Last spring, the Boston Celtics, despite being an old team many expected to crumble under playoff pressure at every bump in the road, had health on their side almost until the very end. Almost. Then, in Game Six of the NBA Finals, starting center and defensive bulwark Kendrick Perkins came down awkwardly after a play, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. The Celtics went on to lose that game, and despite putting up a valiant fight, were just not big, strong, or tough enough to hang on to the lead they held for most of Game Seven without Perkins, ultimately falling to their nemesis Lakers.
This year is different. Ever since the Kendrick Perkins injury, the Boston Celtics have not had health on their side. Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett, maybe the team's two most important players, have each sat out for weeks due to injuries, but have since returned and have gone about their business. Even without Rondo and Garnett, easy stretches of schedule allowed the Celtics to carry on with relative ease, although as the season grinds on, the lack of health at the big positions is going to spell bad things for the Celtics.
Center and power forward Jermaine O'Neal, added this summer to help bolster the Celtics' depth, has played in just 17 games due to a knee issue and has seen little effectiveness when he has taken the court (18 MPG, 5.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG). The other O'Neal, Shaquille, has averaged 9.9 points and 4.9 rebounds in 21 minutes per game and has shown on occasion that he can still ball. The problem with Shaq is that he is ancient, and it has shown. He's missed time due to assorted bumps and bruises all year, and he sits out tonight's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers because of a hip flexor injury.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers is eagerly awaiting the return of Perkins, which is currently scheduled for February 4 against the Dallas Mavericks. In place of Perkins and the two O'Neals, when Shaq is not able to start, the Celtics have had to turn to Turkish rookie Semih Erden, who was selected in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft. While second round draft picks are typically an afterthought in the NBA, the Celtics may have a diamond in the rough in Erden, who despite a slow transition to the league because of his limited English skills, has talent and is eager to work with his coaches and teammates.
Erden, 24, makes his sixth start tonight (1/25), and has put up 4.3 points and 3.0 rebounds in 14:48 minutes per game, and with a 59.8 field goal percentage and stat lines like the 14 point, 7 rebound effort against Utah or his 10 point, 9 rebound game in a win over the Sacramento Kings, Erden has shown that he does have the ability to make things happen, despite the fact that he is still a very raw product. While these are not exactly eye popping numbers, it is always going to leave a good impression on fans, coaches, and the organization when a second round pick buried on the depth chart who was hardly expecting to see playing time as a rookie has been able to step in, and with an injured shoulder that will require an offseason surgery, deliver serviceable play in meaningful minutes.
For this, Erden has won over coach Doc Rivers, and he should definitely have a roster spot waiting for him in future seasons. But that doesn't change the fact that the Celtics are desperate for the return of Kendrick Perkins, because as valiant as the effort of Erden has been, the Celtics have been eaten alive by sub-par big men, most recently the tandem of Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. In a recent 85-83 win over the Celtics for the Washington Wizards, McGee finished 6-for-11 from the field with 16 points and 6 rebounds. His teammate Blatche added 11 points and 5 boards.
Not just Doc Rivers, but also fantasy basketball owners should be excited for the upcoming return of Perkins, should everything go smoothly. Perkins is currently owned in just 8% of Yahoo! Fantasy Basketball leagues, and if he can return to the level he is accustomed to playing at (the intense motivation he's described to the media suggests he just might, although it is important to keep in mind he tore an ACL, so he may let himself down here), he is worth the gamble. Last season, Perkins, now 26, averaged 10 points, 1.7 blocks and 7.6 rebounds per game, very helpful numbers for fantasy basketball owners in need of some mid-season reinforcements at center.