Pieces Boston Celtics Must Acquire to Become a True Contender
It may be a difficult reality for diehard Boston Celtics fans to accept but as currently constructed, the C's are simply not a championship contender. It would be easy to simply blame injuries and unfamiliarity, but the truth is that Boston needs to make some roster changes if it wants to contend once more with the current core.
Given the Celtics lack of cap room and financial flexibility, signing one of the 2013 offseason's marquee free agents is practically impossible, but that does not mean this team cannot improve this summer. With the exception of the final move listed on this slideshow, all of the moves I've listed would be possible in some form without getting rid of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce
Offense and rebounding may be the main areas of concern for Boston after their disheartening first-round loss to the New York Knicks, but there are other areas that the Celtics must look to address before they can reclaim their status as a member of the league's elite.
No single move listed here will turn Boston back into contenders overnight, but some combination of them will go a long way towards setting up another title run.
Note: In most of the situations I discuss, Pierce and KG would return for one final season together.
Contract information courtesy of Hoopsworld.com
The Veteran Point Guard
The Boston Celtics have no shortage of guards on their roster, but what is in short supply for the C's are point guards. The only true point under contract is Rajon Rondo, and the 2012-13 season proved that ball-handling duties cannot be delegated to Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley.
Terry, Lee and Bradley are all talented players, but they are all best suited to be shooting guards and are not natural facilitators and playmakers. While Rondo is capable of playing superhuman minutes in the postseason, he will be coming off of a brutal injury and needs a quality backup who can step in and run the offense for a few minutes at a time.
When Boston stunned the basketball world by coming within one win of making the 2012 Finals, they had cagy veteran Keyon Dooling coming off of the bench. Dooling averaged just 10.6 minutes per game and 2.8 points, but he made the right pass, played stingy defense and shot 39.3 percent from beyond the arc during the postseason.
Boston needs a guard with meaningful playoff experience under his belt who can find the open man, run the pick-and-roll and not be a complete defensive liability the way Terry was this past season.
Fortunately, there are plenty of low-cost options available in free agency for the C's to consider.
Cleveland's Daniel Gibson has averaged 6.4 points and shot 40.7 percent from beyond the arc in the playoffs, while making the 2007 Finals with the Cavaliers. He has battled injuries recently and is more shoot-first than pass-first, but he is young and can shoot lights out from the perimeter.
Portland's Eric Maynor is an option as well. Maynor was buried on the Oklahoma City bench before being dealt at the trade deadline to the Trail Blazers and experiencing a resurgence. In the Thunder's run to the Western Conference Finals in 2011 he averaged 4.8 points and 2.2 dimes in 12.9 minutes per game. Maynor is more of a pure point guard than Gibson and can run the pick-and-roll as well as find open shooters on the wing by attacking the paint.
Other, more experienced options include Utah's Jamaal Tinsley, Los Angeles' Chauncey Billups (a prodigal son of the Celtics), or OKC's immortal Derek Fisher.
The Young (Draft Pick) Big Man
The Celtics' lack of size has been painfully obvious over the past few seasons as Kevin Garnett has been forced to battle inside virtually by himself against opposing big men. The surprising rookie success of Jared Sullinger will help on the boards, but Sully is still quite young and has a troubling history of back injuries.
The two best options that should be available for Boston with the 16th overall selection are Louisville's Gorgui Dieng and Duke's Mason Plumlee, a pair of upperclassmen with plenty of meaningful experience for national championship contenders.
While helping Louisville to the 2013 NCAA title, Dieng averaged 9.8 points, 9.4 boards, two assists and 2.5 blocks while shooting 53.4 percent from the field. He developed significantly under Rick Pitino, becoming a strong jump shooter and a skilled post passer by his junior season.
Dieng will never be a star in the NBA, but he is a good role player capable of playing both power forward and center who should be able to step in and contribute immediately for a team like Boston in desperate need of a big man.
Plumlee's senior season in Durham was a tremendous success, as he verged 17.1 points 10 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.4 blocks while shooting a blistering 59.9 percent from the floor.
He began his career as an offensive liability but under Mike Krzyzewski he developed a reliable low post game and became a decent foul shooter capable of capitalizing on his opportunities at the line.
Plumlee is less skilled than Dieng, but he is a great rebounder on both ends of the floor and runs the floor as well as any big man in college basketball. He needs to bulk up, but is far more NBA-ready than someone like Fab Melo (then again, you and I might be more NBA-ready than Fab Melo).
By taking one of these two big men, Boston guarantees themselves a talented young piece who won't make much of a dent on the salary cap. The 2012-13 rookie salary scale dictates that the 16th overall pick earns $1.37 million in their first year, then $1.67 million and $1.74 million in the following two seasons.
The Instant Offense Wing
The 2012-13 New York Knicks were a good defensive team, there is no denying that, but that's no excuse for Boston averaging a horrid 82.3 points per game in the playoffs. That mark is dead last among playoff teams behind Milwaukee and Los Angeles, both of whom were swept, by a full three points per game.
It is a testament to the Celtics' defense and the sheer will of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce that the team lasted six games, but if Boston is going to return to contention they are going to need to add some more offensive firepower to their roster.
Players like Jason Terry and Courtney Lee who were expected to provide perimeter scoring did so inconsistently, and Jordan Crawford's decision making is just too poor to leave him on the floor for prolonged stretches of time.
The best option for Boston would likely be Atlanta's Kyle Korver, who averaged 10.2 points and 3.3 rebounds during the playoffs for the Hawks and shot a ridiculous 45.7 percent from three-point range in the regular season.
Korver, a 6'7" wing who can play both shooting guard and small forward, has the size to get his shot off over defenders and has a lightening quick release that is nearly impossible to block. He moves well without the basketball and is as lethal spotting up as any player in the NBA.
Under Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, Korver made huge strides defensively and is no longer a world-class liability. He does not create much offense on his own, but is an average rebounder and passer who is capable of playing 30 minutes per game for a good team, a hard trait to find in a pure shooter.
Another option could be Cleveland's C.J. Miles. Miles has a non-guaranteed contract for 2013-14 and according to Bob Finnan of the News-Herald, the team may opt to re-sign sharpshooting Wayne Ellington over him.
Miles averaged 11.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and one assist for the Cavaliers last season while shooting 38.4 percent from beyond the arc. He is definitely a shot-chucker and not as consistent from range as Korver, but he is more disciplined than Crawford and can consistently attack off the dribble.
Other options on the wing that the team could explore include bringing back former Celtic Leandro Barbosa, who played well for the team before tearing his ACL, or signing the likes of Dallas' Anthony Morrow, Chicago's Marco Belinelli or Washington's Martell Webster, all of whom could provide scoring and long range shooting for (relatively) cheap. Someone like Milwaukee's J.J. Redick would fit well, but is likely to cost too much money.
The Versatile Defender
The Boston Celtics’ defense remained tough in the 2012-13 season, but it was not quite as strong as it has been in years past. With Garnett hobbled by injuries, the team still managed to give up just 96.7 points per game, good for 12th in the league, but it was clear that something was missing.
In his prime, Paul Pierce used to be an outstanding two-way player, but now that he is older it is essential that he conserves more of his energy for the offensive end of the court versus expending it defensively. The Celtics slid him over to 2-guard for stretches to guard less physical players, leaving the task of covering players like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony primarily to Jeff Green.
This strategy worked, but Green is also going to be taking on a significant load offensively as the second or third scoring option on the court, and so it would be wise for Boston’s management to pursue a moderately-priced wing defender capable of covering two or three positions seamlessly.
Avery Bradley is a great perimeter defender, but because he is rail thin and just 6’2” he sometimes has difficulty covering bigger shooting guards and is best suited to defend the point.
Perhaps the most logical and familiar option out there is Memphis’ Tony Allen. Allen cut his teeth with Doc Rivers and the Celtics, and has since helped make the Grizzlies one of the league’s best defensive teams. He is not much of a shooter, but averaged 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game for Memphis in the playoffs.
Allen is capable of covering 2-guards, small forwards and even some point guards, and has tremendous length, timing and quickness, making him one of the league’s premier defensive stoppers. Unfortunately, it is unlikely he will leave Memphis for a return to Boston, given that he left over an issue with playing time that would still be a key problem with the Celtics.
Another ideal, if unlikely, option is Denver’s Corey Brewer. Brewer is not a particularly strong player, but at 6’9” has the size to cover the two and three and is great at reading passing lanes. He finally found a niche in Denver and proved he could be a key contributor with a quality ball club.
Brewer has the size and length to contest shots, as well as the lateral quickness to stay in front of opponents and deter drives into the paint. At just 27 years old, it is also safe to assume that Brewer has a few more prime seasons ahead of him, whereas Allen is currently 31 years old.
Brewer shot poorly in the playoffs, but managed to average 10.8 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists for the Nuggets against Golden State.
If those two prove too expensive for the C’s, more affordable options include bringing back Toronto’s Mickael Pietrus, a true three-and-D player who was huge for Boston in the 2012 playoffs; OKC’s athletic 2-guard Ronnie Brewer; or Kobe Bryant’s arch nemesis Dahntay Jones of the Atlanta Hawks.
The Potential Young Star
I mentioned on the introduction slide that not all of these moves would be possible in a single offseason, and for this final slide to happen it would definitely require some serious financial maneuvering by Danny Ainge and the front office.
Though the Celtics have some nice young talent on their roster in Green, Rondo and Bradley, they remain in need of an injection of talented youth at multiple positions on the floor. While bringing in a premier free agent like Josh Smith or Dwight Howard is going to be impossible without shedding both Pierce and KG, there is the chance that the team could target a gifted player who has not quite lived up to their potential thus far.
Dallas’ O.J. Mayo was on Boston’s radar during the 2012 offseason and once claimed “it would’ve been an honor” to play with likes of Garnett, Pierce, Rondo and to be coached by Doc Rivers. Mayo started the 2012-13 season phenomenally, but his numbers tapered off down the stretch. However, he still averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.4 dimes while shooting 40.7 percent from beyond the arc. Mayo earned just $4 million last season, and at just 25 years old still has room to grow as an all-around player.
Another similar player is Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans, who Boston pursued at the trade deadline according to ESPN’s Marc Stein. Evans’ numbers have declined since his rookie year as he has battled injuries and positional issues with the Kings, but he still managed to post 15.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists on 47.8 percent shooting in 2012-13. He has improved as an outside shooter, connecting on 33.8 percent of his attempted threes.
Despite Sacramento’s attempts, Evans is not a natural point guard at 6’6”, but with his athleticism and handle he could provide strong scoring bursts for Boston and has the talent to take over games offensively for stretches.
Evans earned $5.3 million in 2012-13, and he should receive a contract that is around the same value, potentially closer to $6 million per year. Evans is a poor defender, but his versatility makes him an intriguing free agent prospect at just 23 years old.
Should the team go another route, they could look at Portland’s J.J. Hickson (an outstanding athlete and a strong paint presence), Cleveland’s Marreese Speights or even Charlotte’s Gerald Henderson, all of whom are up-and-coming young players who’s signings would not necessarily break the bank.
A potential deal for any of these players could also be swung through a sign-and-trade involving Celtics like Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass and Jason Terry to help make it fit under the cap.