We're entering the fourth quarter of the preseason. The Celtics have two games and two weeks to tune up for the 2013-14 season opener in Toronto. It's preseason for everybody, so let's dive into your letters and shake some mailbag rust:
Q: Why should I spend any time following the team this season? -- @gfmorris (via Twitter)
A: This might be a terrible analogy, but look at this team like a puppy or an infant. Sure, those early years can be maddening times, but they are also some of the most rewarding. For the first time in a long time, we're going to get to watch the process by which young players grow and mature. In sports, when everything is judged by titles, it's hard for casual fans to immerse themselves in a team like this. But I think watching this team grow under a new coach will actually be a lot of fun. Who emerges as leaders? Who takes their games to the next level? Which pieces emerge as building blocks for the future? For at least one season you can actually savor moral victories or a big regular-season victory over a heavily favored opponent. For a change, this team won't be judged on what it does after mid-April, but before it. Embrace this process, I guarantee you'll enjoy it if you don't judge the season solely by wins and losses.
Q: What will the starting 5 be for the season opener? -- @gregeisenman (via Twitter)
A: The Celtics have gone with the combination of Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger for the past three games. The pattern of slow starts might force coach Brad Stevens to consider some small tweaks, but I also wouldn't be surprised if this lineup held up. The Bradley-Crawford combo has been a pleasant surprise and it takes a good amount of the strain off Bradley to be the lone ball-handler. Green has slumped, but he's cemented at the 3. Stevens has talked about wanting Bass to be the anchor of the defense given his experience and ability to lead vocally from the back line, so that will aid his cause to stick with the starters. The worry with Sullinger was whether he'd be in game shape by the start of the regular season, but even as he rounds into form, he's been one of Boston's best all-around players. I thought Kris Humphries might wiggle his way into the starting lineup if Sullinger wasn't ready, but only Sullinger's defense has shown rust.
Q: This has to be a huge year for Avery Bradley. To me, the jury is still out as to whether he can be the Celtics' starting shooting guard moving forward. Injuries and inconsistent play have put a cloud over his head. We know his defense is top notch, but will that be enough for Danny Ainge to sign him to a long-term deal? I think he has to have a career year and finally show us an all-around game. -- J.D. (New York)
A: I'll admit, I was a bit surprised when Ainge mentioned last month that the team would likely wait until next summer to address extending Bradley. It's a risk, but a calculated one. With a new-look team and a new coach, the Celtics have to be certain that Bradley is worth whatever he will command (and the team is slightly protected with him being a restricted free agent). We haven't quite seen all-around Bradley yet due to injuries, but we saw his offensive potential late in the 2011-12 campaign and his defensive abilities are obvious. What we need to see now is his offensive game grow. He's shooting just 34 percent on 2-point field goals this preseason (18 of 53) and is the team leader in attempts blocked (7). Two years ago he thrived as a cutter and it's important for him to find that again (and be able to finish near the rim in traffic when he drives).
Q: I'd like to get your thoughts on how the Celtics are gonna be able to score the basketball consistently. I've been watching the preseason and love the way the C's are defending and our relentlessness on the glass, however, we don't have much flow offensively. Back-to-back games of Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford taking last-second shots isn't exactly comforting. Do you think Jeff Green can take that role or will it be by committee this year? -- Akiva (Boston)
A: See, I've been far more concerned about the defense than the offense to this point. Maybe it's just the overwhelming task of having to replace someone like Kevin Garnett, but Boston's biggest challenge this season is establishing chemistry and cohesion on the defensive end. As for the offense, don't read too much into who's taking last-second shots now. The personnel will look far different at the end of games during the regular season. And I do think Green will often be the focal point. I think back to last season when he hit last-second winners against both Indiana and Cleveland. He has the ability to be the go-to guy in clutch situations. The more important thing for him right now is finding the consistency to lead Boston's offense for the full 48 minutes.
A: Poor Olynyk is probably the favorite there and is getting the usual rookie treatment with 25 whistles in 132 minutes of floor time this preseason (and fouling out of the past two games). The guess here is that he'll adjust as the season goes on. For whatever reason, young bigs are foul magnets (remember when Greg Stiemsma could barely stay on the floor because of whistles). Back at Butler, Stevens' teams were noted for being bullies and the coach won't shy away from physical play. As the Wall Street Journal wrote back in 2013: "Butler's signature brand of defense -- bumping cutters, fighting through screens and generally bruising their way around the court -- is so physical that former players still get an earful from past victims." That wouldn't be a bad rep to develop at the NBA level as Stevens injects his defensive DNA into his new team.
Q: What's up with MarShon Brooks? Too crowded in the backcourt? Does Brad Stevens see him as a potential asset on the team or does he not figure into the rotation? -- Trenton (Atlanta)
A: I'm not sure he's in the doghouse, but Brooks certainly has been limited in terms of game opportunities to this point. He's played only 59 minutes in five games (with one DNP -- Coach's decision). That suggests to me that the coaching staff is looking for more out of him, whether it's in games or on the practice floor. He's done well in the time he's gotten, at least offensively, averaging a solid 1.152 points per play (38 points on 33 possessions; 91st percentile among all players this preseason). Defense has always been the question mark with Brooks and that number hasn't been as encouraging (0.8 points per play; 48th percentile). Brooks simply has to make the most of his opportunities in a crowded backcourt and find a way to distinguish himself from the field.
Q: Will this roster look the same at the All-Star break? -- @ptroger83 (via Twitter)
A: It's simply too early to know. I don't think it's a stretch to say that, if Boston can move a contract to a contender while fetching a future asset, it has to consider it. But the early portion of the season will determine who has a future here and who doesn't. Then when Rajon Rondo is back on the floor, the Celtics can gauge chemistry and how their players fit around him. By midseason, we'll know which players are simply not going to crack the rotation with the lingering logjams at shooting guard and power forward, and maybe that encourages Boston to shuffle things up if there's deals that can aid the future.
Q: How soon until Olynyk and Sullinger are both starting and do you see the C's trading Rondo at any point? -- @KaraokeJack (via Twitter)
A: The Celtics have seemingly been at their best this preseason when Olynyk and/or Sullinger have been on the court. I need to see it more during the regular season to know if it's sustainable to have them together, but you certainly have to like the way it would spread the floor offensively (something that has helped Gerald Wallace during the exhibition season when paired with those two). Defensively, I wonder if that pairing is still too young to sustain, but these are the sort of things we'll find out during the regular season. I think it's possible that, later in the season, these two could both be starters, particularly if Boston's roster gets an in-season overhaul. As for Rondo, I just don't see any reason to trade him anytime soon. You're not getting a top 15 player in return and the only way you move him next summer is if you determine -- for whatever reason -- he's simply not the guy you want to build around.
Q: Does Stevens favor set plays, read/react or a bit of both. Read/react [leads to] less reliance on point guard. -- @LukowskyWes (via Twitter)
A: Stevens has noted recently how that balance is one of the biggest differences at the NBA level. "Going through a set in a college game, there may only be 70 possessions, so if you run 10-15 sets, those are pretty magnified," he said earlier this week. "Here, 10 or 15 out of 113 [possessions] is a little bit different. We've got to be better out of timeouts, we've got to be better in our sets, but most importantly we've got to do better just in our flow." As Stevens noted, this team has to be better out of timeouts, that was a trademark of Doc Rivers' teams. ATO (after timeout) plays account for nearly 15-20 percent of a team's total plays in the NBA and Boston has been middle of the pack in the exhibition season, ranking 15th at 0.753 points per possession.
Q: As a proud Michigan alum, I would love to see DeShawn Sims get a chance with this team. He was NBDL MVP back in 2011 with the Red Claws but his path was blocked by Paul Pierce and others. Might his time be now? -- Matt (Jamaica Plain)
A: Sims has appeared in only three games, missing one due to a lower-body injury, and has logged only 12 minutes on the floor overall. The guess here is that he's ticketed for the D-League, something most of the invites knew when they signed on to camp with Boston (the Celtics can shuffle three final camp cuts to Maine as affiliated players). At age 25, Sims is already well-traveled, but the team clearly likes his game enough to keep him around in recent seasons. But with a nearly full roster and little space below the tax line, a camper would have had to really distinguish himself this preseason to get a look from Boston.