Currently on the outside looking in of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, the Boston Celtics may not be too concerned with fixing any of their flaws as they salivate over Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, but the C’s have certainly shown some serious issues in their inconsistent start to the 2013-14 season.
Granted, no one expected Boston to be a powerhouse without Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo sitting out to start the year and Brad Stevens as a rookie head coach, but their struggles, particularly on offense, have been pretty notable.
The return of Rondo should aid the team across the board, but that does not mean the C’s need to sit hopelessly idle while their star point guard recovers from knee surgery.
There are no 100 percent perfect fixes given Boston’s lack of talent and the fact that the team does not appear overly concerned with wining in 2013-14, but with the season still in its infancy, let’s look at some of the club’s most glaring flaws and some potential solutions to get the C’s on track.
That is, if getting on track is even what they want to do.
Boston has always been reliant on the mid-range jumper ever since the start of the Doc Rivers era, but the team has been even more prone to shaky shot selection with the Big Three gone.
Per NBA.com, the Celtics have attempted the second-most shots from 15-19 feet of any team in the league and are shooting just 38.6 percent on them. They are also in the top 10 in 20-24-foot shots attempted, although that encompasses threes and is less damaging of a statistic.
Without a reliable post presence for much of the season and with Rondo still a ways away from returning, the team has seen plenty of offensive possessions go nowhere and end up with Jeff Green or Jordan Crawford jacking up contested 18-footers.
The team does run some deliberate pick-and-pop action to get open jumpers for Vitor Faverani, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger, but the majority of these low-percentage jumpers are a product of broken plays, not Stevens’ scheme.
In a league where many teams are embracing advanced analytics and favoring open three-pointers and forays to the rim versus long two-pointers, it is nearly impossible to win with the offense Boston currently has.
There is no easy way to solve this given that the team simply lacks offensive talent right now, but there are some quick fixes that could provide a little short-term relief.
Going small with Sullinger at the 5 and Green at the 4 would provide plenty of floor spacing and open up more threes and driving lanes.
Using Phil Pressey as a backup point guard has also worked, as the diminutive rookie has the ability to get into the lane and collapse a defense, creating more open threes or drop-off passes for the bigs.
Additionally, running more hard pick-and-roll action with Sully, Faverani, Olynyk and even Green where they really attack the basket will lead to more fouls and contact instead of having them pop out for elbow jumpers.
Of course, these ideas are really just Band-Aids until Rondo returns and is able to get this offense moving again.
The 2013-14 C’s were never going to be an offensive juggernaut—in fact, they were pretty average offensively even with Pierce and KG—but they have been downright unwatchable at times this season.
Part of that is because Stevens’ system relies on using the shot clock to create high-percentage looks, but it often ends with a few screen plays that go nowhere and a contested outside jumper.
One easy way to increase scoring would be to push the pace of games. The C’s are 16th in pace at 96.9, per ESPN, and with all of their young athletes should be able to run off misses and generate easy transition buckets.
Granted, they are also giving up a league-worst 109.3 points, but coach Brett Brown’s commitment to playing uptempo has helped to keep his club competitive in many games.
The Celtics have the flexibility to experiment with smaller lineups, and while they have usually played with two traditional big men on the floor, Stevens should be more willing to use quicker lineups if it means pushing the pace.
Are you detecting a pattern here? As you’ve probably guessed, most of the Celtics’ problems are on the offensive end of the floor, as their defense has actually been quite respectable through 16 games.
One area Boston has improved but still has some trouble in is turnovers, where the team is averaging 17.1 per game, tied for 24th with the Phoenix Suns.
The Celtics were dreadful to start the year with taking care of the basketball but have made some improvements with Crawford taking the brunt of the point guard duties.
Still, a team that struggles this much to score cannot be giving away the ball as often as Boston does.
Part of the problem is that they have been forced to rely on unconventional players like Bradley and Gerald Wallace as playmakers with Rondo out.
Bradley and Wallace are tied for the team lead in turnovers at 2.3 per game, and while the C’s have already transitioned Bradley to the 2 primarily, they need to do a better job of getting the ball out of Wallace’s hands.
Both are good perimeter defenders and occasional scoring threats, but Crash has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.1 and Bradley’s is a horrid 0.6, proving that neither is cut out to man the point.
Pressey was turnover-prone in college but has done a decent job taking care of the basketball in limited minutes, posting eight assists in 20 minutes without giving the ball away once against Charlotte.
He should be in line for an increased workload going forward.
Crawford is averaging 2.2 giveaways per contest, but he’s handling the brunt of the ball-handling duties and posting a PER of 19.0, so it’s hard to argue with his performance thus far this season.
The C’s have also had to ask players like Olynyk and Brandon Bass, primarily catch-and-shoot scorers on a good team, to do more off-the-dribble work offensively than they are accustomed to.
Rondo’s return will be the biggest help in the turnover department, but until then, relegating the ball-handling duties to a few players is better than a “point guard-by-committee” approach.
The Celtics defense, eighth in the league in points allowed at 97.4, has done a nice job stopping isolation plays (39.1 percent) and threes (31.8 percent), but it is allowing opposing big men to shoot 47.2 percent, according to Synergy Sports.
By comparison, a team like the Denver Nuggets, not exactly a powerhouse defensively, is allowing opponents to score on just 39.8 percent in the post.
The Indiana Pacers, one of the league’s top defensive squads, are allowing opponents to convert on 38.7 percent of post-ups.
Boston’s opposing big men are primarily offensive players, with Faverani and Olynyk being particularly poor defensively, and while there are not a ton of elite low-post scorers in the league, it is a clear area of weakness for the team.
The C’s have done a good job of recovering and rotating onto three-point shooters, giving them the freedom to have guards drop down and double in the post in an effort to force turnovers.
They could also focus more on collapsing into the paint once the ball is dropped off and forcing the opposing big to give it up and reset the offense.
Players like Pressey and Bradley have great hands and are capable of coming up with loose balls and igniting the fast break.
The C’s could also dust off Kris Humphries, who has not played much but looked solid in very limited minutes.
Humphries is the strongest of Boston’s big men, and while he is not much of a shot-blocking threat, he has the ability to hold his position on the block and defend the paint without fouling.
Stopping opposing post players is not going to make or break Boston’s 2013-14 season, but it is an area the C’s could improve on going forward.
With so many new faces and a new head coach trying to make all of the pieces work Boston was never going to have a clear rotation from day one, but the Celtics are still struggling to figure out what combinations work nearly a fifth of the way into the season.
Stevens routinely used deeper rotations at Butler, but the C’s currently have 11 players averaging at least 12 minutes per game, and besides Humphries all of those players have appeared in at least 13 games.
Depth is valuable in the NBA, but the problem is that Stevens has yet to come up with a stable way to rotate these players in and out of the game. Some nights, Faverani plays just a handful of minutes, while in others, he is leaned on heavily. Pressey will go through stretches as a nonentity before being shoved into a more prominent role.
For young players, having stability and a clear idea of their role is integral to early success, and while Stevens has carved out time for Olynyk and Sully, he has had difficulty in other areas of roster management.
The 6-10 C’s have had some success in 2013-14, but they are far from a good team, and they may benefit from establishing a clear eight- or nine-man rotation going forward.
Obviously, I’m not trying to tell Stevens how to manage his rotation, since he knows more about basketball than I ever will, but with a healthy starting lineup of Crawford, Bradley, Green, Sullinger and Olynyk, it seems the best move for the bench would be to use Pressey, Bass, Wallace and Lee, with the rest receiving only garbage-time minutes.
This would give the C’s a chance to bolster the trade value of Bass, Wallace and Lee while also allowing some of their young players the opportunity to grow and mature on the court.
Faverani is a solid offensive player, but he needs to learn the nuances of NBA defense, while Humphries, even as an expiring deal, will not be able to fetch a first-rounder or anything of note in a trade.
This is far from a perfect rotation since this is far from a perfect team, but it is one idea to help the Celtics players gain some comfort and familiarity with their roles.