- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Forget the Kendrick Perkins trade for a moment. If the Boston Celtics fail to accomplish their goal of a world title, they might ultimately look back after the 2010-11 season and wonder if they failed in trying to overhaul the back end of their roster at the same time they pulled off the blockbuster swap with Oklahoma City, leaving the team too thin during a late-season run aimed at securing the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Go ahead, scoff at that suggestion. But consider this: The Celtics truly believe they have a better all-around team with the addition of Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, especially once the O'Neals -- Shaquille and Jermaine -- return to game action, negating the frontcourt loss of Perkins. The risk with that deal was chemistry, and certainly there have been some mild aftershocks from the blockbuster. But Boston made two more deadline moves aimed at clearing roster space and their additions have yet to provide the stability that the Celtics desired.
If Boston is to make a late-season push for a top seed in the East -- something that would make the path back to the NBA Finals a little less daunting -- and preserve its core for the rigors of the postseason, it's up to the end of the Celtics' bench to establish itself over the final nine games.
The Celtics have lost seven of their last 12 games since March 9 and there's no denying the starters have been the main culprits. That has forced coach Doc Rivers to lean heavily on an eight-man rotation featuring the starting five and a bench trio of Jeff Green, Glen Davis and Delonte West.
But Boston has been limping to the finish line in recent games, fumbling fourth-quarter leads away while falling to Memphis, Charlotte and Indiana. The Celtics also let Minnesota rally back from a 25-point deficit before escaping with a win on Sunday.
How do you stay fresh at the end of games? Limit the minutes your core is playing overall. Yet, instead of trying to rest his veterans' legs over the final games of the regular season, Rivers has been forced to run that eight-man unit longer than usual trying to bring his team out of its funk.
And so Carlos Arroyo, Sasha Pavlovic and Troy Murphy, late-season additions once Marquis Daniels, Semih Erden and Luke Harangody were jettisoned, have simply become glorified spectators as Boston slips toward the No. 3 seed in the East.
Now, don't misinterpret. Boston had to overhaul its bench. Daniels wasn't going to play another game this season due to a freak spine injury; Erden was banged up and playing through serious pain; and Harangody boasted a team-high 25 DNPs this season. The suggestion here is not that Boston shouldn't have made the moves, but that it simply hasn't received the sort of contributions it expected from the newcomers.
The lengthy absences of the O'Neals, combined with injuries to the likes of reserve swingman Von Wafer, surely haven't helped matters for Boston, either. But here's a glimpse of what the Celtics have gotten from their newcomers thus far:
* Boston won a bit of a tug-of-war with the rival Miami Heat for the services of Murphy, the biggest prize atop the buyout scrap heap. In 11 appearances for Boston, however, he's averaged 2.3 points and 2.6 rebounds over 10.4 minutes per game. Take away a 12-point, seven-rebound effort over 17:22 against Milwaukee on March 13 and Murphy has scored a mere 13 points and grabbed 22 rebounds over roughly 97 minutes of action. Murphy sprained his right ankle at practice last week and is in a walking boot as he tries to get healthy, but admitted this past weekend that he isn't sure when he'll be back on the court. Given that he was already trying to shake two month's of rust that set in from inactivity, that doesn't bode well for his ability to contribute before the postseason.
* Sasha Pavlovic came with the billing of a competitive defender with potential to add depth at the wing behind Paul Pierce and Wafer. But even with Wafer sidelined since March 4 due to a right calf sprain, Pavlovic has logged a mere 87 minutes in 10 appearances. What's more, after making one basket in each of his first three games, he's missed his last five attempts and has been used sparingly (drawing three DNPs over his last six games and appearing for only 12 minutes during that same span). His biggest contribution has been easing the transition to a new locker room for good friend Nenad Krstic (a value that shouldn't be dismissed, particularly given Krstic's own struggles recently).
* The Celtics passed up the chance to re-sign Chris Johnson, a young center out of the D-League brought in for emergency depth after the Perkins trade, to instead add Carlos Arroyo for depth at point guard (especially with West nursing an ankle sprain and Rondo in need of reduced minutes). After providing quality minutes over his first six games, Arroyo has been limited since West's return to action. In fact, Arroyo has played a mere 19 total minutes in the six games that Boston has had both Rondo and West active. Arroyo has three DNPs in Boston's last six games, but did play 17 minutes with Rondo sidelined in Minnesota.
Again, the Celtics seemingly wouldn't have benefitted from standing pat. Erden remains dinged up and has appeared in only one game for Cleveland, while Harangody is averaging 6.5 points and 4.2 rebounds over 17.6 minutes per game in 11 appearances for a lowly Cavaliers squad. Johnson signed with the Portland Trail Blazers and, while he hasn't missed a shot since being inked for the remainder of the season, he's taken only three and played sparingly.
Regardless, it's painfully obvious Boston needs more from the end of its bench. These players weren't brought in with the idea of being playoff contributors -- save maybe for an emergency situation -- but they were pegged to help the Celtics get to the finish line of the regular season and earn a top seed in the process.
Part of that is on Rivers, who might have to bite the bullet and ride the end of the bench if for no other reason than to allow his core to rest down the stretch. If that means losing more games, well, it's hard to imagine things getting much worse for Boston. Maybe extended and consistent playing time is enough for the new bench to catch a spark.
Then in the postseason, Rivers can revert to leaning on that eight- or nine-man rotation (depending on the health of the O'Neals), and only then will we see whether the Perkins trade helps Boston accomplish its ultimate goal of a world title.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.
9dEthan Sherwood Strauss