- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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"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 [second unit].
Now we really have to lace them up if we want to be competitive with [the reserves] each day."
-- Paul Pierce on the Celtics' bench players one season ago
NEWPORT, R.I. -- Against the backdrop of an offseason in which the Miami Heat united three of the NBA's best players and ascended to Eastern Conference favorites, the Boston Celtics are quick to point out that, not only do they still have their own Big Three, they have potentially the best compilation of talent in the league in spots Nos. 4 through 15.
Indeed, the Celtics this offseason signed what would be regarded as a quality starting five in some NBA cities by bringing in Jermaine O'Neal, Shaquille O'Neal and Delonte West, and re-signing Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels. In fact, those five combined to start a total of 128 games for other teams last season (only Daniels spent the whole season in Boston), and have a combined 2,204 career starts.
Yet all five of those players are expected to occupy reserve roles (at least when Kendrick Perkins comes back from offseason knee surgery sometime around midseason).
Shaq has already dubbed the group the Boston Bench Mob and has been running with a second unit that features the Big Shamrock, Robinson, West, Daniels and Glen Davis, who is suddenly the longest-tenured veteran off the pine. (Jermaine O'Neal has been working with the first unit and is expected to start in place of Perkins.)
Celtics captain Paul Pierce calls this the deepest team he's ever been on and suggested Boston might have the most overall talent in the league.
Which brings us to Pierce's quote at the top of this article -- an example of how things often seem a bit grander in the preseason than they eventually turn out to be.
How'd that work out? Daniels injured his thumb in November, missed 28 games after surgery, and faded from the rotation upon his return; Davis missed the first 27 games of the season after fracturing his thumb in a scuffle with a friend, then struggled to fit a role until late in the season; House lost his shooting touch and was shipped to New York at the trade deadline; Wallace frustrated Celtics fans more than any player in recent memory with his lack of conditioning and poor production; and Williams showed why he's become an NBA journeyman after being the fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft.
Boston hopes for better results from this season's group, and track records suggest there is reason for optimism. But Celtics coach Doc Rivers cautioned against getting too excited too soon.
When asked if he's more confident about this season's reserves, Rivers said, "Not yet, but I should be. I think it's the best bench we've had since I've been here. But on paper and in games, that's two different things.
"It's a natural fit. D-West and Nate, who's the point guard? I don't think either one really [cares]. I think that's a good fit. Shaq is clearly the 5 and Baby is clearly the 4. I think it will allow Marquis to go to the post more like he should go. Plus, we have two defensive stoppers at the guard spot in Marquis and Delonte, and Nate who can pressure the ball. I think there's a lot of good things with that unit.
"Unfortunately, they've got to play in a game first, and we've got to see if that all works out."
For now, Pierce is jumping headfirst into the preseason optimism pool.
"I have total confidence in our bench," he said. "[The first unit says] it every day, but if we don't bring our work boots, the second team is going to bust us up. You have to come to work every day, but, at the end of that day, it makes us a better team.
"You look across and see Shaq matching up with JO, Baby is pushing Kevin, me and Marquis, D-West and Ray, Nate and Rajon -- it's making us a better team. If we don't come that day, we're going to lose [to the bench]."
West will be suspended the first 10 games of the season after pleading guilty to a weapons charge in July, so the bench will get a delayed start. But Shaq doesn't seem worried. He's instructed every soldier on the Bench Mob to be ready for duty and give everything they've got when called upon.
Boston is likely to fill out its bench with a trio of rookies -- Semih Erden, Avery Bradley and Luke Harangody -- and either Von Wafer (if they go for a shooter) or Tony Gaffney (the better defender).
On paper, it's an insanely deep group and Rivers has admitted that minutes distribution is already keeping him up at night. But if Boston's subs play to their potential and accept that their numbers might dip, then Boston might have the deepest team not just on paper but on the court as well.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics and Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
While the Celtics' bench looks great on paper, it will still have to prove itself.