The season is going by quicker than you think. By week's end, the Boston Celtics will have played more than 20 percent of their regular-season schedule.
And despite posting their best win of the young season on Friday against Oklahoma City, there's still plenty of concern about how things will play out for this team. Mailbaggers have questions about some of Boston's newest faces (Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger) and -- just a month into the season -- there's plenty of chatter about the open roster spot after Darko Milicic's departure.
Let's dive into your letters:
Q: Throughout last season, Ray Allen was criticized for being a defensive liability on the court. Is Jason Terry any better defensively? -- Ayman (Dublin, Ireland)
A: A phenomenal question, one that made us wonder why we hadn't delved into that previously. The short answer: No, Terry's numbers are actually worse than Allen's marks last year. But you can make the case that Boston's struggles as a team have hurt Terry's numbers, and the team is actually playing better with him on the floor. Let's break it down a bit.
The Celtics own a defensive rating of 103.6 (points per 100 possessions) when Terry is on the court. That's a terrible number for a team that topped the league with a defensive rating of 98.2 last season. But consider this: Boston is actually 7.3 points per 100 possessions better with Terry on the floor than when he's not. By comparison, the Celtics sported a defensive rating of 101 when Allen was on the floor last season, but that rating dropped nearly five points when he was off the floor (96.2). Accounting for Boston's struggles, Terry's impact on the defense has been more positive than Allen's last season. But that argument gets tougher to make when you look at the individual numbers.
Terry is allowing 0.898 points per play, which ranks him in the 36th percentile and grades out as below average based on Synergy Sports data. Opponents are shooting 39.8 percent against Terry and score 38.8 percent of plays that finish against him. By comparison, Allen allowed 0.763 points per play last season, ranking in the 84th percentile and grading out as excellent. Opponents shot 33.2 percent against Allen last year and scored 34.5 percent of plays that finished against him.
Keep in mind that both Terry and Allen's stats are somewhat skewed. When guards get beat by dribble penetration, the resulting bucket often gets tagged to the big man rushing over with help defense. The eyeball test suggests that Terry is struggling just as much as Allen did defensively last season.
The guess here is that Terry's individual numbers will improve as Boston's defense tightens up, particularly if he continues to get extended run with the core group. The Celtics' offense is performing so well -- and part of that success can be linked to Terry -- that coach Doc Rivers could be content to ride it out with him as a starter until Avery Bradley is healthy enough to be back with the starting group. Speaking of Bradley...
Q: I'm sure you've been getting this a lot: With the Celtics' new backcourt depth, where do you see Avery Bradley fitting in with guys like Leandro Barbosa, Lee, and Terry? -- Ben (Vermont)
A: You nailed it, Ben. This was the most-asked question of the week by a landslide. It's prompted, in part, by how well Barbosa has played, providing a nice offensive spark off the bench (as highlighted by scoring 11 points in a mere three minutes in his first shift of Sunday's win in Orlando). That, coupled with Lee's offensive struggles, has left some wondering how Rivers will find necessary minutes for all four guys. If Bradley can pick up where he left off last season -- even if it's just with his defensive abilities -- then I think it's a no-brainer to put him back with the starters and keep his minutes manageable as he works his way back. Even if he plays, say, 18 to 20 minutes per night, that leaves 28 to 30 minutes to split between Terry and Lee off the bench, while you can find another 10-12 more minutes when Rajon Rondo is on the pine. That still means a dip in playing time for Terry (right now at 26.8 mpg), Lee (22.7) and Barbosa (14). The guess here is the Celtics can find a comfortable 25-minute number for Terry, then throttle Lee and Barbosa based on how they are playing (maybe finding Lee a handful of minutes at the 3 when able to go small).
Q: A lot has been made of Rondo's assist streak. Some say it's stupid and has occasionally been a distraction, while others say it's something that Rondo should be proud of. What is your opinion of it? -- Soyeon (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.)
A: I'm somewhere in between the two extremes. On one hand, it's a largely superficial streak and the team looked a bit foolish chasing it during that lopsided loss in Detroit (if for no other reason than Rondo had tweaked his ankle and missed a game just days before). On the other hand, Rondo has been otherworldly at times during this stretch and any time you're mentioned in the same breath as John Stockton and Magic Johnson, it's an accomplishment. If only once during a 37-game stretch has it become the tiniest of distractions, then we should probably be OK with it. I do like that it puts a spotlight on an area that we tend to gloss over (even if the assist is a bit of a flawed stat). The streak hammers home just how good Rondo has been since the end of last season.
Q: Why does Doc keep playing Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger together? It clearly doesn't work, they're too small. -- Eddie (El Paso, Texas)
A: The Celtics have done everything possible to avoid this combination after early returns showed just how poorly it performed on the defensive end. The Celtics identified quickly that they needed a pure big on the floor alongside Bass or Sullinger, and the emergence of Chris Wilcox as the first big off the bench has cured that problem. Foul trouble for Wilcox did force Boston to go with the Bass/Sullinger combo for a brief stretch against the Spurs last week, but Boston was a mere minus-3 over four minutes, an improvement over the early-season woes. Even still, don't expect to see that combination unless an opponent goes super small.
Q: Do you think Jeff Green will find his rhythm and be more consistent as the season goes on? -- Xavier (Ignacio, Colo.)
A: People a lot smarter than me keep preaching patience with Green because of what he's been through. Oklahoma City coach Scotty Brooks said on Friday: "What he went through [with heart surgery] and to come back, it's going to take him a while. It's hard to play in this league, and it's really hard to play when you've missed a year. He has to just be patient, himself, because he's a winner, he wants to do well, he wants to play well. It's going to take time, and not too many guys can miss a year and have success right off the get-go. But he will eventually." We keep seeing little glimpses of Green's potential -- whether it's the dunk on Al Jefferson in the Jazz game, or erupting for a season-high 17 points against the Thunder. What we probably can't get too hung up on is the scoring line. Yes, he missed nine shots and had one point in Orlando, but he had a couple bright moments (most notably a nice block). His offensive contributions might vary, but if Green can settle in as a consistent rebounder and defender, it'll take some of the pressure off him to score on a nightly basis. The one thing he can't do is disappear at both ends of the floor.
Q: Do you think the Celts would look into trading for Anderson Varejao? I would LOVE him with this team. -- Collin (Boston)
A: You realize you're asking the president of the Andy V. Fan Club, right? I don't think it's a stretch to wonder if Varejao might become available -- the Cavs just lost Kyrie Irving for a month with a finger injury and are off to a 3-10 start, so the natural inclination will be for Cleveland to look at whether Varejao and the $18.7 million he's owed over the next two seasons is worth moving. That said, until that's a possibility, there's little sense pondering any such move. The Celtics would have trouble matching his $8.3 million salary this season (at least without having to give up something like Jeff Green, or a Courtney Lee/Avery Bradley combo). But again, let's stress this for those scanning the 'bag: There's absolutely no real reason to ponder this until it's even a possibility.
Q: I heard that you are quite the offensive rebounder. Have the Celtics contacted you in any way to fill their one open roster spot? -- Nick (South Portland, Maine)
A: Quick flashback: Freshman basketball at Auburn High School in 1994 and I'm just lucky to be playing trash time. Our team gets beat to about four consecutive offensive rebounds before fouling an opposing shooter on a putback attempt. As we take our spot on the blocks for free throws, my infuriated coach turns around in a super quiet gym and asks my mother in the stands how much she paid for my shoes (which just so happened to be Shawn Kemp Reebok Kamikazes). My mom shrugged and responded with something like, "$80?" to which my coach yelled back, "Well, you got ripped off because your kid is glued to the floor." That about summed up my athletic endeavors. As for the Celtics, they hauled in a staggering 17 offensive rebounds against undersized Orlando, but their disposition remains the same as my glory days: Offensive rebounds don't matter, it's far more important to get back on defense and get settled. More on that HERE.
Q: What is the general consensus on Sullinger's play so far? Could the Celtics have gotten a bigger steal than they thought? -- Kevin (Wilbraham, Mass.)
A: Sullinger has been nothing short of spectacular. Sure, he's still finding his way defensively and the Celtics want him to play with more of a motor. But his natural talents are obvious. Not only did the Celtics get a steal in terms of pure talent (those red flags about his back dropping him from being a lottery selection), but he found a team that needed his skill set, which has allowed him to hit the ground running. Now the only question becomes: What is Sullinger's potential? And how quickly can playing alongside the likes of Kevin Garnett bring it out?
Q: What's the greater need: a backup point guard for Rondo or a true big to take the center spot like Marcin Gortat? Personally, I think Barbosa is working out spelling Rondo -- the points are coming when Rondo is out, so who cares whether they are assisted or not? -- Bob (New Hampshire)
A: True, the Celtics' offense is improbably about a half-point better per 100 possessions without Rondo this season. That said, Boston's defense is nearly 7 points worse per 100 possessions without him, so a defensive-minded ball handler wouldn't be the worst addition down the road. An injury at the guard position could leave Boston leaning that way. But I believe Doc Rivers when he says the team will wait it out. A lot of things could happen between now and the trade deadline in February. Injuries could leave Boston reaching for one position over another. There's no sense tying up a roster spot now when the Celtics don't have very much money left to spend because of cap constraints (and Rivers is locked into a 10-man rotation anyhow). As for all the Gortat chatter, it's hard to imagine for some of the same reasons we brought up in our fictional Varejao swaps.
Q: Are people being too harsh on the slow start? Since the 0-2 start, the Celtics have won eight out of their last 12 and could have been even better. It's a much better start than last year and look where that ended up. -- Chris (Woburn, Mass.)
A: No, the Celtics deserve some criticism for their inconsistent play and their shockingly poor defense. There's enough pure talent here that Boston should not be girding out (and losing) some of these games. That said, I do think it's extremely foolish to write this team off. Have we forgotten last season already? If Boston gets its defense right, the offense is quietly producing at a rather insane level, a miraculous turnaround from recent seasons. People keep asking if I want to change my prediction about the Celtics winning the East. Nope, there's too much talent and potential here to think they won't be in the mix in May. We can rant and rave about their up-and-down nature thus far, but this team will get it together. Just ask Kendrick Perkins, who admits he still watches every game. He said on Friday that he expects Boston to rip off 10 or 11 consecutive wins in January and take flight from there. He said the same thing last season as the Celtics stumbled out of the gates and it happened. We should probably trust his opinion this time around as well.