Monday, October 13, 2014

2014-15 Season Preview: Boston Celtics


Boston Celtics
25-57
Atlantic Division
Coach: Brad Stevens
Power Ranking: 24




After five years with a core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and a few years of Ray Allen, Boston decided last summer that it was time to enter re-build mode.  Rondo missed 52 games in the process of returning from a torn ACL.  Pierce and Garnett were shipped to Brooklyn before the season started, for a band of misfit players and three first round picks, in 2014, '16 and '18.  The deal is already starting to look like a steal for the 17-time NBA champions, even if it did contribute to the team missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007.  Garnett's game has deteriorated, and Pierce will be playing for Washington this season, leaving Brooklyn with nothing to show for the trade but one playoff series win.  A tip of the cap to Danny Ainge for initiating the re-build in great fashion, but he still has plenty of work left to do to restore Boston to playoff status in the Eastern Conference.

Just exactly what that work is has been unclear for the past few months; Boston has navigated the off-season delicately, only making minor moves in free agency.  One option would be to continue building a depth of assets to further fuel the re-build.  That strategy would begin with trading Rajon Rondo away before he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2015.  Rondo could fetch a nice return from a team with a need, or desire, to improve their play at the PG position.  Candidates for a trade include the Kings, Rockets, Mavericks and even the Pacers, who were linked to Rondo when the league calendar flipped at the start of July.  Those teams have wildly different levels of trade-worthy assets, but it wouldn't be surprising if Ainge would continue to add draft picks to the ones he already has stockpiled.  Boston owns as many as 9 first round picks in the next four drafts (protections on a pick from PHI will likely reduce this to 8), including a likely three firsts in the 2016 draft.  If Rondo is dealt, Boston will face a similar decision with F Jeff Green, whose value as an inefficient volume scorer could be tough to judge.  In any case, Boston has the assets with which to further a re-building effort.

The other option is to give Rajon Rondo another upper-echelon player to help him shoulder the load.  Kevin Love's name has come up repeatedly among C's fans, fueled by Love's weekend trip to Boston in early June, which involved taking in a Red Sox game with Rondo.  However, talks of the Celtics trading for Love have quickly evaporated since LeBron James signed with Cleveland, as the Love sweepstakes now appears to be down to the Cavs, Warriors and Bulls.  While the Celtics have assets to offer, they lack the contribution-ready young player(s) that Cleveland, Golden State and Chicago can offer the Wolves.  This leaves few other options on the trade market, unless Boston chooses to pursue a player or two from the NBA's second tier of solid players.  With Love out of their reach, it's hard to see the Celtics adding a big enough name to dissuade Rondo from testing free agency next summer.  If things aren't looking good come All-Star weekend, expect to see Rondo's name come up in trade rumors on a frequent basis.


Coached by ex-Butler whiz Brad Stevens, the Celtics will look to add a few victories to their meager 25 win total from last season and monitor the growth of their young core.  Kelly Olynyk (23 years old), Jared Sullinger (22) and Avery Bradley (23) will be joined by Marcus Smart (20) and James Young (19) to form a young stable of players who can contribute to a winning effort down the line.  With no pressure to win now, and practically no expectations of a playoff berth, Boston can afford to let this group figure out the NBA game at their own pace.  I'm far from a Celtics fan, but it's hard not to respect the patience and asset-building that Ainge has done in Boston's re-building period.

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STATISTICAL ANALYSIS
Off. Eff. Def. Eff. FTr 3PAr TS% OReb.% DReb.% TOV%
99.7(18th) 105.2(20th) .248 .25151.7% 27.4% 74.2% 14.2%

The Celtics' offense and defense both outperformed their final standing, as their 18th/20th best offense/defense belie what was tied for the league's 5th-worst record.  Boston went 11-16 in games decided by 6 points or less, a number that likely swings in the opposite direction with more veteran presence and a full slate of games played by Rajon Rondo.  The Celtics finished tied for 25th in the league in FTr, failing to capitalize on the flip side of having only the 17th-highest 3PAr in the league.  Those two components, combined with poor two-point (26th) and three-point (28th) shooting left the Celtics with the league's 28th best TS%.  The one redeeming characteristic on the offensive end of the floor, was the C's ability to hit the offensive glass.  Boston's 27.4 OReb% tied them for 6th-best in the league.  Boston's offensive rebounding efforts were led by young PF Jared Sullinger, who notched the league's 7th-highest OReb%, at an even 13%.

Boston's success on the glass was limited to the offensive end of the floor, as their 74.2 DReb% was only good for 19th in the league last season.  Coupled with a lack of shot-blocking, Boston's defense struggled to keep opponents from scoring.  Boston's athletically challenged post defenders contributed to opponents shooting 50% on two-point attempts while attempting 76.7% of their shots (5th-highest in the NBA) from two-point range.  Perhaps the number most influenced by Rondo's absence was Boston's 14..2 TOV%, one of the league's five worst marks in that category.  While Rondo isn't great at securing the ball himself, he's still an improvement on Phil Pressey and his 1132 minutes of 24.2 TOV% basketball.  If Boston can't take care of the ball better this season, they'll be in for another frustrating year.


STYLE OF PLAY

I generally prefer not to associate with anything Bleacher Report, but this write-up on how Brad Stevens' philosophies at Butler translate to the NBA game is both accurate and well-written.  Check it out if you want a comprehensive run-down on what Boston does at both ends of the floor.  If you're too lazy, here's the gist of the article, written by Jonathan Wasserman prior to last season.  Stevens prefers to run his offense within half-court sets, and generally played Butler at one of the slower paces in college basketball during his time there.  While the Celtics were in the middle-of-the-pack in terms of pace this past season, don't expect to see them become an up-tempo club anytime soon.  Those half-court sets that Stevens prefers are generally run from four sets.  Box, Flex and Spread.  Box is set up just how you think it would be, with four men forming a box around the paint.  From there, a simple pick-and-roll opens up the offense on the wing.  The ability of Boston's big men to shoot the ball is utilized here, as the pick-and-pop is a Stevens favorite out of the box set.

The Spread set should allow Boston to generate easy open looks from beyond the arc, with a pick-and-roll/pop setting up potential action for shooters stationed in the corners.  This is the set that will most take advantage of Rondo's passing abilities, as it sets the ball-handler up to make decisions.  Again, Boston's big men should thrive in this set due to their ability to shoot.  Wasserman's article has a great picture and GIF breakdown of this set.  Just click the damn thing already.  The Flex set is a basic basketball set, and functions off of movement and execution of screens.  This set isn't quite as conducive to the NBA's shorter shot clock, but can work just fine when there's a shot creator, either in the post or on the wing, to bail out failed/stopped Flex plays.  At this point, I'm not sure Boston really has that player.

Stevens was a proponent of man-to-man defense, and that certainly isn't something that changes going from college ball to pro ball.  If there's one thing to know about an NBA coach's defensive philosophy it's how they handle pick-and-rolls.  Kevin O'Connor of CelticsBlog, SB Nation's Celtics hub, wrote this piece about Stevens' philosophy on defending the pick-and-roll in January, and I think it holds true going into the 2014-15 season.  Boston chose to defend most PNRs in the 2013-14 season by either switching or "icing"/baiting the opposing ball-handler.  As O'Connor points out, the switch philosophy is obvious.  The ice/bait strategy involves the screener's defender sagging off just enough to allow the ball-handler's defender enough time to recover.  In the meantime, the ball-handler can choose a low-efficiency mid-range jumper, or choose to wait for the defense to reset and then make his move.  When executed properly, icing/baiting works very well.  However, the young Celtics roster had a hard time with this defensive strategy last season, leading to open shooters or open driving lanes.  Boston's roster is still rather young, so I'm expecting to see more defensive struggles this season.

PERSONNEL
Acquisitions: G Marcus Smart (6th pick), SG James Young (17th pick), C Tyler Zeller, SG Marcus Thornton, G/F Evan Turner
Departures: PF Kris Humphries


PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
PG: Rajon Rondo
PPGPERUSG%TS%AST%TOV%
11.715.321.3%46.1%47.7%20.7%
The numbers listed above represent 30 games of likely-hobbled Rajon Rondo.  While his Assist Rate was still extremely impressive, his PER, TS% and ORtg suffered hits from his career levels.  2013-14 represented the first time since his rookie year that Rondo posted an Offensive Rating below 100.  With a full off-season to prepare and get healthy, he should come back much improved.  Expect a big season from Rondo in a contract year, as he potentially plays to become a max-contract guy.  He'll need some help shouldering the scoring load, but as a passer, there aren't many better than Rondo, healthy or not.
SG: Avery Bradley
PPGPERUSG%TS%AST%3P%
14.912.723.2%51.0%8.1%39.5%
The starting SG spot could be occupied by any of the following players in 2014-15 for Boston: Bradley, James Young, Evan Turner, Marcus Thornton, Marcus Smart.  I lean towards Bradley because the returning players (Turner, Thornton) are inefficient and inconsistent and because it's hard to see either of the rookies starting off the bat.  Until either Smart or Young can wrestle the starting SG job away, it's up to Bradley, a high quality defender whose offensive game fluctuates with his streaky outside shooting.  Don't be surprised if Young and/or Smart aren't starting in the backcourt come April.
SF: Jeff Green
PPGPERUSG%TS%TRB%3P%
16.913.123.6%52.0%7.7%34.1%
Green is strictly a scorer, who has only managed to get his PER up to 15.0 once in his career.  While PER doesn't say everything about a player, the fact that Green has never managed to register as above league-average  in the statistic doesn't bode well for any attempts to claim he's more than just a volume scorer.  Green topped 35 points three times in 2013-14; when he's on he has the ability to fill it up in a hurry.  When he's not on, his shot selection can hurt, evidenced by a .338 3PAr for a mediocre outside shooter.
PF: Jared Sullinger
PPGPERUSG%TS%3PAr3P%
13.316.424.1%49.7%.23126.9%
Sullinger had an interesting development within Stevens' offense in his sophomore season.  While he maintained his stellar offensive rebounding, his scoring efficiency took a hit as he was asked to do more on the perimeter.  The three-point shot is fairly new to Sullinger, as he had only taken 57 threes between his two seasons at Ohio State and his rookie year in Boston.  His .231 3PAr in 2013-14 equated to a total 208 three-point attempts last season, at Josh Smith levels of outside shooting efficiency.  If Sullinger can refine his range, he could turn into a solid option in Stevens' offense.  If not, he'll continue to be an inefficient piece within Stevens' pick-and-pop sets.
C: Kelly Olynyk
PPGPERUSG%TS%TRB%3P%
8.715.221.0%54.6%14.8%35.0%
Olynyk was one of the best rookies in the 2013 draft class, although he didn't receive nearly the attention he deserved, due to the overall awful rookie class.  He managed a strong TS%, 3P% and PER in role-player minutes (20 mpg), and I would expect Stevens to expand his role as a sophomore.  He's not an elite rebounder at either end of the floor, but you could do worse.  If he can continue to score efficiently inside and out, Olynyk will look like a steal as the 13th pick in a historically weak draft.  With little quality depth at the C position Olynyk could be asked to play 30-35 minutes every night.


BENCH

G: Marcus Smart (college stats)
PPG
APGRPGSPG2P%3P%
18.0
4.8
5.9
2.9
51.4%
29.9%
Smart could find himself starting sooner or later, but whether he's coming off the bench or starting, I expect that he'll split time between PG and SG.  How well he shoots the ball from the outside will be a main determinant in Smart's success.
SG: Marcus Thornton
PPG
PERUSG%TS%3P%3PAr
9.8
12.0
19.7%
51.1%
34.5%
.495
Thornton split time between Sacramento and Brooklyn last season, before being traded to Boston in the summer.  When the threes are falling on the regular, he's a useful player; when they aren't...not so much.
SG: James Young (college stats)
PPG
APGRPGSPG2P%3P%
14.3
1.7
4.3
0.8
47.0%
34.9%
Young missed Summer League play with a minor neck injury, but will be ready to go for the season.  The jam-packed backcourt will make him earn his minutes, and he may not play often early.
G/F: Evan Turner
PPGPERUSG%TS%AST%TRB%
14.012.423.2%49.8%17.8%9.0%
If it weren't for the advanced stats movement, Turner might have looked like a useful player last season.  Instead, he had high per game numbers and low efficiency, and was traded for a stack of magazines at the deadline.  He proceeded to rust on the bench in Indiana, and will have to re-invent himself on a short-term contract in Boston. 
PF: Brandon Bass
PPGPERUSG%TS%TRB%FTr
11.115.018.2%54.9%11.8%.330
Bass started 73 games for Boston in 2013-14, and could find himself in that role this season as well if Stevens isn't quite ready for a full youth movement.  As a useful player in the last year of his deal, expect him to be traded at some point this season, assuming Boston isn't in an extremely unlikely contention for a playoff spot.
C: Tyler Zeller
PPGPERUSG%TS%TRB%FTr
5.715.417.1%58.1%15.1%.417
Zeller was quietly solid for the Cavaliers last season, even if it was in a small role.  He increased his production in nearly every statistical category from his rookie year and could prove as a useful reserve.  He was acquired in CLE's move to open cap space to sign LeBron and is one of Boston's rewards for agreeing to pay Marcus Thornton this season.

SEASON EXPECTATIONS

The Atlantic Division is mostly a two-horse race between the Nets and Raptors, with the Knicks hoping to make a surprise run at the division crown.  Boston is certainly a notch above the 76ers, but it's probably going to take a miracle to compete for a playoff spot.  The trade deadline could prove to be more entertaining than their season if things don't click.  If guys like Marcus Thornton and Evan Turner play to the peak of their potential, Boston could send them packing to further fuel their rebuild.  Assuming a playoff berth is out of the question, the best-case scenario for Boston's season is seeing growth from their young players and receiving adequate return in mid-season trades (Rondo(?), Turner, Bass, etc.).  The Celtics have a great collection of spare parts, but don't have the caliber of frontline talent to push for the postseason.  A playoff run this season would take all of the stars aligning.  Wait a year or two and they may be ready to put themselves in the running for one of the East's final spots.


SUMMARY


It could be another long year at TD Garden unless the perfect storm arises in Boston.  The Rajon Rondo storyline will likely dominate the season until it reaches some form of resolution.  The second year of Brad Stevens' tenure should produce improved results over a 25 win season, even if it isn't enough to launch the team into contention.  The Celtics have some nice, young pieces in Sullinger, Olynyk, Smart, Young and Bradley as well as tradeable assets.  With all that considered, the re-build appears to be on the right track.  With an array of picks in tow, Danny Ainge just needs to continue showing patience to get Boston back to their proud heritage instead of the lottery.

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