When I read the words “He was phenomenal” and “He was unbelievable,” I certainly did not expect them to describe Sasha Pavlovic. But Doc Rivers thought Pavlovic — and, more specifically, Pavlovic’s defense — was phenomenal during the small forward’s Boston Celtics debut.
You may have already seen me poke fun at Pavlovic in this space, mostly because he’s been (literally, and without any hint of sarcasm or exaggeration) one of the NBA’s worst players during the past few seasons. If you watched the Cleveland Cavaliers play with any regularity — and I did, because they had Lebron James — Pavlovic was like Cleveland’s Tony Allen. You know, the one guy who left Cavs fans gnawing at their fingernails whenever he touched the ball. The one guy who was a turnover or bad decision waiting to happen. The one guy who forced normally-calm fans into becoming Ativan users.
Wrote John Krolik, an intelligent writer who watches the Cavs more obsessively than most: (Cavs the Blog)
Then Sasha held out for the beginning of the 2007-08 season, and during his holdout was apparently forced to forget everything he had ever learned about basketball. I’m telling you, in 2007 Sasha Pavlovic was an effective slasher. I saw it. This really happened. But whenever Sasha Pavlovic put the ball on the floor after his holdout, terrible, terrible things would happen. He would crash into defenders, try to go behind his back, have no idea where any of his teammates were, and throw up wild shots in traffic. Sasha could still play solid defense, and would have good stretches shooting the ball. But Sasha’s sheer horrifying ineptitude whenever he tried to make a play kept him from ever making the kind of impact he had in 2007 again.
That paragraph doesn’t sound promising. Except, you know, for the “Sasha could still play solid defense” part, and the “good stretches shooting the ball” part. Since the “good stretches shooting the ball” part also came with some horrible stretches shooting the ball, that leaves “Sasha could still play solid defense” as the one silver lining to his post-2007 holdout game.
Mike Brown, who for some reason has been offered an announcing job by ESPN, concurred with Krolik’s assertion that Pavlovic’s defense has always been solid. (CSNNE)
“He always took the better of the two wing players,” Brown told CSNNE.com. “He took that person most of the whole game. Sasha allowed us, because of his size and length and the way he plays, he allowed us to get away with LeBron getting a, quote-unquote, rest, on the defensive end of the floor which was a positive for us.”
Looking at the Celtics’ roster, there isn’t a single defense-first wing on the entire team. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen only became adequate defenders (or better than adequate, whatever have you) when introduced to Kevin Garnett and Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes. Von Wafer only turned into a passable defender after realizing he would receive DNP-CDs until the day he did. Jeff Green tries, but he still doesn’t know the C’s schemes, nor does he have a natural capacity for defense. And Delonte West has always been a gritty defender, but he’s 6’3 and unable to defend most of the league’s small forwards. Which leaves Sasha Pavlovic — one of the NBA’s single worst players in the past few seasons — as Boston’s one defense-first wing.
Pavlovic, I remind you, once told Mike Brown, “My offense is my defense,” presumably at some point before he realized his offense wasn’t very good. But now, he tries. And, according to Doc Rivers and Mike Brown, he succeeds at stopping his opponents better than most. To play such solid defense in his Celtics’ debut means at least two things: 1) he has an inclination to stop people, as well as an uncommon knowledge of proper defense which he likely learned from Coach Brown, and 2) he stayed in good shape during his layoff from basketball, which is more than we can say about Troy Murphy.
If basketball’s lone objective were to stop someone from scoring, Pavlovic would be a keeper. But there’s also another aspect of the game, which is to score baskets, and that’s where Pavlovic has at times proven destructive. I mentioned how he’s been one of the worst offensive players in the league during each of the past few seasons, and that’s no lie. He’s Tony Allen, except by almost every objective measure, his offense has been far worse than Allen’s.
“He hasn’t consistently put everything together,” Brown said “And that’s why he’s bounced in and out of the league at such a young age.”
More likely, he never learned his role — or, at least, never learned how to play his role. If Pavlovic ever learned to take open jumpers, and cut all the other nonsense out of his offensive “arsenal”, the Celtics could live with him. More importantly, I could live with him. When standing wide open, by himself, Pavlovic is actually a decent shooter. He has nice touch, and has actually made 35.2% of his career three-pointers. It’s all the other crap — the over-dribbling, the forced shots, the why-the-hell-did-he-do-that mistakes, the Tony Allenisms — that have caused Pavlovic’s coaches to act like Lee Trevino in Happy Gilmore (or, in other words, to consistently shake their heads with displeasure).
The most important conclusion to draw from Pavlovic’s debut wasn’t his defense, because Pavlovic has been at least a passable defender for years. The most important conclusion to draw from his debut was that maybe — just maybe — there’s a place for Pavlovic in this league after all, a niche he can carve out to help a contender. He had zero turnovers, in thirteen minutes. He also had only one forced shot, and I only consider his airball a forced shot because Sasha Pavlovic is not the player the Celtics want shooting a jumper (however wide open) after a spin move.
Maybe playing for the Celtics will revive Pavlovic’s career. Maybe maturation has reshaped his game, and he can grow into his new, lesser role. Maybe he can play solid basketball. Maybe he can, on the heels of his defensive tenacity and newfound maturity, beat out Von Wafer (or someone else) for a spot on the playoff roster. Or maybe Sasha Pavlovic will continue to be who I thought he was, one of the NBA’s very worst and confounding players.