You have to give Danny Ainge some credit. I sometimes wonder (not really, literally just right now and one other time) if the Boston Celtics gave up on their core a little too prematurely, but no one outside of Boston liked that team very much anyways. Yeah, the veterans were way too old, but we keep saying the same thing about the San Antonio Spurs, and they keep finding ways to reinvent themselves. The Celtics decided to blow things up and that deal they made with Brooklyn for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce is starting to look like a huge payout, with a chance at Ben Simmons in next year’s draft lottery. You have to feel sorry for Brooklyn fans because they have one of the worst GMs ever not named Kahn, but we’ll leave that for another day. Along with the lottery pick from Brooklyn, the Celtics also own 3 additional picks in the draft. While I think the Celtics should move these picks for a premier player, let me get to what I think about the team currently constructed.
What I like about the Celtics:
Jared Sullinger: The Celtics have the luxury of having 5 quality big men to choose from when deciding which 2 to pair together during the course of a given game. Although Sullinger is a little undersized, his high basketball IQ more than makes up for it. The Celtics like to run a lot of high and quick pick and pops through Sullinger. Although he is not the greatest ball-handler, he does have the ability to effectively use 2 dribble moves. When he catches the ball on pick and pops, the defender has to choose whether to let Sullinger hit the mid-range jumper or close. He is more than capable of hitting the mid-range shot and when defenders close out on him, he uses 2 dribble moves toward the middle of the key to set up open players on the wing, who can hit the open 3 or drive on their man helping out on Sullinger. Their stockpile of big men allow the Celtics to limit Sullinger’s minutes while maximizing his effectiveness. His reduced minutes are probably helping contribute to his solid 96 defensive rating this season. Sullinger has an assist percentage of 15.5% and a usage rate of 19.9%, meaning he has been making the right play this year. His assist percentage has improved in each of the past 2 seasons and his change in play has definitely helped Boston improve.
Kelly Olynyk: The former Gonzaga star’s minutes are also down this year but his defensive rating has improved quite a bit, decreasing from 102 last season to 96 this year. Olynyk is not the greatest 3-point shooter but the threat of him hitting a 3 helps space the court for Boston’s other high IQ basketball players. I’m sure the Celtics would like to see him at a higher percentage than 36% from 3, but they’ll take that for now. Olynyk has a usage rate of 22% and an assist percentage of 14.3%. Both Olynyk and Sullinger have been very aggressive on offense this year but their assist percentages are what I’m really impressed with. They are willing passers and give the Celtics an unpredictability factor because they are both capable scorers and play-makers.
Jae Crowder: The road through the East starts and ends in Cleveland, and any team hoping of an upset needs someone that can slow down LeBron James. James had his way last season in a sweep of Boston in last year’s playoffs. Crowder is much improved this season, upping his true shooting percentage to 58%. His defense is also much improved with a defensive rating under 100 at 98. Although Crowder is much improved, I can’t help but think that Boston could use some more fire-power here. Part of beating a superstar talent is making them work on both ends of the floor. If Crowder can make James guard him, Boston will improve it’s chances of winning some games against James and the crew.
Isaiah Thomas: This might sound crazy but the Celtics kind of remind me of the Spurs, and Thomas is their Tony Parker. Thomas is a spark-plug that opposing point guards hate chasing around screens, as they watch him drop jumpers and floaters. Fighting through constant screens is very tiring and just frustrating to deal with over the course of a game. Both players have very similar offensive and defensive ratings and also have very similar true shooting percentages. Like Tony Parker early in his career, Thomas has had a hard time with consistency. If he can learn to play full games while keeping his edge, the Celtics could become actual contenders.
What I don’t like about Boston:
Lack of a rim protector: I understand that the Celtics are going for the small ball effect but I’m not quite sure a team can go small-ball all the time. Having some diversity among those 5 big men could really help this team out, especially against bigger teams like Cleveland. I’m a huge Amir Johnson fan but there are going to be games where he just isn’t going to have the best match-up. I’m not particularly sold on Tyler Zeller either. Unfortunately there aren’t many Andrew Bogut’s around, but a quality veteran big man could really go a long way in helping this team’s confidence come playoff time.
Lack of a pure 3-point shooter: The Celtics are 3rd in the NBA in 3-point attempts behind the Rockets and Warriors, but rank only 23rd in percentage. While this might be sort of an advantage right now, since unsuspecting guys are hitting these 3’s, come playoff time, when the defense stiffens, these 3’s aren’t going to fall. Finding some elite 3-point shooters to go along with this core would do wonders. Avery Bradley has had a career season so far, but Sullinger’s kick-outs to him don’t really fear teams enough right now.
Lack of play-makers: Evan Turner has been great off the bench this season but I sometimes wonder why teams even guard him. I would seriously let this guy unload as many 3’s as Brad Stevens would let him. Give him the Tony Allen treatment, although he is a significantly better offensive threat. He’s basically trying to be the Celtics version of Manu Ginobili. Every bench needs playmakers. The Spurs have Ginobili and Boris Diaw. The Warriors have Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. Evan Turner could prove me wrong but I can’t help but think they need an upgrade here. His true shooting percentage is only 47%. He’s done a great job distributing the past two seasons and has improved his defense, and that should not be overlooked. Marcus Smart and Evan Turner should make an interesting bench combo once Smart is back, but I think they do too many of the same things, which ultimately lowers their efficiency.
Somewhat realistic trades for Boston:
Nicolas Batum: Batum is an un-restricted free agent at the end of the season, so the Celtics might just want to wait for him to hit free agency, but in that scenario they might be better off throwing their money at the much younger Harrison Barnes. Giving up a couple of picks to Charlotte might entice them enough to give up Batum, but they too are also in the Eastern Conference race. Batum would give the Celtics a much better play-maker and another defender against LeBron. Batum also would allow the Celtics to use even more small ball lineup combinations and would be a good Andre Iguodala type presence for this young team. He’s also shooting just under 40% from 3.
Eric Gordon: Also an un-restricted free agent after the season, Gordon is stuck on the worst team in the Western Conference. Although he’s been injury prone throughout his career, he would add a quality 3-point shooting threat. Although he is down almost 10% on his 3-point shot, maybe he can turn things around on a better team. He’s probably the worst option out of the bunch. Not sure I’d give up much for him but since he’s a free agent after the season, a half season trial run could be interesting, and possibly come for a bargain.
Alec Burks: Alright, I’m just kind of a fan of Alec Burks and would recommend him to a lot of teams but he’s been a consistent 3-point shooter and slasher. He’s an upgrade over Bradley offensively but is probably a down grade defensively. He’d give the Celtics a much better play-maker/scorer than Evan Turner. He has a 53% true shooting percentage and is in the first year of a 4 year $42 million extention. Utah probably won’t give him up but if they fall out of contention, maybe they’d look into a deal centered around a combination of those 4 picks and 1 of Boston’s bigs.
Will Barton: Barton is shooting 40% from 3 and has a 57% true shooting percentage. I think he’d make a great addition to this Boston 1st or 2nd unit. He’s much more efficient than Evan Turner but has also been slightly worse at defense. He’s in the 1st year of a 3 year $11 million deal, making this a really good steal. He’d be coming from a losing culture so that would be an issue but for less than $4 million he’s worth the risk.
Joakim Noah: Another un-restricted free agent at the end of the season, Noah would provide Boston with a defensive presence and enforcer. Noah would give them much needed toughness that I think Boston is missing right now. He’s also a willing passer and gives them an underrated playmaker. Chicago is trying to make a playoff run of their own but they are struggling to integrate their pieces and maybe trading Noah would make the decision easier on them when it comes to figuring out a rotation.
TJ Warren: Warren would provide the Celtics with an impact scoring punch off the bench. While he isn’t the greatest defender, his offensive rating is up to 113, he’s up to 40% from the 3-point line, and has a 57% true shooting percentage. Phoenix isn’t performing as expected and may be willing to part with Warren if the package is right. With 4 picks and so many young players on the roster, Boston may have the pieces necessary to get Phoenix’s attention. The Celtics have former Kentucky player James Young and we all know how much the Suns covet players from Kentucky. They probably don’t want him but they could use one of the picks on a Kentucky player in the upcoming draft.
Are the Celtics contenders?
The Celtics are in a great position to make some noise next year but they are still a couple of pieces away. They have a bunch of un-selfish players who move the ball and they have a solid young coach who is doing a good job utilizing all the talent on the roster. With David Lee’s contract coming off the books and the $20 million in TV money kicking in, Boston has a boatload of money to throw at guys like Harrison Barnes and Kevin Durant. Boston is almost destined to trade some of those 4 picks since they will most likely not be able to accommodate 4 rookies on their roster next season, especially if they want to contend. With the right moves, Boston could easily be a top 3 team in the East next season.
Ultimately, they’ll have to figure out what to do with Marcus Smart and that could make a huge difference in how their future plays out. If Thomas is their Tony Parker, maybe moving Smart for a taller wing player would be benificial in the long run. Kind of like the Spurs traded George Hill for the rights to Kawhi Leonard. The best case scenario would be if Smart pans out and becomes their Ginobili type play-maker off the bench, and that is no slight on Smart. Strong bench play is needed to win a championship and guys like Iguodala and Ginobili get starter minutes when it counts. Until the Celtics figure out what to do with Smart, I just don’t see them beating Cleveland this year.