Part II of a three part series
Part I of this series focused on the Celtics’ tumultuous offseason and the resulting uncertainty facing the franchise this upcoming season. In Part II of this three part series, I’ll speculate on;
· What we should count on seeing
· What we should hope to see
· What we should hope we don’t see
from the 2013-14 Celtics.
What we should count on seeing
This summer saw the departure of three constants that Celtics fans had come to rely on over the past half-dozen years; Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce. Gone with them are the competitiveness, consistency, and certainty that defined the franchise during the Big 3 era. So what can fans count on with these bellwethers now gone?
Rondo missing opening night
Until recently, there was some speculation that Rajon Rondo might complete his recovery from ACL surgery in time for the Celtics season opener on October 30th in Toronto. GM Danny Ainge put an end to that speculation and it remains an open question just how much Rondo will even be able to participate in training camp. The most recent estimate for his return is the beginning of December so the first time we might see the All-Star point guard is December 3rd against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Garden.
Brad Stevens becoming the face of the franchise
Once Rondo returns, there is little doubt he’ll be the on court leader of the Celtics; trying to fill the void left by Pierce and Garnett’s departure. However, it’s likely that it will be new head coach, Brad Stevens, not Rondo, that becomes the new face of the franchise. Ainge surprised the basketball world with the hire and the 6 year commitment the organization made to the young coach indicates Ainge and ownership expect quite a bit more from Stevens than a typical first-time head coach.
Jeff Green leading the team in field goal attempts
The 6-9 forward, oft-criticized for his lack of aggressiveness, appeared to finally come out of his shell late last season and into the playoffs. He showed the ability to create offense off the dribble, particularly going to his right, and to reliably hit the corner 3. Pierce, KG, and Jason Terry take nearly 35 shots per game with them to Brooklyn and Green is the clear candidate to replace many of those attempts.
A struggle to generate offense, particularly early in the season
The Celtics will be relying on Green to maintain his efficiency despite the increase in attempts he’ll see a result of the trade with Brooklyn. Even if he manages to do just that, the Celtics will struggle to find offense at times. Outside of Green, there is really no one that can consistently and reliably create efficient offense (note to Jordan Crawford and Marshon Brooks, I said ‘efficient’). Coach Brad Stevens’ proficiency with X’s and O’s will be tested as he seeks to devise ways to generate points.
A change in the defensive approach
The other end of the court was the engine of the Celtics’ success over the past six seasons. Stevens’ track record at Butler foreshadows a continued emphasis on defense. However, it’s very likely that the defensive scheme will change with the turnover in the coaching staff and the departure of Garnett; the defensive quarterback and rim-protector. With young athletic defenders like Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, and Jeff Green as well as veteran defensive stalwart Gerald Wallace, it’s possible that the defense will become more aggressive on the perimeter. If a healthy Rondo returns to the disruptive defensive presence he showed early in his career, it could make the Celtics a truly fearsome perimeter defense.
Danny Ainge aggressively trying to upgrade
In Part 1 of this series, I presented the argument that GM Danny Ainge’s approach to rebuilding is less about hitting it big in the lottery and more about accumulating assets and maintaining the flexibility necessary to capitalize on opportunities in the trade market and free agency. The 10M+ trade exception acquired in the Nets deal and the stockpile of draft picks leave plenty to work with but the team also has several veterans; Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, and Brandon Bass, that probably don’t fit into the long-term vision for the roster but could be attractive to a contending team at the trade deadline. Expect the Celtics to figure prominently in the rumor mill. It’s likely that Rajon Rondo’s name will be part of that mix, but don’t expect him to be moved unless it brings back a player of equal or greater impact AND a more attractive contract.
Things we hope to see
The Celtics are a relatively young team and a team that went through substantial retooling in the offseason. It shouldn’t be surprising that there are some significant unknowns as they break camp. With the team unlikely to compete for a championship, success this season can probably best be measured by how many of these unknowns get resolved by season’s end.
Continuation of the culture established during the big 3 era
Call it Ubuntu. Call it Celtics Pride. However you want to label it, one of the highlights of being a Celtics fan the past six years was bearing witness to the teamwork, accountability and competitiveness that provided the foundation of the team’s success. Rebuilding the franchise becomes immeasurably harder if this culture has been lost. Acquiring talent in the NBA is the easiest part. Turning a collection of talented players into a winner is the hard part. Both Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge have pointed to the need to preserve and propagate the culture established during the Big Three era. Hopefully players like Rondo, Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, and Brandon Bass absorbed the valuable lessons they learned playing and practicing under the direction of Doc Rivers and alongside Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
Jeff Green improving on the boards and defensively
The Celtics are obviously counting heavily on Green to provide reliable and efficient offense, but if he is going to truly establish himself as a focal point for the franchise going forward, he is going to have to provide more than just points. He showed flashes of ability to guard high-scoring forwards one-on-one during the second half of last season and needs to provide that type of defense on a nightly basis. It would also help if he can provide a consistent presence on the boards. Again, he’s shown flashes of ability to be a dangerous offensive rebounder but needs to contribute on both the offensive AND defensive boards.
A rebound year from Courtney Lee
Speaking of rebounding; guard Courtney Lee suffered through a disappointing first season as a Celtic and is looking to bounce back this season. Lee never found a comfortable spot in the Celtics rotation or offense last season and is looking for a fresh start. If coach Brad Stevens’ desire to play up-tempo comes to pass, that should benefit Lee greatly. If he can reestablish himself as a quality 2 guard he can carve a spot for himself in the Celtics’ rebuilding plans or make himself an attractive February trade target for a contender.
Kelly Olynyk proving he can play down low
First round draft pick Kelly Olynyk had an outstanding summer league in Orlando this July. He showed a solid three-point stroke, deft moves in the post, and a willingness to mix it up under the basket. Questions remain about his ability to hold up against NBA-quality big men once the regular season is underway. His best position long-term will likely be at the power forward filling the “stretch 4” role that is so coveted these days. However, if he can demonstrate that he’s capable of giving the team solid minutes both offensively and defensively at the center spot, his long-term potential becomes even more enticing.
Vitor Faverani and Phil Pressey proving they are NBA players
The Celtics bring two undrafted rookies to training camp this year; Brazilian center Vitor Faverani (El Hombre Indestructible) and former University of Missouri point guard Phil Pressey. Both of these unknown quantities have a great opportunity to earn playing time, mainly by virtue of the positions they play. If either or both can establish themselves as competent NBA reserves they become future pieces of the puzzle as well as create additional depth that make it easier to move a veteran in a deal to bring back more future assets.
Things not working out as planned for the Clippers and Nets
Celtics fans deeply appreciate what Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers did for the franchise during their times in Boston. Everyone agrees on that, right? So, it should follow that everyon will be wishing them well in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, right? Well, it’s not that simple. The future of the Celtics franchise would benefit from the former fan favorites not faring so well in the new homes. The Celtics are owed three first round picks from the Nets (2014, 2016, and 2018) along with the right to swap picks with the Nets in 2017 and two first-rounders from the Clippers (2014 and 2016). As much talk as there is about the Celtics missing the playoffs and maximizing the value of their own pick in, there has been little attention paid to the potential that at least a few of those Nets and Clippers picks end up in the lottery. Picks at the top of the lottery are nice. They are even nicer when someone else does the “bottoming-out” for you. Certainly, it’s a longshot for either team to miss the playoffs this coming season, but anything can happen in the NBA. An unsuccessful season by Brooklyn would also raise the possibility of Pierce declining to resign with them when at the end of the season which would, in turn, set up a possible return to Boston.
Things we hope we don’t see
Building a championship contender in the NBA isn’t easy. The risks only get magnified in a losing environment; players don’t develop as planned, individual agendas get in the way of what the team is trying to accomplish, and distractions become more difficult to avoid. Here are a few things that would represent setbacks along the way to restoring the Celtic franchise.
Rondo fundamentally changing his game
Rajon Rondo is a unique talent. As his stature as a player grew, his flaws received a great deal of attention, but his strengths undeniably drove much of the Celtics success over the past six seasons. His fundamentally unselfish style of play perfectly complemented the team’s commitment to equal opportunity offense. With the departures of Pierce, Garnett, and Jason Terry, the conventional wisdom is that Rondo will compensate by being more aggressive looking for his own offense. However, it would be a mistake for Rondo to intentionally alter the basic nature of his game. His greatest opportunity to establish himself as a leader on the court is to continue to focus on his strengths and ensure that the team remains committed to sharing the ball through this transition period. It is probably a foregone conclusion that his points per game will go up but hopefully that’s just the organic result of more opportunities and a more up-tempo offense.
Avery Bradley’s development stagnating
Last season was a mixed bag for 4th year guard Avery Bradley. He was coming off a season where he established himself as an NBA player and had everyone, including the coaching staff, excited about the impact he can have on defense and hopeful that he could bring enough to the table offensively to be more than just a specialist. Upon returning from offseason shoulder surgery, his defensive prowess and persistence paid early dividends but over the course of the season, the increased responsibility placed on him once Rondo went down eventually took its toll. This toll peaked in the playoffs as he struggled to get anything going offensively when asked to assume the lead guard role and the struggles carried over defensively. These issues created doubt as to whether he can be a viable starter on a championship level team. His role in the failed comeback during the second half of the decisive Game 6 against the Knicks offers some hope going into this season that last season was temporary setback in his development rather than a permanent plateau. During that frantic run, a light bulb seemed to go off for Bradley as he recognized that he couldn’t wait for the veterans to make a play and instead had to force the action himself. The Celtics’ rebuilding effort will take a serious hit if that experience doesn’t kick-start his development this season.
More off-court troubles for Jared Sullinger
Former first-round pick, Jared Sullinger exceeded most everyone’s expectations last year, despite the inevitable back surgery that cost him nearly half the season. His ability to rebound and score with his back to the basket weren’t complete surprises, but his play on the defensive end was a revelation. He also demonstrated a maturity and commitment to the team culture and positioned himself as a future leader. However, a messy domestic violence situation over the summer compromised the positive impressions and raised questions about his character and ability to function as a leader. Since the incident he has said all the right things and appears committed to being a positive force, but any future issues could be problematic for his future as a Celtic.
“Me-first” players like Jordan Crawford and Marshon Brooks destroying team chemistry
Keeping a team aligned and focused on a common goal is easy when you’re winning and players have well-established roles. Teams that are trying to carve out an identity and learning how to win are susceptible to the destructive impact of individual agendas. This issue is particularly acute when it comes to players that perceive themselves to be scorers. Their identities are tightly coupled to their ability to put the ball in the basket and unless they are given some other focus (i.e. successfully contributing to the team success) they are prone to lapsing into selfish play. This is true of even more experienced and established players (see Anthony, Carmelo NYK Forward) and it is especially problematic for younger players. The Celtics have two such players currently on the roster; Jordan Crawford and Marshon Brooks and the fact that they are competing with each other for the same pool of available minutes only increases the risk. This type of behavior, on a team that vacuum of leadership, can become infectious. Keeping these two players working within the confines of the team structure and hopefully developing at least one of them into a reliable NBA contributor will be one of Brad Stevens biggest challenges in his first year on the job.
A completely lost season
Expectations for the Celtics this season have been lowered significantly. Everyone, including most of the players as well as coaching and management, agrees that it is unlikely that they will still be playing as summer 2014 approaches. That said, there are plenty of potential positive developments that can serve as the basis of a successful season. Perhaps the most significant is the team’s ability to maintain a competitive spirit and disciplined, accountable approach throughout what will be a difficult season in many respects. Giving in and accepting the inevitable losses, even if it means a lottery pick, would have to be considered a failure.
In Part III of the series, I’ll take a look at specific games on the 2013-14 slate that might represent benchmarks or take on some special significance.