- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Once again, the Boston Celtics and Vin Baker face an uncertain future together as the power forward serves out a suspension for violating his aftercare agreement with the team. He will return Tuesday night in Milwaukee -- but only because that's when his suspension comes to an end. In reality, he'll be back, but in uniform only.
The Celtics and Baker are again in a tightrope walk of sorts. Baker's difficulties in battling his alcoholism have made him an ongoing basketball question mark. And that makes the situation dicey for coach Jim O'Brien.
Baker has lost much of the early-season zip and zest that made his story such a compelling one. Now, he is battling not only a disease, but the possibility that he may lose his job and his salary if he can't stay in compliance.
The Celtics are saying all the right things. They rightly see this as a life issue and it was the team, after all, which forced Baker to confront his disease and enter a residential treatment center last winter. But the team also has a business side to consider, namely, how long can it keep paying such exorbitant sums to a guy on whom they can't rely?
Watching all this with intense interest is the Players Association. The union sees the words "contract" and "terminate" in the same sentence and they go into Defcon 5. They see a Celtics team which is likely to be a luxury-tax payer this season -- and the huge financial break the team would get if Baker's deal was terminated because the forward failed to comply with his aftercare agreement and was deemed unfit to play.
But, the bottom line is that, once again, it appears that the Celtics are going to have to move on without Baker. O'Brien really has no other option. If he knew he'd have the November Baker every game, it would be a non-issue. But now he doesn't know if, or when, he'll ever see that Baker again.
This became apparent prior to the Celtics' victory in Houston on Sunday night, a victory which improved their road record against the West to an impressive 6-1. O'Brien said he was anticipating Baker's return to the team for the Bucks game, but that he could not envision a scenario where Baker would play any meaningful time. "I really don't have any plans to utilize him in Milwaukee," O'Brien said.
During his suspension, Baker missed three games, three shootarounds (which, for the Celtics, are tantamount to a practice) and two regular practices. Baker and his coach did not communicate during the week that Baker was on suspension, although O'Brien said he called and left phone messages.
The Celtics already had been cutting Baker's minutes prior to the suspension, giving more of his time to Walter McCarty and the newly acquired Chris Mihm. That is not going to change in the immediate future. If Baker remains in compliance, he still will have to work his way back into the rotation, something which may be easier said than done if the Celtics continue to have success with a smallish lineup.
Against the Rockets, for instance, McCarty started at center and did what he does best -- camp out at the 3-point line and jack threes all night. He happens to be pretty decent at those and the result was that Jeff Van Gundy blinked first in the staring contest with O'Brien. Yao Ming played only 23 minutes -- and not at all in the fourth quarter. The Celtics shot 47 percent against the NBA's No. 1 field-goal defense team, including 50 percent (11 of 22) from 3-point territory.
This is going to be the way the Celtics play for a while. They will again take the floor for every game knowing they are a team bereft of any kind of reliable, legitimate, low-post threat. When Baker was playing well, he represented just such an outlet. He was a possible double-double every time he stepped on the floor. But he was all that the Celtics had among big men who could remotely be deemed threats down low. The additions of Mihm and Yogi Stewart do not change that.
So now, we're likely to see the Celtics revert to their style of play from a year ago, the same style that fans found unwatchable and that Danny Ainge demanded be changed. The style that saw them launch 3-pointers with impunity. But there's a big, big difference between this year and last year: better ball movement and better 3-point shooters. Viva La Difference.
Last year, the Celtics' merry band of shooters was led by Antoine Walker, who once again led the NBA in 3-point attempts (still a stunning thing given that he is a power forward.) The only problem: Walker didn't make them. He was not even among the top 50 in 3-point percentage. Why O'Brien put up with Walker's wild shooting remains one of the mystifying stories of last season. But that's Don Nelson's concern now. O'Brien has better marksmen this year.
McCarty dropped in five threes against Houston -- all in his first six attempts from beyond the arc. Jiri Welsch (what a find he has turned out to be) made all three of his 3-pointers and Paul Pierce, not the most accurate from long range, made two of the four he took.
Last season, the Celtics were 27th in field-goal shooting, 21st in 3-point accuracy. This season, the Celtics are ranked fourth in both regular field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage. Last season, the best 3-point shooter on the Celtics was Tony Delk, who ranked 19th. This season, Welsch is third in the league in 3-point accuracy while McCarty is 12th. Mike James is 38th.
The one unknown: How will Ainge view this? Last year's team made his stomach turn and he took on the job not only to revamp the roster but to revamp the style of play. He envisions a more up-tempo game with, eventually, the lightning-fast Marcus Banks being the push guy. O'Brien is looking for a way to win now. And Ainge has to understand that, without Baker, the Celtics really don't have a lot of inside options.
But Ainge also is looking well down the road. He has said more than once that he is not concerned about wins this season. He already put Raef LaFrentz on ice and then made the Ricky Davis/Mihm deal at a time when the team was on a five-game winning streak and appeared to be coming together.
Baker is not, nor has he ever been, a part of the Celtics' grand design going forward. Two years from now, Baker's salary is due to come off the books. It's anyone's guess as to whether Baker will even be in Boston at that time. While his contract now would appear to be unmovable, a lot of things can happen between now and then.
For now, the Celtics will move on and hope that, at some point, the Baker they saw in November will re-emerge. If he does, it's an added plus and an added dimension. If he does not, it will make for a very expensive benchwarmer, something neither Baker nor the Celtics would want to happen.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
The question isn't when Vin Baker will return to the Celtics. The question is how long he'll stay in the NBA.