19 January 2016

The State of the Celtics

I'm watching the Celtics play in their forty-second game of the 2015-6 season, officially the NBA’s halfway point. They started the game versus the Mavericks shooting one for fifteen and accumulating a grand total of two points with about four minutes to go in the first quarter. That’s not good. Since I’m watching this after the fact, I know the Celtics fight back and take this game to overtime, but they still lose by five. Overall they’re 22-20, sitting in the eighth and last slot for a playoff appearance. It's hard to tell if they’re overachieving or underachieving. It's time for a Celtics check-in!

Basically if I’ve been home alone this year, a rarity, I’ve got an NBA game on. League Pass is dominating my life and I just enjoy having a game on in the background, even though I’m usually doing something else. I’ve seen maybe half of the Celtics games, the most in awhile, and I’m here to give you my thoughts about them. Because I’m sure you care too! (Okay, I’m mostly writing this post for my sister to read. "Hi George!")

The Coach
It’s weird when your team’s best asset is its coach. Brad Stevens is only thirty-nine years old and is generally hailed as a basketball genius. He’s been able to create a competitive team out of an ever shifting blend of bit parts and castoffs.
 Almost every player that has come through the Celtics during Stevens’ reign seems to perform better than expected. Opposing players praise Stevens all the time and he recently took a game off to visit a former player on his death bed. He’s got brains and heart, and he’s going to be Boston’s coach for a long long time. Danny Ainge has made a lot of amazing moves over his tenure but hiring Stevens three years ago was probably the most prescient of all. Now to find Stevens an actual superstar to work with, alà Popovich / Duncan or Carlisle / Dirk.
The Guards
The undeniable strength of this version of the Celtics is the three guards, Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart. Thomas is only 5’9” but our best offensive weapon. We acquired him in a mid-season trade last season and he sparked us to a surprise playoff run. He’s averaging 21.8 points and 6.6 assists this season, and basically if he isn’t scoring then the Celtics are in trouble. If you watch the Celtics games, Thomas has the ball in his hands 80% of the time he’s on the floor. He’s challenging for an All-Star appearance this season — although I don’t think it’ll happen — and he’s a vocal leader and fan favorite. Also, because he’s tiny, it means he’s a huge defensive liability. Opposing teams love to isolate Thomas on defense and post him up. I mean, wouldn’t you?

Luckily, Bradley and Smart are two of the best defensive players in the league. Bradley, despite being only 6’2” himself, is almost legendary for his on-ball defense. He isn’t going to be a star but Bradley has turned into a very nice player and his outside shooting is starting to become automatic. Smart, whom we drafted number six overall last season, is hurt a lot. When he’s on the court he’s a defensive beast, with a penchant for hitting timely three pointers, but overall he’s entirely a work in progress. He really isn’t a good shooter, and he’s not a really a point guard, and so far it’s hard to see him being a future perennial All-Star. But we must hope...

Effort Driven
Basically the entire Celtics roster is made up of “try hard” guys. Jae Crowder, acquired in the last year’s trade for Rajon Rondo, is all effort and heart. He’s a super solid 6’6” and is strong enough to defend almost anyone. Plus he's young and his shooting and passing is getting better as his game expands. Watching Crowder’s energy makes you just love him, trust me.

And then there’s power forward Jared Sullinger, who is only 6’9” but has a big butt, literally. Even though he looks slow and has no hops, Sullinger can rebound with anyone and he’s trying to get better position all the time. The downside with Sullinger is that he has some horrific shooting stretches and is almost never in shape. Yes, Sully's number one problem is that he’s kind of fat. Coaches call him out on it and he’s getting slimmer, but Sully is basically always chubby. But chubby can be cute, right?

Sidenote: Even if you don’t watch a lot of Celtics games, you’ll notice that they have a lot of interesting hair guys on their team. Smart and Jared Sullinger both sport Honey Badger-style blonde mohawks. And Kelly Olynyk's ponytail and occasional flowing locks is mesmerizing. Fun!

Our big off-season signing was Amir Johnson, an undersized forward-center who was supposed to bring us some rim protection — something we’ve long sought. As advertised, Johnson has given us exactly that and the long time veteran has been a perfect fit for the Celts. He’s been an upgrade over Brandon Bass and it’s fun to finally have a Celtic who can block some shots. I wish our 2015 second round pick, Jordan Mickey, would get some court time since he’s supposedly a shot blocking monster but it looks like he needs some more seasoning in the D-League.

Evan Turner
Stevens’ best reclamation project. Turner was basically considered hot trash when he was on the Pacers but after signing with the Celtics during the 2014 off-season he's turned into kind of an important player. Turner is 6’7” and is capable of handling the ball a lot and can make some very nifty passes. Then again, Turner is also often the dumbest player on the court as he takes bad shots, makes terrible decisions, and is kind of out-of-control. He’s entertaining though and the NBA-focused Sources Say podcast with Juliet Litman and Chris Ryan devoted a whole segment to Turner’s social media quotes.
"Larry Bird is not walking through that door..."
The Celtics have four white guys on their team: Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller, David Lee, and Jonas Jerebko. Of the four, only Olynyk is important. He’s seven feet tall and sort of looks awkward sometimes but he’s a good outside shooter and important to the Celtics because he can spread the floor by threatening a three pointer at all times. Olynyk has slow feet and is also a liability on defense but his offense could be increasingly vital for this team. At best he'll become a poor man's Dirk Nowitzki? Speaking of Dirk, I saw his documentary, The Perfect Shot, on Netflix a few weeks ago and it's pretty good.

There was a stretch last year when Tyler Zeller was looking like a keeper, but then Rajon Rondo got traded and Zeller lost the guy who got him so many easy buckets. Now Zeller's stuck on the bench. A similar thing happened to Jonas Jerebko, who at times looks like a useful offense / defense forward but then he misses every shot and you realize that he’s not sticking around much longer. And speaking of not sticking around much longer, David Lee, former All-Star and recent world champion (with the Warriors), well, I just read an article this morning questioning if Lee would be out of the league next year. So there’s that.

The Shooters We Can’t/Don’t Use
Over the past two years Danny Ainge has drafted two guards who are supposed to be great shooters. James Young came in 2014 (along with Smart) and RJ Hunter was our second first round pick this year -- along with Terry Rozier, aka mini-Smart. Neither Young or Hunter have seen much time on the floor, and even though the Celtics need outside shooting very badly they probably won't be making appearances soon. C'mon guys, just stand there and hit a three once in awhile, how hard can it be!

The Future
Basically the Celtics are a semi-competitive so-so team and lack a franchise level star. Everyone is waiting for Danny Ainge to turn this collection of C/B-level talent and all our future assets — and we have a ton of them — into a superstar and then reassemble the type of contender we had in the late 2000s. (Can you believe that the Kevin Garnett deal was almost ten years ago? Seriously, the KG trade was done in July 2007!)

We own a billion upcoming first round picks but it doesn’t seem like we’re going to get a franchise level guy because the Brooklyn Nets aren’t tanking hard enough and the Celtics are too good to draft high. Without some major luck in the draft we’re going to be stuck waiting to trade for a star. Sadly, I can’t even imagine who’s available that we might get soon. The dream is DeMarcus Cousins but the reality is that we probably can’t even get a Carmelo Anthony or something like that. Where art thou Celtics savior?

Watching so many Celtics games can be painful because we seriously can’t score most of the time, but the definition of a true fan is watching, and enjoying, the rebuild on the way to a title. Toward that end, I follow these two blogs: Celtics Hub and Celtics Life for my daily fix. You should too!