Where the Celtics are Headed: Experiments and Developments in the Backcourt and L-East vs. West

One of the recurring themes throughout this 2013-14 Celtics season is that nothing is out of the realm of possibility…well, except any hope of an NBA title this year. Forty-two point first quarters. Fourth-quarter meltdowns. Being out-rebounded on a nightly basis. Lacking anything resembling a defensive presence in the paint. Brandon Bass shot-blocking. Jared Sullinger impersonating Kevin Love. Jordan Crawford becoming close to reliable. Solid-to-very-good defense against mediocre offensive teams. These Celtics are playing hard and keeping it exciting. There’s even an occasional trade rumor (Asik) which might have altered the direction of the season.  It’s all possible…and impossible to make much sense of.
Thirty Games of Experimentation…and Fifty-Two to Come
Home losses to Detroit and Washington in mid-December exposed the offensive weaknesses of this Rondo-less crew: half-court offense, ball-handling, creating off the dribble, and long-range shooting. These may sound like obvious weaknesses. The Celtics are tied for 27th in turnover ratio (15.2%) and assist ratio (15.0%). When you consider they have played 30 games without a full-time NBA point guard, this is understandable. Jordan Crawford has shown glimpses of reliability and court vision, which may allow him to gain minutes as Rondo’s back-up in the future. The Celtics, like the Sixers, are on ongoing experiment of sorts this year. Jared Sullinger from downtown? Yes. First Avery Bradley and then Jordan Crawford as your decision makers? Let’s try it. When a team is in transition, and the focus is on long-term development of individual players and their skills, every idea should be given a chance. The latest news on Rajon Rondo is that he may see a few games in the D-League with the Maine Red Claws as part of a tune-up before seeing an NBA court. Makes sense to give him some run and let him get re-acclimated to competition. Also makes sense when you think about the standings and the fact that Rondo’s presence will undoubtedly improve the Celtics odds of making the playoffs.
Jordan Crawford
I will admit that I love the Jordan Crawford point guard experience. And I will admit that it won’t always work. As well as Crawford played for a stretch of ten games in late November and early December, he’s been less effective in the last few weeks. Though he’s filled in admirably, he’s about to be tested by the more formidable defenses in the league as the Celtics embark on a road-heavy January slate. Lately, Crawford has been struggling from behind the arc, going 8 for his last 34 (23.5%). Crawford’s shot chart shows his ability to hit the corner three with ease (6 of 9) and a better-than-average mid-range percentage for a guard (45 of 96, 47%). Crawford’s streaky play is due in part to his low-percentage long-range attempts. From above-the-break, Crawford is 37 of 111, which puts him at exactly 1 in 3 or 33.3%. Of the 50 NBA players who have attempted the most above-the-break threes, only 9 players shoot lower than 33%. It would simple to blame Stevens’ green light or Crawford’s decision-making, but the reality is this Celtics team is forced to put up shot-clock-influenced long-range heaves because they cannot create their own looks. There are a few silver linings that should keep Crawford in the rotation plans for the rest of this season and next: his passing. In wins, Crawford has averaged 6.4 assists and only 1.9 turnovers, a ratio of 3.4 to 1. While it’s true the wins have come over the weaker defensive teams in the association, imagine Crawford playing 15 minutes per game against the reserves of the NBA, while occasionally playing some two-guard, where he can knock down those corner 3’s.
Avery Bradley
There can be no uncertainty about Avery Bradley’s strengths: on-the-ball defense, slightly above-average shooting from the corner three (43% vs. 42.5% league average), and a nicely developing mid-range shot (46% vs. 39% league average). One particularly interesting note: Bradley shoots far more accurately from the left-side of the court than the right. Notice the shot chart below.
The weaknesses are also glaringly obvious. Bradley cannot run the point. He should never be asked to do so again. The AB point guard experiment lasted four games this year, mercifully ending on November 6. Those first three games resulted in 9 assists and 14 turnovers for the shell-shocked Bradley. The experiment made sense: on the off-chance that Bradley looked halfway decent and gained some level of comfort, Bradley could theoretically be considered for long-term back-up PG minutes. However, had it lasted longer than four games, Bradley’s confidence may have been fatally wounded. Asking him to play PG in last year’s playoff series with the Knicks was too much. Forcing him to do it again this year for an extended stretch could have been disastrous. However, when he’s not playing the point, Avery doesn’t turn the ball over much, which is reassuring.
Impressively, Bradley’s mid-range game has also been steady this year. He’s made the 10th-most field-goals from mid-range (15-19 ft) in the league, shooting 54-104, 52%, which puts him in the rare category of wing players who can do damage from that endangered floor area (the dreaded “long 2”). Among shooting guards, only Arron Afflalo and Bradley are anywhere near 50% from mid-range. One aspect to consider: will Rondo’s shooting tendencies (fewer 3-pointers than the shot-happy Crawford) negatively impact Bradley’s looks from that elbow-extended spot? We know Rondo will get Bradley those delicious back-door layups that they work so well.
Avery Bradley Conclusion: when Bradley is comfortable, he is a highly useful tw0-way player that should be the Celtics starting two-guard for many years to come.
Corner Pocket Resurrections in D.C. and Phoenix
Trevor Ariza and John Wall dominated the Celtics on December 21st, enabling the Wizards to overcome an early deficit. Ariza continued his corner-3 barrage, finishing with 27 points on 9 of 18 shooting and 5 of 8 from distance, including 2 of 4 from the corners. Ariza is leading the NBA with 38 corner makes on 76 attempts (50%). Wesley Mathews is second with 35, while Klay Thompson is third with 31. What makes this especially interesting: Ariza’s career 3-point percentage is a meager 33.6%. In 2010-11, he was one of the NBA’s worst long-range shooters (30.3%). In Washington, led by the blindingly quick John Wall, the Wizards are embracing the long-range shot as a team philosophy.  Like Houston, Portland, Golden State, Phoenix and San Antonio (who all average over 20 threes-attempted per game), the Wizards are not hesitating when behind the arc. With Bradley Beal, Martell Webster and Ariza, the Wizards are spacing the floor and running at every opportunity. Wall’s six steals ravaged the Celtics offense, and many of those transition looks were wide open. Ariza falls into the growing category of defensive-minded perimeter players that are excelling and gaining confidence offensively by racing to their spots in the corner and waiting for the pass. Entering their prime are the trio of Wesley Mathews, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard, who have established themselves as the ideal, new-look 3-and-D players. Others, like Ariza and Webster in Washington, and old-friend Gerald Green and P.J. Tucker in Phoenix, are resurrecting their careers because of a modern offensive philosophy that allows them to play to their strengths.
L-East vs West and upcoming January Road Trip
The Celtics have Toronto to thank for taking over the top spot in the NBA’s punchline division. From ideas of abolishing all divisions (Zach Lowe) to creating fictional new ones (Tom Ziller), the Atlantic’s existence is plaguing NBA writers across the land. The Eastern Conference continues to see its most capable athletes (First Rondo, then Deron Williams, then Andrei Kirilenko, then Larry Sanders, then Tyson Chandler, then Derrick Rose, then Brook Lopez, now Al Horford.  This rash of prolonged or season-ending injuries has turned the East into the Least, and the lower-echelon teams like the Celtics have benefited (or suffered, depending on how you view the 2014 Draft) greatly.
Instead of looking at the overall standings to notice how dreadful the East has been, take a look a the conference records of these eight Eastern Conference teams.  Combined these teams are 11-66 (.143 winning %) against Western Conference opponents:
Boston Celtics
vs East: 10-10, vs West: 3-7
Philadelphia 76ers
vs East: 7-11, vs West: 2-10
New York Knicks
vs East: 9-12, vs West: 0-9
Detroit Pistons
vs East: 13-8, vs West: 1-10
Chicago Bulls
vs East: 10-9, vs West: 1-8
Milwaukee Bucks
vs East: 6-18, vs West: 0-6
Charlotte Bobcats
vs East: 12-10, vs West: 2-7
Orlando Magic
vs East: 8-11, vs West: 2-9
Though a 13-17 record gives the appearance of some success and stability, the Celtics have still played the 3rd weakest schedule in the league. The signs of development from Sullinger, Bradley and Crawford are reassuring. The solid play of Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee have enhanced their trade value. Jeff Green’s strengths (hitting 48.8% of his corner 3s and finishing around the hoop, 63% within the restricted area) continue to be genuine strengths, while his weaknesses (not earning enough free-throws and creating enough off the dribble) remain visible. To be fair, Green would benefit greatly from Rondo presence at the top of the key, and Rajon’s ability to get the Celtics out in transition. The signs of a solid future core are there. Ainge will make a move or two before mid-February, and we’ll have a better sense of what this year will look like.
For the upcoming two weeks, things will likely take a turn for the worse, which might not be so bad.
Upcoming games:
12/31 vs Atlanta
1/2 @ Chicago
1/3 vs New Orleans
1/5 @Oklahoma City
1/7 @Denver
1/8 @ Los Angeles Clippers
1/10 @ Golden State
1/11 @ Portland
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