Searching for Positives in Boston Celtics' Slogging Season
All good things must come to an end. For the Boston Celtics, it's about to be their six-season steak of avoiding the lottery.
The Celtics will not make the playoffs this season. They're 19-37 with the NBA's fourth-worst offense, fifth-lowest winning percentage and seventh-lowest net rating. The roster is mostly composed of below-average talent, with no true center and, before Rajon Rondo returned from injury, no capable point guard.
In short, they are not good. But that doesn't mean the team is void of optimism. Boston is rebuilding in the smartest way possible: The team is loaded with first-round draft picks, a few skilled youngsters and cap flexibility.
Let's take a look at a few other reasons why the Celtics shouldn't sweat their struggles this season. These points are ranked by what's most likely to facilitate a brighter future.
Note: Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.
5. Defense, Defense, Defense
Boston's offense has been an embarrassment this season, but on the other side of the floor, the Celtics have made do with little resources at hand.
Despite not having any true center or source of rim protection, after 55 games, they have a league-average defense and are better on that end than the defending champion Miami Heat. Boston is holding opponents to 35.2 percent on corner threes, which is tied with the Indiana Pacers for fifth best in the league.
Opponents are also shooting just 58.9 percent in the restricted area—an incredible number considering the Celtics regularly deploy Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries at center. That's better than the Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies or New York Knicks and ranks in the top 10.
Head coach Brad Stevens has instructed his big men to sag back when defending the pick-and-roll, which stifles penetration and keeps ball-handlers out of the paint. It's a huge positive moving forward.
4. Increased Flexibility
The Celtics entered the season with several contracts on their cap sheet that they had no use for. On Jan. 5, they dumped Courtney Lee's contract onto the Memphis Grizzlies for Jerryd Bayless' expiring deal. This trade opened up approximately $11.1 million over the next two seasons.
In a different deal—one that actually added money to Boston's books next season—the Celtics traded Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks to the Golden State Warriors in a three-team deal that brought Joel Anthony and his $3.8 million player option in 2014-15 aboard.
But in addition to Anthony's cap-clogging salary, Boston also acquired two draft picks, helping maintain its flexibility on the trade front. These two trades are smart and keep several options open as Boston strives to acquire more talent in the coming years.
However, Boston was unable to move Brandon Bass, Jeff Green or Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline, who all have long-term contracts, which made Lee's departure all the more significant.
3. Jared Sullinger's Development
In less than two years, Jared Sullinger went from red-flagged question mark to blue-chip prospect. Behind Rajon Rondo, he’s unquestionably the best player in Boston and has proved capable of positively impacting several areas.
He is a smart forward who understands defensive rotations, when to pass and when to shoot. Relative to others at the same position, his jumper is impressive and improving (42 percent from the mid-range, an above-average clip).
Before his 22nd birthday, he’s already one of the world’s best rebounders, grabbing 13.6 percent of Boston's missed shots when on the floor (good for the fourth highest offensive rebound rate in the league).
Sullinger was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week earlier this month, and in February he’s averaging 15.7 points (on 48 percent shooting from the floor) and 10.8 rebounds per game.
His percentage of unassisted baskets hints at the development of his offensive game. Sullinger sits at 47 percent.
He works for his own points, be they off an offensive rebound or down low in the post. This independent production is magnificent for someone with less than 50 starts in his career.
Next season, he'll only be better.
2. The Lottery
The lottery is a bright light at the end of this awful season's dark tunnel. By all accounts, this draft class is deep and loaded with winning talent, if not a few franchise-altering prospects.
Not only do the Celtics have their own high pick, but they also have the lower selection between Atlanta and Brooklyn (the Hawks have the right to swap, should their regular-season record wind up better than Brooklyn's).
As of Feb. 22, the Hawks are 25-29 with an eight-game losing streak. With its best player Al Horford still out the rest of the year, Atlanta is in danger of falling into the lottery. This would mean Boston takes Brooklyn's pick, a team that is not exactly destroying its competition.
The Nets are below .500 and only two games better than Atlanta in the loss column. In the rare chance both teams miss the postseason—the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers sit five and seven games behind the Nets, respectively—Boston would have two lottery picks.
That would be an opportunity to turn the future around in a single draft.
1. Keeping Rajon Rondo
It’s a shame that a player of Rajon Rondo’s caliber keeps popping up in trade rumors. But alas, there he was again, a supposed target of the Houston Rockets earlier this week, per ESPN. Whether you believe Danny Ainge overvalues Rondo is beside the point. He’s a four-time All-Star and franchise cornerstone in his prime.
Those don’t grow on trees.
He is the exact type of player the Celtics need if they’re to facilitate a smooth rebuild. Moving him to receive assets is unnecessary because the team already has plenty of draft picks and a couple of young building blocks on the roster.
What Boston needs is All-Star-caliber talent and that's what Rondo is. He’s averaging 13.7 points, 9.7 assists and 6.3 rebounds in February—numbers no player in the league is capable of producing on a nightly basis. Subtracting him from the equation for the sake of “wiping the slate clean” makes little sense at this point.
Building with Rondo is a smarter strategy than starting over without him. That Boston (up to this point) has decided to do so is wonderful news.