2013 was a weird year for the Boston Celtics.
In the span of one calendar year, the most successful franchise in league history lost its star point guard to an ACL tear, lost to the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, traded its two future-Hall of Fame forwards for draft picks and rotation players, replaced a championship head coach with a 36-year-old with no NBA experience and gave the keys of its offense to Jordan Crawford.
Despite all of that, the Celtics are actually in decent shape. They have one of the most exciting coaches in the game in wunderkind Brad Stevens and look well-positioned for the future thanks to the slew of draft picks they acquired from the Brooklyn Nets.
Even without Rajon Rondo, the C’s have managed to hold their own in a much weaker than expected Eastern Conference and could be in position to make the playoffs if the organization chooses to go that route.
They could also ship out a bunch of useful veteran rotation players and try to become a late entrant into the “Sorry for Jabari” sweepstakes.
Keeping in mind that this could be a team that spends 2014 playing to lose instead of to win, let’s look at six things we’d like to see from the Celtics in the new year.
The long two-pointer is not an efficient shot, but it is a huge part of the C's offense.
It’s obviously tough for the Celtics without a single dominant shot-creator, but one problem that plagued Boston in 2013 was its reliance on mid-range jump shots over drives to the basket.
The Big Three era C’s were also heavily reliant on the so-called least efficient shot in basketball, but it is very different when Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are jacking up 18-footers versus Avery Bradley, Crawford and Jeff Green.
Green attempts the most shots from the charity stripe at 4.5 per game, but that depends heavily on his aggression, which we’ll discuss later.
The C’s have capable mid-range gunners, including a lethal elbow shooter in Brandon Bass, a surprisingly effective scorer off of screens in Bradley and even Kris Humphries, who has been very efficient from the foul-line area.
Without Rondo, Boston lacks a player who can consistently create high-quality looks for the team, and in order to mitigate that, it needs every player capable of attacking the paint to do so.
Crawford’s herky-jerky dribble game allows him to get into the paint, but just 74 of the 351 shots he has attempted this season are within five feet of the hoop, per NBA.com.
As the analytics movement has shown, the best offenses revolve around either forays to the rim or three-pointers off of ball movement, and while the C’s are not afraid of taking threes, they need to embrace the going-to-the-hole aspect of the game.
Part of this is obviously a personnel issue, but the C’s could still shift their offensive philosophy and cut out some of the long two-pointers they are taking in 2014.
Passive play has long been a problem of Green's.
We’re all aware of Green’s athleticism and talent, but the combo forward has been pretty unimpressive in his first season as Boston’s first option offensively.
Green is at his best attacking the basket and using his size and handle to create mismatches with defenders, but the sixth-year man has been too content jacking up mid-range jumpers and three-pointers instead of driving the lane.
He’s shooting well from deep, 38.9 percent on the season, but hasn’t worked as hard to create shots off the dribble as he did while starting in 2012-13.
He is scoring a respectable 15.9 points per game, but on 44.5 percent shooting, a mark slightly below his career average.
The Celtics have used Green sometimes as a secondary playmaker and ball-handler, but despite his ability to log some minutes in the point forward role, he really has not made his teammates much better.
He’s averaging just 1.5 assists in 33.1 minutes per game and has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. Green also hasn’t recorded more than one assist in any of his last five games.
Obviously, Green is not going to be the versatile offensive force Pierce was, but his offense has been more one-dimensional than many anticipated.
He’s shooting just 33.9 percent as the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls and 38.5 percent on isolation plays, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Green was benched along with most of Boston’s starters in their New Year’s Eve tilt with the Atlanta Hawks, proving that Stevens was not satisfied with his performance and overall effort in the game.
He has the talent to turn things around, and the return of Rondo should help him get cleaner looks, but anyone banking on Green as a franchise cornerstone should be disappointed in his performance thus far.
Stevens has helped turn around Crawford's career, but he needs to get back to playing under control.
As the weeks go by, Crawford is looking less like the former Eastern Conference Player of the Week and more like the guy who played his way out of Washington thanks to his poor shooting and questionable decisions.
Crawford is averaging 13.6 points, 3.3 boards and 5.4 assists on 43 percent shooting overall and 34.4 percent from three, but he has struggled heading into 2014.
Over his last five games, Crawford is averaging 12.8 points and 5.2 dimes, but shooting just 36.5 percent from the field and 25 percent from beyond the arc.
He was ghastly in crunch time against Atlanta, relying too heavily on isolation, launching threes and not setting up the kinds of quality plays a team needs to win a one-possession game.
Crawford is still an improved playmaker, particularly in the pick-and-roll, shooting 45.9 percent, per Synergy Sports, and making the kinds of difficult reads he could never do successfully when handling the ball with the Hawks or Wizards.
While Stevens has done an excellent job of getting Crawford to look for open teammates and not go immediately into iso mode, there are still times when he brings the ball down the floor, attempts to fake a defender off his feet and then settles for a tough fadeaway jumper.
Crawford is still a volume shooter by nature and will attempt to take control of ballgames with his offense if his teammates are struggling, something that is not necessarily in the Celtics’ best interest.
Unless he catches fire from three, Crawford really should not be leading Boston in attempted field goals in any game, since the team has been at its best when he is looking to break down the defense and create open shots for Bass, Bradley and Green.
Crawford is an undeniably streaky player, so some midseason struggles were not exactly an unexpected thing, and once Rondo returns, the C’s won’t need him logging 30-plus minutes per game, but Boston needs more consistent play out of Crawford if it wants to stay in the playoff hunt for now.
Another Eastern Conference Player of the Week award certainly wouldn’t hurt either.
Wallace and Lee are two players Boston would likely love to trade if it found a partner.
Whether or not the Celtics fully embrace tanking for the 2014 draft, there is still something to be gained from making a trade that would open up more minutes for the team’s young players.
Kelly Olynyk finally had a breakout game against the Hawks, scoring 21 points, dishing out five assists and knocking down three three-pointers. The rookie is finally playing confident basketball and could use some more consistent playing time than he has been receiving recently.
Phil Pressey, despite his continued shooting woes, has had plenty of good moments as a playmaker, and there is a chance that with increased run, he could find some rhythm with his jumper.
Even a player like Bradley, who has been shooting well despite struggling against the Hawks, could respond well to an increased offensive burden.
Bass and Lee have been playing well, and Gerald Wallace has had his moments as an energy guy and perimeter defender off the bench, but they are all players who could make more of a difference on contenders than they likely will over the next year or two as Celtics.
Moving Wallace may be impossible given his dismal numbers and gaudy contract, but with Bass playing well and Lee shooting the ball extremely efficiently, there may be a team that views itself as one piece away that could part with a young asset or a draft pick for one of them.
Boston is not at the point where it should be shipping guys out for nothing just to decrease this season’s win total, but with a number of promising young players, it may be in the C’s’ long-term interests to ship out one of their veteran rotation players.
The Celts need to get Sullinger more touches in the paint, where he is most effective.
Jared Sullinger has had a breakout 2013-14 season, averaging 13.5 points, seven rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting 46.1 percent from the field.
Sully has improved his offensive game and is slowly adding a reliable mid-range jumper and three-pointer, but the Celtics need to do a better job going forward of getting him the ball down low where he can be most effective.
Too often, Sullinger catches the ball outside the three-point arc or simply too far away from the basket to do anything useful with it. That leads to him shooting either an ill-advised three or a mid-range jumper off the dribble.
On the year, Sully is shooting a solid 47.1 percent on post-ups, per Synergy Sports, and he has worked hard to make himself into a dominant player on the block.
His fadeaway jumper has improved, and he is capable of turning over both shoulders and using either hand as needed.
When he is not in the paint on offense, Sully also has fewer opportunities to snag offensive boards, and he is one of very few Celtics who can make an impact on the offensive glass.
Sullinger is averaging 2.2 offensive rebounds per game, but has the potential to improve on that if he spends more time down around the hoop. He has great timing and uses his body extremely well to box out and make up for his lack of height.
More touches in the paint would also help Sully get to the free-throw line, one of the few statistics Sullinger has not been particularly impressive in. He attempts just 2.4 free throws per game, and given his strength and ability to play in traffic, he should be getting to the line far more frequently.
The C’s are wisely trying to see if Sully can develop a three-point shot, and that would be a huge boost to their offense if he can become a 39 or 40 percent shooter from deep. But he is most effective around the basket and should be doing the bulk of his work as close to the rim as possible.
Sullinger is quite possibly Boston’s best young player, and it is troubling that the team does not get him the ball enough in his most effective positions.
Rondo's return is still shrouded in mystery.
This one really goes without saying.
As well as Crawford has played, the C’s point guard is unquestionably Rondo, and the team needs him back and fully healthy as soon as possible for a variety of reasons.
A clear timetable on Rondo’s return is still nonexistent, although The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn recently wrote that he may begin his season with the D-League’s Maine Red Claws before joining the Celtics.
While Rondo will inevitably need some time to find his rhythm and improve his conditioning, he is still clearly the best player on Boston’s roster and the only guy capable of raising the ceiling on the 2013-14 Celtics from also-ran status.
Even if the Celtics decide to trade Rondo and completely give up on the season, they need him to prove that he is healthy and playing hard before they start fielding offers.
Rondo is simply too good of a player to accept a 60-cents-on-the-dollar deal for, and that is likely what the C’s are going to get if they start entertaining trade scenarios while their superstar point guard sits on the bench in street clothes.
Of course, the best scenario for the Celtics and their fans would be for Rondo to buy into Stevens’ coaching philosophy and embrace becoming the leader of this transitioning team.
Let’s all make a new year’s wish that that proves to be the case in 2014.