With just seven players returning from the 2012-13 season and a brand new head coach in Brad Stevens, it is safe to say that the Boston Celtics are going to look quite different as a team when their 2013-14 campaign tips off in Toronto.
The drastic personnel changes the franchise experienced are the product of the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett blockbuster deal with the Brooklyn Nets. It's also the result of a concerted effort to get younger and embrace the kind of full-on rebuilding project the franchise avoided at the end of the Larry Bird era.
Despite the return of Rajon Rondo from an ACL injury and Jeff Green after a potential breakout playoff performance, the C’s are going to need to change their approach to several aspects of the game if they want to remain a relevant franchise.
As the NBA gears up for training camp and the grind of another season, let’s examine the key strategic changes the Celtics must make now that Pierce and Garnett are no longer in green.
Push the Pace
The 2012-13 Celtics were not exactly a high-octane bunch. Even when Rondo was healthy, this team was more focused on using the shot clock and creating a quality look than on running the break and trying to create a quick score in transition.
Boston's finished the season 18th in points per game at 96.5, tied for 16th with the Charlotte Bobcats in overall pace at 94 and 20th in offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) at 101.1, per ESPN Hollinger Team Statistics.
With Pierce and KG as the main scoring options, the team was more reliant on mid-range jump shots and half-court ball movement in order to maximize each offensive possession. Even when the team forced turnovers, it would often then just set up the offense instead of attacking the basket.
Now that Garnett and Pierce are gone, Boston has lost two of its more consistent double-digit scorers and will need to find creative ways to replace the production they gave the Celtics. None of the players Boston acquired in the Brooklyn deal are going to be able to shoulder the offensive burden carried by Pierce, and simply shifting the responsibility onto Green and Rondo would not be a wise idea.
Instead, the Celtics will need to use their young legs and newfound athleticism to play in the open court and try to convert opponents’ turnovers into points. Guards like Rondo, Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley are all capable of coming up with steals and igniting the fast break, while the Celts finally have players who can consistently run the floor and finish at the rim.
Say what you will about Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and MarShon Brooks, but all three are athletic players who will run the floor hard and up the pace of the game.
At the same time, the Celtics cannot afford to whittle down the shot clock now that they do not have Pierce as an escape valve if a possession is going nowhere. Pierce had the ability to create a decent look off the dribble with shot clock winding down, but now that he is a Net, Boston needs to execute its offense better to avoid dangerous late-clock situations.
To put it simply, the Celts do not have the personnel to rely on the more methodical approach that has worked for the franchise in the past.
Don't Use Jordan Crawford or Courtney Lee at Point Guard
With only Phil Pressey behind Rondo, the Celtics do not exactly have much depth at the point guard spot heading into 2012-13. Though there are still some veteran guards available in free agency, it seems likely Boston’s roster will stay the same until October.
When Rondo went down with his ACL injury in late January, the C’s attempted to make due by plugging Bradley, Lee, Jason Terry and even Jordan Crawford in at the point guard spot.
Lee, Terry and Crawford struggled mightily in the role, and while Bradley did not look comfortable as a 1 during Boston’s six-game playoff series with the New York Knicks, he has more experience at the point and has told A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE that he is willing to play the position if necessary.
Bradley’s brand of aggressive, full-court defense is also best suited against point guards instead of 2-guards, since he is most effective when guarding the ball.
Crawford is too poor of a decision-maker to be trusted handling the ball for any stretch of time, while Lee does not have a great handle and can also be prone to questionable decisions, particularly when playing an unfamiliar role.
Since Boston is not trying to win the championship in 2013-14, the best option is to use Bradley as a secondary ball-handler to complement Rondo while also giving Green some opportunities in a point-forward role.
The team could take a risk and see exactly what they have in Pressey, a heady passer and pure point who looked good in the preseason but struggled with turnovers and reckless play in his time at Missouri.
Whatever direction Boston takes, it must avoid plugging in Lee and Crawford at the point. Their play at the position in 2012-13 made it clear that they are simply not the answer.
Attack the Offensive Glass
One of the enduring characteristics of Doc Rivers’ Boston teams was atrocious offensive rebounding.
The Celts were far more focused on getting back in transition than sending players to hit the offensive boards. They were often limited to one shot as a result.
Last season, the Celtics were dead last in the league in offensive rebounding at 8.1 per game, and led only the Miami Heat in total rebounding at 39.3 per game.
While Boston still lacks a true center capable of playing 30-plus minutes per night, its current personnel is far more suited to pursue offensive rebounds than last year's squad.
Humphries and Jared Sullinger are quality rebounders on both ends of the floor, while rookie Kelly Olynyk showed flashes of being a sneaky impact player on the offensive glass in the Orlando Summer League.
Because KG and Brandon Bass played more on the perimeter offensively, they were rarely in ideal offensive rebounding position. With the two of them playing the bulk of the frontcourt minutes, the Celts had fewer chances to create easy putback opportunities.
Though Stevens is a defensive-minded coach, his C’s are not going to be an elite defensive squad in their first year. Realistically, Boston is going to have to risk giving up a few transition hoops in order to make more of an impact on the offensive boards.
Additionally, the Celtics are going to struggle to score in the half court, so by putting in extra effort to keep possessions alive they can mitigate their lack of firepower by drawing fouls and getting looks at the rim.
Obviously offensive rebounding is as much about pure effort as it is about scheme and execution, but Stevens is going to have to put more of an emphasis on players crashing the offensive boards, since they will struggle to consistently score 95-plus points otherwise.
Keep the Ball From Sticking with Rondo
A healthy Rondo is among the most dynamic players in the entire league, but the Celtics struggled mightily even when he was healthy in 2012-13, going 20-23 before losing him for the season.
Despite averaging 13.7 points, 5.6 boards and 11.1 assists on 48.4 percent shooting, Rondo often shouldered too much offensive responsibility, and Boston struggled as a result.
As often as Rondo was able to create a quality look for a teammate thanks to his phenomenal handle and court vision, there were plenty of possessions where he spent 20 seconds probing the defense only to either jack up a mid-range jumper or dish the ball off to a well-defended teammate.
When the Celts went 16-6 following Rondo’s injury, their unexpected success was the product of sharing the ball, making the extra pass for an open shot and running a more consistent pick-and-roll offense.
Green stepped up in a major way with Rondo out and though the Celtics eventually fizzled in the playoffs they were able to cultivate an unselfish identity that led to more success when their star point guard was in street clothes than when he was in uniform.
Though the Celtics are light on reserve ball-handlers, that does not mean their half-court offense needs to rely just on Rondo’s ability to penetrate and knife his way into the lane.
With a number of players capable of stepping outside for a three and big men who can open up space on the inside, this is a team that can succeed if it keeps players moving and cutting constantly.
Green, Bradley, Wallace and Lee have all proven to be effective slashers without the basketball, and their consistent motion can also help lead to defensive miscues and poor rotations that create open shots.
Obviously Rondo is going to need to be the Celtics’ best player for them to have any kind of meaningful success in this upcoming season, but that does not mean that he needs to be solely responsible for creating the offense, especially coming off of a serious knee surgery.
Rondo’s passing ability and basketball IQ are among the best in the league, but the Celtics are going to need him to relinquish some of his playmaking duties and rely more heavily on sharing the basketball in order to win games.
Playing True Team Defense
For six seasons, KG was the anchor of a Boston defense that was consistently among the best in the league. Though the team slipped somewhat last season, it was still just 12th in points allowed per game at 96.7 and finished sixth in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) at 100.4, per ESPN's Hollinger Team Stats.
As Boston’s only true rim protector, Garnett was responsible not only for guarding the paint but also covering for his teammates’ defensive mistakes and blown rotations.
When KG missed eight games in late March and April last season, Boston gave up 100 or more points five times, and with no one on the current roster capable of making up for his defensive impact, these Celtics are going to have to collectively step up.
Without an elite post defender, they need to be quicker to double down low, and perimeter players must stay in front of their men, since there is no one now on the back line to come over and block the shot.
Though Boston has a trio of elite defensive guards in Bradley, Lee and Rondo and two versatile wings in Wallace and Green, the Celtics are going to struggle since they lack a lockdown defender who can challenge the likes of LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony.
No one is expecting the Celtics to defend like they did in 2007-08 or 2008-09, but they are going to need to tweak their overall defensive system in order to make up for the loss of Garnett.
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