As was the case throughout most of the two decades prior to July 31, 2007, the 2005-06 NBA campaign didn’t make Celtics fans too happy.
Coming off 45 wins, an Atlantic Division title and an embarrassing 27-point Game 7 defeat at home to Indiana to bounce the team out of the first round, Danny Ainge shipped Antoine Walker out of town for the second time in three years. Gary Payton saw the door with Employee No. 8 in a five-team blockbuster that would add two pieces to the Miami Heat’s championship run the following June. Celtics fans watched Paul Pierce, Ricky Davis, an overpaid-and-under-concerned Mark Blount alongside a bunch of youngsters whose promise ranged from “wow!” (Al Jefferson and, gulp, Gerald Green) to “meh” (Justin Reed). Predictably, the team started by winning nine of its first 23 games and never looked back, cruising to a 33-49 record. The highlight was Ainge managing to move Blount’s poisonous attitude in an otherwise uninspiring mid-season deal centered on Ricky Davis and Wally Szczerbiak as well as a first-round pick that would be returned to the Timberwolves in a later deal you might have heard about. A wonderful year it was, all things considered.
The point of this long-winded stroll down an overcast memory lane is this: With Payton headed to sunny South Beach, sophomore Delonte West took over the point guard job. While young speedster Marcus Banks dealt with injuries and other struggles returning to the rotation, the back-up job fell into the lap of a rookie named Orien Greene. That this individual played 1,235 minutes that year probably epitomizes just how good the 2005-06 Celtics were without requiring all the mumbo-jumbo put forth in the paragraph above.
Selected 53rd out of Lousiana-Layfayette in 2005, Greene came to town with a reputation as a rugged defender whose offensive game needed improvement. And he did show flashes of thriving at the defensive end. Standing 6-4 and 200 pounds, Greene brought size and a willingness to be physical to the Celtics backcourt. His great hands nabbed him a steal a game in just 15 minutes per night, and he was able to use his strength at times to steer opposing floor generals off course. Sure, he got beat his fair share, and while some of that may have been due to underlying issues regarding quickness at the NBA level, at least as much could be chalked up to rookie mistakes. There was at least promise at that end. It wasn’t coincidental that the Celtics were 7.2 points better per 100 possessions defensively with him on the floor than off.
But what made Greene agitating to watch overall as a Celtics fan was the fact that saying his offensive game needed improvement is somewhat akin to saying the 2008 Detroit Lions needed to win a little bit more than they did. Thanks to the fact that he was a homeless man’s Rajon Rondo when it came to outside shooting but lacked Rondo’s explosiveness getting into the lane, Greene proved entirely ineffective as an offensive leader. Not only did he shoot less than 40 percent from the field and less than 25 percent from three, but Greene didn’t penetrate well, didn’t make himself a threat to go to the rim and thus rarely forced the defense’s hand. That the Celtics were 11.5 points per 100 possessions worse offensively with him on the floor came as no shock after watching him play.
The uninspiring on-court performance coupled with a late-season arrest to end Greene’s tenure as a Celtic after his rookie season. He caught on with Indiana and Sacramento over the next two seasons but totaled just 48 appearances and similar inefficacy at the offensive end. In fact, his true shooting actually declined from his high-water mark of 44.9 percent as a rookie.
But there is often something about former Celtics that I just can’t let go, no matter how inauspicious their tenures. So it was Greene who caught my eye while playing in his third game as a D-Leaguer on Tuesday night after spending last season in Europe. Making his first start for the Utah Flash, Greene showed once more why scouts thought he had the makings of a plus defender coming out of Louisiana-Lafayette, disrupting the Los Angeles D-Fenders offense to the tune of eight (count ‘em, eight!) steals. Insert disclaimer here about how steals numbers are about as good a measure of defensive ability as the number of luxury cars a player owns. Absolutely. But Greene really did look smooth defensively, picking his spots to jump passing lanes, picking the ball away with ease and constantly getting after loose balls, and he did it without gambling to the point of getting beat all night.
Alas, at the offensive end, there appeared to be plenty of the same-old, same-old on a four-assist, six-turnover night. Greene isn’t off to a great shooting start this season either, having hit just 11 of his first 31 shots from the field. But at 27 years old, he still has impressive size for a point guard and still gets after it defensively.
Somewhere in the middle of all the offensive frustration and the flashes of defensive potential, there is something about Orien Greene that intrigues me. Maybe I’m just one more Celtics fan remembering the days when potential was all we faithful had (there should really be more party games that incorporate cruising down Celtics forums for “Bring back Gerald Green!” threads). Maybe I’m old-fashioned enough to be living in this dream world where I think a player might be able to find his way into the Association simply as an end-of-the-bench situational stopper. Or perhaps I just want to figure out where it went wrong with Greene from college to the pros, to see if he has the quickness to make it at the D-League level but not beyond, or if his shooting simply doesn’t cut it or if he’ll use the experience with the Flash to bust his gut to improve his outside touch.
Whatever it is, Orien Greene has me curious. I’ll be watching, and I’ll be rooting for him, too, hoping a one-time prospect uses the time in a league centered on development to stand out on defense and make some progress on his most glaring shortcomings at the other end.
In other news from last night, congratulations to Greene’s Utah Flash for winning a thriller in LA. While I was busy swooning over ghosts of Celtics past, Dontell Jefferson concluded a 21-point night by knocking down a turnaround from just inside the right elbow with two seconds left to propel the Flash to an 85-84 road victory. Well done, Dontell.
As long as we’re having some sort of impromptu pseudo-Celtics-themed day here, might as well toss in one mostly unrelated link: Over at beloved CelicsBlog, my pal IP posts weekly on the Maine Red Claws. This week’s edition features a thorough breakdown of the roster. It’s definitely worth sinking your teeth into the newest Lobster Roll!
See what I just did there? Yup, the lame food pun means it’s definitely time to wrap up for now.
Back on Friday with more babbling to head into the weekend. Catch ya on the flip side.