Boston Celtics' Most and Least Improved Players of the Season
It has been an up-and-down season for the Boston Celtics, to say the least. At 12-11 and in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic Division, the team is not where it expected to be six months after coming within a game of reaching the NBA Finals.
The Celtics must improve as a team if they hope to compete in the playoffs again this year. At the moment, some players are showing the kind of improvement that can get them there. Others, meanwhile, are showing the lack of improvement that will hold the team back.
Here is a look at four players—two most improved, two least improved—who are vital to the success of the team. For the Celtics to win, the ones playing well must continue to do so while the others must reroute the course of their seasons.
Most Improved: Jeff Green
Jeff Green was under arguably the most pressure of anyone on the Celtics’ roster entering the season. He’s beginning to live up to it.
In his first season back from heart surgery, the consensus opinion was that Green needed to be more aggressive. Fans were longing for the confident player that averaged well over 15 points per game in nearly three seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder, not the one who essentially became a non-factor as soon as the Celtics traded Kendrick Perkins to get him.
It certainly didn’t happen right away, but Green is starting to get going. He’s attacking the rim like he needs to. He’s confidently putting up shots (including threes) at a much higher rate than he was earlier in the year. And he’s arguably the most improved Celtic at this point in the season.
With six double-digit scoring performances over the Celtics’ last eight games, Green has finally pushed his average to 10 points per game. He has dropped at least 18 points on three of those occasions. While his 3.2 rebounds per game are only about half of what we should be able to expect from him, he is already averaging better than two boards per game more in December than he did in November.
Green is really starting to produce, and he’s doing it with fewer than 23 minutes per game so far this season. Just as important as his numbers is the attitude with which he has been performing—it’s becoming customary to expect at least one big, authoritative dunk out of him each game. His playing time has begun to increase lately, and his numbers are going right up with it.
There is plenty of room for improvement, and Green still isn’t the difference-maker he was when he played for the Thunder. But the improvement in his play as this season goes along is promising, to say the least.
Least Improved: Courtney Lee
It was only one shot. But the airball three-pointer that Courtney Lee tossed up at the end of overtime against the 76ers early in December—a game the Celtics lost just seconds later—defined his time in Boston so far: totally off the mark.
Despite his lackluster numbers, Lee hasn’t been a total bust. His defense has been lauded, and he’s clearly working hard to help the team win.
However, a major reason the Celtics traded for him in the offseason—and the aspect of his game fans were most excited to see—was his scoring ability. So far, it has been totally absent and doesn’t look to be improving.
A 10.2 point per game scorer during his first four years in the NBA, Lee is averaging just 5.9 this season. Despite shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc in three of his first four seasons in the league, Lee is shooting just 28.6 percent from deep for the Celtics.
During one six-game stretch in November, Lee missed 10 consecutive threes.
Apparently, Lee himself isn’t worried about his shooting slump and expects shots to start falling. He’s certainly being given ample time to settle in, having played in all 23 of the Celtics’ games thus far and averaging more than 24 minutes per contest. But Celtics fans would like to see some substantive improvement sooner rather than later.
The Celtics could use it, too—they currently make fewer three-pointers per game than any team in the NBA other than the Chicago Bulls. As the season progresses, Lee must return to the shooting form he displayed in the first four years of his career. To this point, however, his failure to break out of his shooting slump makes him one of the Celtics’ least improved.
Most Improved: Jared Sullinger
If you’re trying to develop a 20-year-old rookie into an effective, hard-working forward, Kevin Garnett isn’t a bad guy to have as a mentor. Jared Sullinger is reaping the benefits of Garnett’s tutelage already this season, and is the only rookie on the Celtics’ roster to play a significant role on the team.
Garnett himself has applauded Sullinger, mentioning his high basketball IQ and noting that the youngster “gets it.” Coming from one of the most intense players in the league, and one who has been known to make teammates cry, that is the highest of compliments.
Sullinger has shown promise as a big man of the future for the Celtics—something the worst rebounding team in the NBA desperately needs. In just 17.3 minutes per game, he is averaging exactly half of a double-double (5.0 points, 5.0 rebounds).
Over the Celtics’ last seven games, Sullinger has actually seen a dip in his playing time, getting fewer than 15 minutes per game. His scoring has dropped off as a result, but amazingly, he is grabbing significantly more rebounds over that stretch (6.0 per game) than he was earlier in the season.
The only explanation is his work ethic—Sullinger is working hard to contribute in the way his team needs him most. Coach Doc Rivers would be wise to play him more—at this point, it seems that the sky is the limit for the Celtics’ first-round draft choice.
Least Improved: Brandon Bass
Brandon Bass was a crucial part of the Celtics and their playoff run last season, and signing him to a three-year deal in the offseason was a great move. Unfortunately, instead of building off of last year’s success, Bass has retracted from it.
His numbers are down in nearly all major categories—his 12.5 points and 6.2 rebounds last season have shrunk to 8.7 and 5.4 this year. His playing time has begun to dip as a result, and he is posting fewer than 6.0 points per game thus far in the month of December.
The frustrating thing is that Bass simply isn’t getting the number of looks he was last season. His mid-range jumper was a fantastic weapon for the Celtics, and is going largely unused this year. In the overtime loss against Philadelphia on December 7—a game that served as a microcosm for a lot of the things that are wrong with the Celtics—Bass attempted just one shot. He missed.
The Celtics gave Bass three more years because he’s a solid player who can help them win. That hasn’t changed, but so far this season he has failed to do so.
Moving forward, Rivers must utilize him correctly and Bass must step into a larger role in order for the team to start winning games.