Every team in the NBA that is serious about contending for a championship wants to have a deep bench. One question that gets thrown at practically every contender is "are they deep enough?" And, as a result, GMs around the league are constantly searching for players to fill a variety of bench roles. The "sixth man" who can sub in and provide an offensive boost is a hot commodity. Swing men who can check in and guard the oppositions best player for a spell are also in high demand. However there is one role that often gets overlooked in the NBA today, and that is the backup center position. Thankfully the Boston Celtics have two really good ones in Chris Wilcox and Jason Collins heading into the 2012-2013 season.
The NBA is a star driven league and thus fans often want to believe that it's the stars who power their team to victory. However the difference between winning and losing just as often depends on quality minutes from backup big men. For every playoff team there is always a few games where their best big man gets in foul trouble early, and they end up having to rely on their top reserve for more minutes than they initially planned. The performance that they receive is often the difference between victory and defeat. The teams with bigs who can come in and be relied upon typically win out, and those with bigs who come in and are taken advantage of typically go home.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have possible the best reserve big man in the league in Nick Collison. The Miami Heat have an awfully good one in Udonis Haslem. The L.A. Lakers actually are pretty deep in the front court as well thanks to their re-signing Jordan Hill. While this is not the reason that these three are the favorites to take home the Larry O'Brien trophy this year, it certainly aids their case. Boston meanwhile has had a tough time with reserve bigs ever since their championship run in 2008. Last year the Celtics planned to go with Chris Wilcox and Brandon Bass as their top reserves, but injuries to Wilcox and Jermaine O'Neal voided that plan. In 2011 they tried their luck with Jermaine and Shaquille O'Neal, but neither could stay healthy. In 2010 Rasheed Wallace did a decent job, but never got into good enough shape to give Boston the impact they were looking for. In 2009 injuries to Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe crushed the C's front court depth, and they were forced to rely on Mikki Moore. Only in 2008 did they actually have a solid backup big – P.J. Brown.
Brown came out of retirement to join the Celtics after the All-Star break in 2008. He went on to play a critical role in Boston's championship run. While he is best remembered for his game clinching jump shot in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Brown actually did a lot more than just knock down open jumpers that year. In 2008 Kendrick Perkins was starting to get acknowledged as one of the best defensive centers in the league, but he was also terribly prone to foul trouble. It seemed like every other game Perk would get hit with an early call that he didn't like, then commit another out of frustration, and Brown would be forced into action for longer than coach Doc Rivers intended. Fortunately for the 2008 Celtics Brown was a reliable force and thus they didn't miss a beat when Perk went to the bench. Unfortunately they have been without a reliable backup ever since he retired following that championship.
The backup center role is possibly even more important for the present day Celtics than it was during 2008, but they've been getting progressively thinner up front ever since Brown left. Perkins is gone and now Garnett starts at center, moving over from power forward at the All-Star break last year. Garnett isn't as prone to foul trouble as the moody Perk was, but he is 36 years old and thus simply can't play 40 minutes a game anymore. If the Celtics are going to get quality play from Garnett he has to get 10 to 12 minutes of rest every night. However last year every time Garnett went to the bench the C's simply fell apart, particularly on the defensive end. They went into the season feeling good about their depth, with Wilcox and Bass backing up Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal. But Wilcox and O'Neal went down with season ending injuries, forcing Bass into the starting lineup and D-League product Greg Stiemsma into the role of top reserve. He had an impact in the regular season, but a broken foot suffered late in the year robbed him of what little mobility he had, and teams took advantage of him in the playoffs, running pick and rolls right at him whenever he was on the floor. The team simply fell apart whenever KG took a breather, forcing Doc Rivers to play him more than he wanted to, and the high minute totals eventually caught up to KG late in the Miami series. If the Celtics were serious about making another championship run they had to reload the front court. Thankfully they did by signing Wilcox and Collins.
Wilcox was really coming into his own, giving the Celtics defense, rebounding, and transition offense off the bench before undergoing season ending heart surgery. This year he's back and healthy and projects as Boston's top reserve in the frontcourt. However if there is one the Celtics have learned in the past five years it's that you can never have too many big bodies, which is why Celtic fans have to love the Collins signing. While he doesn't provide the transition game Wilcox does, and isn't as good a rebounder, Collins is still one of the better low post defenders in the game. If circumstances require him coming off the bench to spell Garnett the C's defense won't collapse like it did last year. The Celtics haven't had two such reliable pieces on their bench since '08. Rasheed was good, but they never knew what they were going to get from him on any given night. Jermaine O'Neal couldn't even be relied upon to show up. Stiemsma was a liability. That won't be the case this year.
None of Boston's reserve bigs are going to give the Celtics much offense. Rookie Jared Sullinger will get some looks in the post. Wilcox will get hustle baskets. Collins and rookie Fab Melo will throw down the odd dunk when they get the chance, but that's about it. Luckily the C's really don't need offense from their front court subs. They have all the offense they need coming from Jeff Green, Jason Terry and Courtney Lee. Their backup bigs simply need to sub in and make sure the defense doesn't fall apart when Garnett heads for the pine, as it has in years past. With Wilcox and Collins on board things look a lot more stable.
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