As the Celtics took the court for five-on-five work during a recent open practice in Lowell, one spectator recognized that it would be starters versus reserves and opined to no one in particular that the matchup just didn't seem fair.
You can understand his point. The Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce have combined for 29 All-Star game appearances. In the interest of competitive balance, it would seem splitting up that talent might foster a better pickup game.
But a funny thing happened. The reserves wearing white jerseys took over the drills. Rasheed Wallace drilled a 3-pointer from the wing and Eddie House soon followed with another. Marquis Daniels got his hand in the passing lane and went coast-to-coast for a layup.
The starters in green would regroup, but it was clear that these drills aren't as lopsided as one might expect at first glance. And that's not particularly good news for the Celtics' opponents during the upcoming 2009-10 season.
"I thought our second unit a year ago was a little young," Pierce said after the session, both his ankles wrapped in ice. "Now we've got some veteran guys that understand the game, they understand the chemistry. They're getting it.
"We have to come to work every day. A year ago, we'd come in and take care of business like the Dream Team against the white. Now we really have to lace them up if we want to be competitive with the white each day."
The Celtics' biggest weakness last season -- aside from losing both Garnett and Leon Powe to knee injuries at the end of the year -- might have been the inconsistency of their bench. When you consider the run to the NBA Finals by the Orlando Magic, the opponent an injury-riddled Boston squad took to seven games in the conference semifinals, it's hard not to think what could have been if the Green had stayed healthy.
The Celtics were aggressive in the offseason, adding veterans like Wallace, Daniels and Shelden Williams, while also re-signing Glen "Big Baby" Davis, a restricted free agent.
As House, the familiar 3-point chucking presence on the second group, put it: "We made some great moves. Those guys fill the void that we missed last year when Leon and Kevin went down. [General manager] Danny [Ainge] went out and made sure that wouldn't be an issue [this season]."
Davis' development was one silver lining to last year's injuries. In his second season, Big Baby averaged 7.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game during the regular season, but made 16 starts with Garnett sidelined and, in the playoffs, his numbers spiked to 15.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
There was concern that Davis, a restricted free agent, might be lured away by money or the promise of a starting role. He ultimately re-upped with Boston for two years and $6.3 million.
Davis, Wallace and Daniels -- starters on most teams in the NBA -- all have embraced their roles as backups this season, possibly making the Celtics the deepest team in the league.
"It's not just the level of talent in the second group," Allen said. "Not taking anything away from last year's group, but it's definitely a notch higher. There's Rasheed and Marquis, guys that were starters on NBA rosters last year. You put them in this second group, it has to make the bench production even better this year."
Added Rivers: "The second group, though they don't have our system down on both defense and offense, they are at least smart enough, because they're veterans, to figure it out on the fly on the floor and to give themselves a chance of performing. We didn't have that last year. Our second group last year was a coin flip at best, and when it went bad, it went bad."
The cost of winning
Wallace, who had made approximately $143.3 million since entering the league in 1995, took a hefty pay cut to come to Boston by agreeing to a three-year, $18 million deal that starts with the $5.8 million midlevel exception. It's the least he's made since his third season in the league ($2.32 million in 1997-98 with Portland).
But Wallace knows a championship-caliber team when he sees one. So when the Big Three showed up at his door this summer, he couldn't say no. Wallace averaged 12.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game last season and will be the first person off the bench in Boston.
Right now he's focused on building chemistry and he sounds downright, well, Ubuntu.
"We're all hanging out on the road; you never seen one guy eating by himself or anything like that," said Wallace. "It's all of us together. That's going to give us a tighter bond. If I go out there and I'm stuck in a trap, I want to know my man is right there. Those are the things that are going to make us better."
Daniels followed Wallace's discount lead. Even though Davis averaged 13.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game last season, Indiana turned down his $7.3 million team option.
He spurned a potential bigger payday to sign with Boston for the biannual exception of $1.99 million. From what he's shown in the preseason, Daniels might have been the top bargain purchase of the NBA offseason.
"[The second unit is] going to be key," Daniels said. "We have to come in with high energy every night, whether the first unit has it or not. If they don't have it, we have to come in and pick us up. And even if they do have it, we need to increase the leads or do whatever it takes to keep us afloat."
The Celtics fill out their bench with Williams (this year's Mikki Moore), Brian Scalabrine (who logged more than 20 minutes per game in the postseason) ,Tony Allen (dogged by injuries, but typically a serviceable defender) and a nucleus of young players obtained through the draft in J.R. Giddens, Lester Hudson and Bill Walker.
Asked if he thinks it's unfair to have to go up against the starters in five-on-five work, Daniels just smiled. He thinks it's actually unfair that the starters have to play against such a talented group of reserves.
"We look at it like we're making them better," Daniels said. "When we go out here in practice against each other, we know they can't wait to go play someone else. All of us can't wait to get on another floor and take advantage of this work against another opponent."