On October 9, 2004, I "proved" the Celtics and Suns were approximately the same team, except that Boston had a legitimate center in Mark Blount. Who proved me wrong, Blount or Nash?
In that pre-season article, I predicted that the addition of Steve Nash would do as little for the center-less Suns as he did for the center-less Mavericks; that is to say, he would be a great player on an at-best second-round team. Little did I know Nash would be this year's Baron Davis, an early point guard favorite for MVP who then succumbs to injury.
Did Nash prove me wrong? Did Amare Stoudemire, playing the center position like he's owned it for years? Did Shawn Marion, who turned out to be one of the league's premier power forwards hiding in a wing man's body?
Or was it Mark Blount, who has been underperforming even the lowest of expectations (no points and no rebounds in his last outing)?
Actually I made several mistakes, thank you very much. I didn't take into account the fact that Doc Rivers would go so deep into his bench or that Mike D'Antoni would not. The Suns starters each average about 35 minutes or more; on the Celtics, only Paul Pierce averages that many.
It's not a mistake for either coach. D'Antoni's five starters play better than the opposition; according to 82games.com, they each contribute to the Suns increasing their lead more when they are on the court than when they are sitting. Meanwhile, Rivers's starting frontline of Raef LaFrentz and Mark Blount both tend to watch Celtics leads dwindle, or at least grow at a slower pace than when they are on the bench. A lot of the Celtic reserves are among the tops on the team in per-minute plus-minus ratings.
It's more of a different team than I had previously concluded. Blount is a legitimate center, his recent skid notwithstanding. He just needs to play alongside another bruising big man. His best games last year came when then-rookie Brandon Hunter started drawing some attention. Putting Blount next to LaFrentz helps spread the floor on offense, as both players like to shoot the mid-range jump shot, but it makes the guards have to focus more on rebounding.
Putting in Al Jefferson helps a little as he is terrific in the low-post and on the offensive, and defensive glass, but he gets it by out-hustling and out-jumping opponents more than he does with footwork and boxing out and bodying up.
Kendrick Perkins is the Celtics real big body. He hasn't been getting the minutes he needs to prove himself but that might change soon.
In last night's loss to the Nets, Perkins was the third Celtic off the bench!
In any event, the point is that Nash added so much more to the Suns than Payton did to the Celtics. A loss of Payton, even temporarily, would hurt the Celtics tremendously, but since they're below .500 anyway, there's not much further to fall. The loss of Nash devastated the Suns.
I think it's fair to say that the Suns starters, when healthy, are far and away better than the Celtics starters, but that the Celtics bench is better than the Suns bench.
In other words, I was way wrong on the Suns, and way early on the Celtics. The C's may still gell eventually, and they will likely lose Payton one way or another, so they'll need a solid point in return, but the Suns are simply amazing.