WALTHAM, Mass. -- Earlier this month, after a loss in which his team's lack of a true rim protector was particularly evident, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked if a defensive-minded 7-footer might be on his Christmas list.
"I haven't thought a ton about it," Stevens said at the time. "I think, certainly, in an ideal situation, what you're looking for are certain qualities as a team. A rim protector, whether it's a 7-footer or not, is extremely important in this league. A guy that really protects the rim from the dotted line in."
If he wasn't thinking about it much then, Stevens is thinking about it now. Amid Boston's recent defensive regression, Stevens admitted Saturday that he thinks about possible lineup combination "every minute of every day." What's more, he wondered out loud if his team's performance this season might be different if it employed a serviceable rim protector.
"I'd be really curious to know, or to see from a defensive standpoint systematically, plugging one guy in there, what that might do to our numbers, being where we are in a lot of different areas," said Stevens.
Here's our best guess: Boston would be a playoff team. Scoff if you want, but the Celtics' need for a rim protector is glaring, and we'd wager to bet that having even a slightly above-average back-line defender to complement their power forward surplus would be enough to thrust them into the mix in a head-shaking Eastern Conference.
The Celtics defend the 3-point shot well and are sneakily one of the best transition defenses in the league, but they've really struggled to protect the basket, including on second-chance opportunities.
While Stevens said he's uncertain if he'll make any lineup tweaks over the final 10 games of the 2013-14 season, he did hint that he's intrigued by getting little-used Joel Anthony more floor time. The 6-foot-9 Anthony isn't the prototypical back-line behemoth, but he is as close to a pure center as Boston has.
With maybe nothing more than a curiosity about the future, Stevens could trot out Anthony next to someone like Jared Sullinger just to get an idea of the potential benefits.
How has Anthony fared in limited reps this season? In his 65 minutes of court time, the Celtics own a defensive rating of 99.5 (about five points less than the team's season average). Opponents shoot just 55.6 percent in the restricted area with Anthony on the floor, compared to 63.1 percent without him.
Let's be absolutely clear here: Anthony is not the solution to Boston's recent defensive woes. His floor time is so limited, with most of it coming in end-of-lopsided-game situations, that we shouldn't get too worked up about Boston's improvements when he's on the court.
But he might offer hints as to just how much of a priority getting a rim protector should be this offseason (hint: it's already near the top of Danny Ainge's shopping list) and would allow Boston to examine the likes of Sullinger and Kris Humphries at their more natural power forward position.
The Celtics haven't been awful at defending in the restricted area this season. They actually rank in the middle of the NBA pack at 14th ,while opponents shoot 60.5 percent from close range.
What's maybe more concerning is how opposing ball handlers have been able to blow past Boston guards and create havoc by getting into the paint without being deterred by a rim protector. That penetration causes cracks in Boston's defense that has led to easy baskets for the opposition.
Even someone like Celtics guard Avery Bradley, an All-Defense second-teamer last year and regarded as one of the best on-ball defenders in the league, likely has a greater appreciation for what it was like to have Kevin Garnett patrolling the back line. Garnett's presence masked a lot of breakdowns.
The Celtics tried to nab a rim protector earlier this season when they engaged Houston in talks for Omer Asik. They could rekindle those talks this offseason, though there won't be a shortage of options to help fill that need.
Help is almost certainly on the way in one form or another this summer. Whether the Celtics add a veteran big or make that role a draft priority, the team hasn't shied from admitting the need.
During a Q&A session for season-ticket holders, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was asked about the team's needs this offseason.
"I think rim protection has been a weakness of ours this year," said Ainge.
Earlier this month while assessing the need for that rim protector, Stevens admitted he's never had a pure big in that role at any point of his career. But he also admitted that, at the NBA level, it might be critical to his team's success.
You get the sense that the more Stevens thinks about it, the more he realizes that presence is most certainly on his wish list.