miami and Chicago are still hungry, young and absurdly talented. Both teams come back intact and both, especially the Heat, figure to be better this season after having last year to get familiar with new teammates and coaches. They have to be considered the two top favorites in the East coming into season, but it looks like Trader Danny has done enough to keep the Celtics in the picture.

Ainge used a sign-and-trade to land Brandon Bass and as of yesterday he was close to doing the same with David West and the Hornets (they're a little busy with another deal, however). He used the trade exception from last year's Marquis Daniels deal and the drafts rights to Albert Miralles (who knew those would be useful, or even that the Celtics had them) to land Keyon Dooling. Then he brought Daniels back on board as a free agent (clever, right?) and inked Chris Wilcox to a one-year deal.

Add it all up and that's a full five-man unit of new veterans that comes complete with a player who knows the system (Daniels), a legit point guard (Dooling) and, assuming the deal goes through, an All-Star scorer (West). Ainge also found time to re-sign Jeff Green and work out deals with the draft picks, JaJuan Johnson and E'Twuan Moore, two older players (both spent four years at Purdue and both will be 23 in February) who could very well be ready to contribute right away. All of this new depth will be critical in the shortened season, especially for an older team like Boston.

Before going into more detail about the new Celtics, let's look at the deal that may end up having the most impact on the season - the deal for Chris Paul that wasn't made. Ainge did a poor job of hiding his desire for Paul and his willingness to deal Rajon Rondo to get him. That seemed dangerously careless considering Rondo's history of sensitivity, and it would have become only more dangerous had the Celtics actually done the deal and had it been vetoed by the league, like Friday's trade that would have sent Paul to the Lakers. Rondo, however, was nothing but mature and professional on Friday when grilled by the media about the situation, so Ainge may have dodged a bullet there.

Besides, having Rondo is hardly a bad thing. He's a freakish talent, a great facilitator, a box office draw, signed to a friendly contract and he has a meniscus in both his knees, unlike Paul, who had a meniscus removed in February of 2010. With Rondo at the steering wheel, Rivers on the bench and Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen back, the Celtics maintain their core for one last run. Giving that group one more shot at another title before the contracts for Garnett and Allen are up next year feels like the right move. And continuity figures to be a valuable commodity in what will surely be a hectic season.

Continuity also figures to be an important word for Green this year. The hope in Boston is now that he's had time to adjust to the team, last year's trade deadline deal for Kendrick Perkins won't seem like the failure it did in the spring when the Celtics bemoaned the loss of Perk, and Green struggled to fit in.

But if those struggles do continue for Green, Rivers now has multiple front-line options to fill the gap. If the West deal goes through, he'll be the first of those options. The 6-foot-9, 31-year-old is coming off ACL surgery, but he's also averaged 16.4 points for his career and he was an All-Star in 2008 and 2009. He would give the Celtics a needed scoring presence in the post and mid range, and he easily could fit into the starting lineup with Garnett moving to center. That would leave the Celtics without a traditional offensive center, but that's almost irrelevant in today's NBA, and the team defense would remain strong.

Another option at power forward is now Bass, who is very similar to the player he was dealt for, Big Baby Davis. Bass is 6-8, 26, went to LSU and averaged 11.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last year. Davis is 6-8, 25, went to LSU and averaged 11.7 and 5.4. But this deal may end up being more than just a wash. It seemed time to leave Boston for Davis, who had a history of sulking and bickering in the Celtics locker room. And Bass is more athletic, which means he should be able to finish the point blank looks that Rondo and the Celtics ball movement will create, looks that Davis had blocked or altered too many times.

At 6-10 and a muscular 235 pounds, Wilcox provides a more physical presence than either West or Bass and will help against some of the bigger bodies in the East. He's been an underachiever since being the No. 8 pick in the 2002 draft (9.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg for his career), but playing on a contender for the first time may spark him, and even if it doesn't, he only needs to play a role in Boston. The same goes for Dooling, who has been a spot starter in his career but now will only need to be a backup to Rondo and a mentor to Avery Bradley, who should be making more contributions in his second year. And while Daniels was inconsistent during his first foray in Boston, its a good sign that both sides seemed eager to reacquaint, and Daniels's versatility could prove invaluable during the long run of the season and during the short term of playoff matchups.

The Celtics can try out all the new toys first thing on Christmas Day against the Knicks, who are right behind Boston in the preseason Eastern hierarchy. Landing Tyson Chandler will help New York solve its biggest problem from last year, defense, but the Knicks won't be winning any titles with the back court of Toney Douglas and Landry Fields.

But the Celtics won't have to wait long to test themselves against the real contenders - they travel to Miami on Dec. 27 and host the Bulls Jan. 13. Things may look very different if Boston meets either of those teams at the end of the year, but at least the Celtics look ready to challenge as the season begins.

(Tim O'Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com.)


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