As the 2014-15 NBA season approaches. It’s not easy to face the likely reality that the next six months of Boston Celtics basketball will involve severe growing pains and only brief glimmers of hope among stretches of inconsistency and a growing pile of losses. It would be easy to check out on the Celtics. Most prognosticators are predicting Boston will win between 24 and 32 games. Rajon Rondo’s future in Boston remains anything but guaranteed, and continues to dominate any talk of the franchise. When I heard that Rondo’s hand was broken and he’d be missing the opening of the regular season, the orange glow from the remaining ashes of my optimism went out. Of course, now we’re hearing he could be back on opening night. I would guess he misses a few games.
As any Celtics fan knows, Rondo will be an unrestricted free-agent in July. He turns 29 in February and though we have no way of knowing whether or not Rondo will be a Celtic after the trading deadline, we may as well assume he will be. All of the assumptions over the last 16 months about where and when he will be traded have proven false.
Last year’s Celtics were an assortment of ages and experience. Veterans Kris Humphries, Courtney Lee, Jerryd Bayless, and Joel Anthony have been scattered to the NBA winds. In their place are younger, less-experienced players, each hoping to establish themselves: Evan Turner (25), Tyler Zeller (24), Marcus Smart (20) and James Young (19). As the Celtics move forward, they have only one over-30 year-old player under contract for 2015-16, Gerald Wallace (33).
Let’s start with coach Brad Stevens, and then examine three of the taller Celtics on this year’s roster.
Brad Stevens – Coach
To anyone who has followed Brad Stevens’ career, he seems like an ideal coach to lead a young NBA roster. He appears dedicated to developing relationships with players, he rarely loses his composure, (great for now, though as the team gets more competitive, it would be nice to see more intensity and emotion from him), and he embraces analytics in a way that seems intelligent. The flipside of heavily embracing analytics is maintaining flexibility in game situations. While the NBA gradually moves toward the Morey-ball approach of lay-ups, free-throws and three-pointers as the most efficient offenses, there will be a tendency for teams to over-emphasize these shots regardless of their players’ strengths. People forget about how important the long-range two-point jumper was for recent championship teams (Dirk and the Mavs, Bosh and the Heat). In addition, defensive chemistry is complicated to build and involves constant coaching and communication, as well as skilled defensive players. Speaking of Morey-ball, the defense in Houston continues to struggle despite two excellent individual defenders in Howard and Beverley.
In my view, the role of the NBA coach is to show commitment to a vision of success and team-culture; to build a strategy and then consistently teach those strategies, with the help of assistants; to learn about each of his/her players on an individual basis and to consider a plan for keeping each of those players motivated. Does Stevens do these things well? It appears so, but it’s too early to tell and he has several new players to figure out.
This isn’t to say that players aren’t responsible for staying motivated. As professionals getting paid large amounts of money, it is obviously their job to stay motivated. However, the grind of a six-month season dictates there will be mentally draining stretches, physical demands and injuries. As Stevens has noted, one critical difference between college and the NBA is lack of practice time once the season starts. Practice time is replaced by travel time and back-to-back games. Without the chance to stay connected to his players on the practice court, Stevens and all coaches have to find ways to keep a team united and connected when they are on losing streaks, when they are tired and waiting for planes and hotel shuttles. Team-bonding is a tricky thing and developing trust among teammates can be difficult when teams are in transition and few players are sure of their future status. More than anything, the Celtics need to determine a definitive direction this season. GM Danny Ainge will have decisions to make regarding Rondo and Jeff Green and Stevens will take it from there. There’s a good reason Ainge signed him to a six-year deal.
Olynyk’s rookie year got off to a somewhat predictably rough start, as he adjusted to the speed and physicality of the NBA. A severe ankle sprain forced him out of 10 games early on, and he played catch-up for much of the season. Fortunately, the final 22 games of the season showed why the Celtics valued him enough to move up from the 16th to the 13th overall pick in the 2013 draft. In those final 22 games (March and April), Olynyk shot 20 of 45 (44.4%) from deep, averaging 12.2 points on 53% from the field, with 6.5 rebounds in 22 minutes per game.
Strengths: shooting, off-the-bounce creativity and passing.
In a dream future scenario, Olynyk will eventually have a Channing Frye-like impact on the Celtics offense, stretching the floor and opening up lanes for penetration. Olynyk has decent passing skills for a tall man.
Weaknesses: Olynyk’s mediocre rebounding and non-existent shot-blocking will cause opposing big-men to drool with anticipation. Hopefully some added strength and experience will help him this year.
Zeller was acquired in the Brooklyn-Cleveland-three-team deal this summer in which the Celtics used their trade exception to take on the elder Zeller (Cody is the younger), Marcus Thornton and his unwieldy contract, and a future late-1st round pick from Cleveland. Zeller played reasonably well in his rookie year, but lost minutes last year. Known for his ability to run the floor, Zeller is listed at 7’0’ and 250 lbs. That would be 10-15 pounds more than Olynyk. In NBA lingo, he can “bang.” Unlike Olynyk, Zeller has shown an ability to protect the rim. According to NBA.com, he was very good at defending the paint, as opponents shot just 47.3% near the rim against him last year. One caveat is that those numbers came in reserve minutes against reserve centers. Another caveat, Zeller used his verticality to deter shots, but averaged only 0.9 blocks in 26 mpg as a rookie.
One sign of possible growth: in limited attempts, Zeller shot 51.4% from 15-19 feet last year. In a pick-and-roll league, Zeller’s half-court strength will be in his ability to drain the elbow jumper, more than posting up.
Strengths: speed, finishing at the rim, interior defense, fundamentals
Weaknesses: long-range shooting, shot-blocking
More than maybe any other Celtic, Jared Sullinger has the potential to break out and establish himself in his third year in the NBA. Brad Stevens has visions of Jared Sullinger becoming a legitimate stretch-4, and used the 13-14 season as an extensive trial period for Sullinger’s long-range jumper. Legendary commentator Tommy Heinsohn, who often pines for the days of yesteryear when big men dominated the post, nearly lost his final marble.
The results of the Sullinger experiment were less than stellar, but this new wrinkle may show benefits this season. In 184 attempts from above-the-break (three-pointers that DO NOT come from the corners), Sullinger connected on only 50, for 27.2%. In rare opportunities from the corners, Sullinger wasn’t much better, going 6 of 21.
In an attempt to encourage Celtics fans and bring a ray of hope to the proceedings, Sullinger has found the range in the preseason, knocking down 14 of 26 from distance. If Sullinger can make 33-35% of his three-pointers, we can loosely use the term “stretch-4.” Unlike most stretchy power forwards, Sullinger is a very good rebounder. Over the course of a season, long-range shooting consistency tends to depend on the stamina of the shooter. Think of the best shooters in the game: Ray Allen, Steph Curry, Kyle Korver. Those back-to-backs in February and March are not kind to shooters. Hopefully, Sullinger can continue hitting from deep once the season begins and then again, post-all-star break.
Sullinger’s tenacity and physicality add the spirit and grit that the post-Garnett Celtics have been lacking underneath. When he’s playing well, the Celtics tend to play well.
Strengths: offensive rebounding, pick-setting, tenacity, possibly a developing long-range jumper
Weaknesses: prone to foul trouble, cold-shooting streaks, sloppy passing
In the next few days, I’ll post Part II, where I’ll look at Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Evan Turner and Gerald Wallace.
By the end of the week I’ll have Part III wrapped up, where I’ll write about the little men.