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Breaking Down the Boston Celtics' Guard Competition

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Breaking Down the Boston Celtics' Guard Competition
USA TODAY Sports
Where do Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee stand among Celtics guards?

For the past six seasons, the Boston Celtics have not had much controversy at guard.  When Rajon Rondo proved capable of handling the point, the Celtics rolled out a Rondo-Ray Allen backcourt for five seasons, mostly complementing them with specialists like Tony Allen and Nate Robinson or veterans such as Sam Cassell and Keyon Dooling

But with championship contention no longer an immediate priority, the Celtics must now search for pieces that could form the next great Boston team. 

Short-term, that process will entail sifting through the logjam at guard, which currently includes seven names

Because these players are at different points in their careers, they have varying levels of value to the Celtics' long-term mindset. Thus, useful veterans might have one foot out the door, whereas raw youngsters will probably receive the longest leash this season.

All this comes with the caveat that it is only August, and circumstances will invariably change before the season opens in two months.  For now, though, here's a look at the three categories each Celtics guard falls under, as well as an early depth chart projection.

 

Long-Term Locks

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Is a Rondo-Bradley backcourt a long-term option?

Rajon Rondo's return will likely be the Celtics' most anticipated storyline all season, January 26 notwithstanding. Though the C's may go on the backburner of the national conscience after that game, the long process of integrating Rondo into the rebuilding process will have just begun.

Whenever Boston's star point guard does return, he would do well to sustain the promising improvements in his mid-range jumper. Such a creative passer and strong driver like Rondo should be a pick-and-roll dynamo, but his shaky shooting has allowed opposing defenders to simply run under the pick, knowing the C's point guard would not hurt them with an open look.

But last season, Rondo shot a quietly impressive 48 percent from mid-range, well above his subpar 39.3 percent mark from 2011-12.  Among the 156 players with at least 140 mid-range shots last season, that percentage ranked Rondo 12th.  Indeed, Rondo's 2012-13 shot chart is effectively a visualization of how he made opposing guards pay for not adjusting their pick-and-roll D, especially at the top of the key:

Courtesy NBA.com

On the other hand, the other guard in Boston's long-term plans, Avery Bradley, regressed offensively last season.  After a promising sophomore campaign that saw Bradley shoot 40.7 percent from three, he slumped to 31.7 percent.  In his rough first-round series against the Knicks, Bradley's 25 percent three-point shooting was one of the worst marks in the playoffs.

That ghastly 46.1 true shooting percentage, which places different weights on two-point field goals, threes, and free throws, really sunk Bradley's season.  Nonetheless, the fourth-year guard is still one of the league's elite defenders, and his on-ball defense was as voracious as ever:

But to fulfill those persistent Bruce Bowen comparisons, Bradley must add the "three" to "3-and-D." 

Rondo's return should help, as Bradley was clearly overstretched by the additional ballhandling duties. Before Rondo's injury, Bradley turned the ball over on just 8.1 percent of possessions.  Afterwards, his turnover ratio soared to 11.2 percent.  Thus, it seems reasonable to infer that his confidence issues stemmed from shouldering too much responsibility.

Either way, the Celtics need both Rondo and Bradley to improve their shooting to run an efficient offense.  The Celtics' spacing was thrown off last year following Ray Allen's departure, as forwards Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass were significantly better shooters than the team's guards. 

For the Rondo-Bradley backcourt to become a long-term solution, they must make defenses respect them when open.

 

Intriguing Kids

MarShon Brooks returns to the team that drafted him (AP Photo).

Of course, the Celtics' best scoring guard might end up being Nets castoff MarShon Brooks. 

Even in diminished playing time last season, Brooks still averaged 15.6 points per 36 minutes, a mark that would have ranked fourth on the Celtics.

Brooks' main issue is improving his offensive efficiency.  Brooks has the typical syndrome of talented scorers, namely an overconfidence in his shot-making ability that leads to low-percentage looks and poor offensive possessions.  Notice how many contested shots he takes, even when things are going well:

In some ways, that's a testament to his natural scoring talent, and a tempting sign of his potential if he learns to look for better shots within the flow of the offense.  Indeed, 60 percent of Brooks' field goals last season were unassisted, 24th-highest out of 181 players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game and played 70 or more games. 

If Brooks does become the Celtics' go-to second-unit scorer, perhaps the point guard assisting him will be Phil Pressey

In truth, Pressey was one of the biggest stand-outs at the Orlando Summer League, posting 9.4 points and 6.6 assists in 23 minutes per game. That performance earned him a fully guaranteed salary this season, all but ensuring his presence on the roster.

Pressey brings the Celtics a sorely needed backup ballhandler, something the Celtics did not have in Rondo's absence. Pressey struggled a bit in his senior season with increased scoring duties, but as Jonathan Tjarks of SB Nation illuminates, the rookie guard should feel at home as a pass-first guard in Boston:

Last season, he was the engine of a small-ball Missouri team that went 30-5. This season, as the only one of the top six players to return, Pressey struggled as the primary playmaker and scorer on a disorganized squad comprised mainly of transfers. As a junior, he averaged 12 points, seven assists and two steals on 38 percent shooting. After shooting 43 percent from the field as a sophomore and 36 percent from three, I suspect his decline had more to do with his shot selection than his mechanics.

At 5'11 and 175 pounds with a 6'2 wingspan, Pressey can't afford to be an inconsistent shooter at the next level. The margin for error for guards his size is too small. But while Pressey's size is only a 1 on a 1-10 scale, his speed is a 10. Combine that with ridiculous floor vision and a flair for the dramatic, and Pressey is one of the rare guards who can completely take over a game with his passing.

Tjarks alludes to a problem Brooks and Pressey share, namely defense. Their struggles stem from significantly different origins, as Pressey is burdened by his tiny frame, whereas Brooks seems unable to comprehend basic defensive principles

Nevertheless, they share the same critical limitation, making it unlikely either should become a full-time starter in the future. However, they both fulfill important offensive niche roles the Celtics did not have last year. In particular, Brooks could become an important source of instant offense if developed properly.

Still, both are young cheap assets, which could always shift them into the next category.

 

Trade Bait

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Courtney Lee may not make through next season in Boston.

Courtney Lee, Jordan Crawford and Keith Bogans are all potentially useful bench contributors to a contender.  But through a combination of age and/or redundancy, none figure in the Celtics' long-term plans, making each a prime trade candidate this season.

Of the trio, Lee is probably the most marketable given his age and ubiquitous "3-and-D" skill set.  At roughly $16.3 million over the next three seasons, Lee's contract is not particularly onerous, though he will need to rebound from a subpar 2012-13 season to justify his salary.

Indeed, the 27-year-old slumped badly from deep last year, shooting just 37.2 percent from deep.  That marked a stark departure from the two previous seasons, where Lee's 40.4 three-point percentage ranked 11th among players with at least 100 games. Lee shot 36.7 percent from the left corner last season, a disaster from someone so reliant on the corner three:

Courtesy Basketball-Reference.com

Defenders may argue that Lee did not receive a particularly fair shake in the C's rotation, but he did not live up to his billing as a shooter who could ably defend multiple positions.  The Celtics' defensive rating actually dropped nearly four points with Lee off the floor. Not all of that stems from Lee's role on the bench units—when Boston tried to slot Lee into the starting lineup with Rondo, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett, the unit was minus-12 over 78 minutes.

Effectively, Lee's struggles were part of the reason Danny Ainge traded for Jordan Crawford at the deadline last season.  Crawford arrived in Boston with a reputation as a chucker, something he did nothing to dispel in his 27-game stint with the Celtics. 

Crawford maintained his head-scratching shot selection, leading to a poor 51.2 true shooting percentage that was among the worst on the roster.  That was par for the course—since his debut in 2010-11, Crawford's career 48.9 true shooting percentage is fourth-worst among the 78 guards with at least 150 games and 4000 minutes in that time.

That is not to say Crawford is a useless NBA player, and he did exhibit surprisingly proficient passing ability last season. 

But he is mostly a known commodity at this point, and Brooks' presence on the roster makes Crawford superfluous.  Compare Crawford to the Brooks video above, and the similarities in shot selection are almost eerie:

Lastly, 33-year-old Keith Bogans figures to contribute more in the locker room than the court.  Bogans actually played a respectable 19 minutes per game for a Nets team with a putrid bench last season, but his role will diminish significantly as the Celtics give preference to developing their young guards.

Bogans' contract is not guaranteed beyond next season, so he is effectively a $5 million expiring contract.  That makes him a decent salary filler in a potential trade next season, where he might find more playing time on a team in need of a veteran wing. 

 

Early Depth Chart Projection

Starting PG: Rajon Rondo.  Rondo will assume the reins as the new face of Celtics basketball whenever he does return, and his locker room leadership will be almost as important as his on-court command. Assuming no setbacks from his ACL recovery, Rondo will be Boston's bedrock for years to come.

Starting SG: Avery Bradley.  Bradley still has much to prove if the Celtics are going to rely on him as their two-guard of the future. Like a light-hitting shortstop who is a defensive wizard, Bradley's one dimension is still valuable. But his ceiling is higher than that, and next season will be a critical step towards realizing that potential.

Backup PG: Phil Pressey.  Pressey may not receive a ton of minutes once Rondo is back at full speed, but he may actually start if the franchise point guard is not ready when the season tips off. Celtics fans should temper their expectations, but Pressey's ability to reliably run an offense and create shots for others will be a welcome addition.

Backup SG: Courtney Lee.  Lee will almost certainly be around to start the season, as his trade value is lower than ever at the moment.  The Celtics would be wise to showcase Lee early on, and he should feel considerably less pressure with the weight of contention lifted. If he rebounds back to previous form, look for Boston to deal Lee by the February trade deadline.

Backup Scorer/Ballhandler: MarShon Brooks.  Brooks figures to receive more playing time than this fifth-string designation would imply, perhaps splitting ballhandling reps with Pressey. He brings an injection of shot creation to a bench unit that will need scoring, but efficiency is the preoperative buzzword around Brooks next season.

Benchwarmer: Keith Bogans.  The Celtics are among the worst fits in the league for someone like Bogans, a fact he already appears to know. Bogans is the classic expiring contract trade filler, and he is better served to try and crack the rotation on a contending team full of veterans.

Traded: Jordan Crawford.  Even with Fab Melo's departure, the Celtics are still precariously close to the luxury tax line.  That makes Crawford and his $2.2 million expiring contract a goner.  The Celtics will likely get nothing but salary relief in a trade, but for a team desperate for cap flexibility, dealing someone with limited on-court value like Crawford is a no-brainer.

 

*All stats courtesy NBA.com or Basketball-Reference.com.

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