Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Literally Big Three

"Rasheed Wallace is going to stretch the floor for us. He's going to give us another post player. Defensively, he's going to be huge for us, with his size and with his verbal [ability]. I think he's one of the best talkers in the NBA. Verbally, when you put him and Kevin [Garnett] on the floor at the same time, and [Kendrick Perkins], I think we have a chance to be the loudest team, in a positive way, defensively, in the game.

--Doc Rivers, as quoted by The
Boston Globe

I don't really care about being loud on defense. What I do care about is the implication that we'll see 'sheed, KG, and Perk on the court together on occasion.

It's the answer to a question I had pondered for a while, ever since we signed Wallace in the offseason. I originally thought about it because, as I wrote in my offseason recap, I was worried about the effect the signing would have on Perkins -- particularly, who would play alongside KG, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo down the stretch. I assumed basically what this guy over at CelticsBlog did; that Perkins would remain the starter and Wallace would play most of the fourth quarter minutes. And I was concerned that it would set Perkins back after his breakout performance toward the end of last year.

If we had added Wallace last offseason, before the 2008-09 season, this would be an easy question. Wallace would fill James Posey's role off the bench, taking the majority of the fourth quarter minutes. It seemed to me that Rivers didn't trust Perkins in the fourth quarter.

But last season, out of necessity due to Garnett's knee injury and the lack of a guy like Posey on the roster, Doc's hand was forced. And the big fella, after taking a little while to get comfortable, responded in a big way. He was arguably the team's MVP during the playoffs, and he guarded Orlando's Dwight Howard as well as anyone in the league. That level of individual, one-on-one defense against a man of Howard's size is better than what we'd get with Garnett or Wallace trying to check.

So it became clear to me that at least against certain teams, Perkins was awfully valuable to be sitting on the bench during the fourth quarter of close games, whatever his offensive deficiencies might be. At the same time, a Perkins/Garnett/Wallace frontline could be historically good defensively.

It's a little tricky to see, however, in what situations Doc might go to this big lineup. Those three guys represent the only three players on the roster who can play center; our next-best big (Glen Davis) is too small to guard many fours, let alone fives; and the guy at the end of the bench, Shelden Williams, has averaged four points, four rebounds, and 15 minutes per game in a five-year NBA career. Especially if the goal is to limit Garnett's minutes, it's hard to see an opportunity for this lineup in the first 42 or so minutes of the game.

That leaves crunch time. At the end of games, we don't need to keep a backup center in reserve, and it's conceivable that the three of them could play together. If they do, of course, that means Rondo sits, as there's simply no way Pierce or Allen sit in the fourth quarter. While I'm not crazy about this prospect -- Rondo brings an important dynamic to the offense when he's playing right -- there have been times in his career, particularly on the road, when he hasn't been aggressive. In those spots, his questionable jump shot and poor free throw shooting can turn him into a liability on offense. You may recall how effectively the Lakers neutralized him during the 2008 Finals in Games 3 through 5 in LA. Ideally, those nights wouldn't happen, but it's unrealistic, at this point, to suspect that they won't, and when they do, this big lineup is a nice alternative.

Three questions may be jumping out at you at this point. The first is whether Rasheed can guard the 3. I haven't paid enough attention to him recently to say for sure, but if Doc is considering playing him alongside Perkins and Garnett, then at least the coach thinks he can. Certainly he could guard Lamar Odom if the Lakers went big with an Odom/Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum front line.

The second is who would bring the ball up. This concerns me some, because I don't trust Allen's handle against a smaller player, and having Pierce dribbling can be an adventure. Still, those guys have some experience bringing it up, and at the very least it's worth seeing whether they can do it.

The third question is how Ray Allen guards opposing point guards. We already know that Pierce can guard twos, thanks to his excellent work on Kobe Bryant in the Finals two seasons ago. But Ray stands to be a real liability on defense against any type of scoring point guard.

Thing is, at this stage in his career, Ray's a liability when he's checking many shooting guards. We have to give Ray a lot of help as it is; does it matter all that much who we're helping him with? I submit that it doesn't, or at least that it might not, and that it's worth finding out whether it does.

Generally speaking, I don't want to see Rondo on the bench in the fourth quarter, and I'd be fine with Doc playing whichever two of our three bigs are going better that night or make sense because of matchups. And I don't think the big lineup would work against every team, although every matchup problem an opponent would give us on defense, we'd give right back to them on offense. But there may be times when our best five means Perk/KG/'sheed/PP/Ray, and I'd hope that we'd at least experiment with that combo during the regular season.

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