The feisty Boston Celtics can be relied upon to challenge any team in the league, but they are also prone to sloppy stretches. As they continue to zig-zag through the Eastern Conference standings, unsolved concerns linger.
A defense-first mentality, paired with a seemingly endless energy reserve and an inclination to constantly push the pace, is what makes Boston such a nagging matchup. While that's a promising starting point for a young team, the Celtics still tend to look disheveled and indecisive when games slow down.
Those struggles are to be expected without clear superstar talent. Isaiah Thomas has grown into a serious All-Star contender, but the Celtics look shaky when he isn't on point. Opponents are starting to allocate more resources toward slowing him down, and that tends to put Boston in a funk.
The Feb. 18 trade deadline is nearing, and the Celtics could address some of their issues by exploring the market. Before shaking things up, Boston's primary concern should be its current path, which is ambiguous to say the least. Weighing expectations versus the value of actively pursuing big deals is essential.
Figuring Out a Direction
Most can probably agree the Celtics' rebuild has gone far better than anticipated. Just two seasons after waving goodbye to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in a blockbuster trade, Boston has accumulated plenty of first-round draft picks, assembled a young group of talented players and is in the playoff race for a second straight year.
But that type of an accelerated rebuild has put the Celtics in a precarious situation. Boston is good enough to cause some upsets in the East, which makes it tempting to seek immediate reinforcements. On the flip side, it's difficult to imagine a realistic trade scenario that would boost this team into title contention this season.
A strong case can be made for general manager Danny Ainge simply standing pat, in hope the team makes the playoffs and the young players continue to develop.
Kelly Olynyk has shown flashes of brilliance with increased playing time, while rookies R.J. Hunter and Terry Rozier have some upside. Then there is Jordan Mickey, perhaps the most exciting prospect of the bunch, who has been stashed in D-League due to Boston's crowded frontcourt.
Making smaller moves in order to free up playing time for the young guns could be a viable long-term strategy.
It's important to remember Boston has the Brooklyn Nets' 2016 first-round pick, which projects to be at least a top-five selection. The Celtics are extremely unlikely to part with such an asset unless a superstar becomes available, which provides further incentive to ride the season out and re-evaluate during the summer.
Boston can simply allow its core to grow and use the Nets' pick to draft a potential franchise player. Such a path requires patience, but it could be the safest way back to title contention.
Alleviating the Frontcourt Logjam
Having a regular rotation is important in the NBA, and that becomes even more clear as the postseason nears. Head coach Brad Stevens, who tried to keep all of his big men happy at the beginning of the year, has slowly come to terms with that.
Boston has opted to run a healthy dose of small ball lately, with both Jonas Jerebko and Jae Crowder sliding into the power forward spot. The increased mobility those lineups possess has been a joy to watch, and it allows the Celtics to switch the pick-and-roll, double-team and rotate all over the court in pristine fashion.
Those positive results have further exposed the excess of big men on Boston's roster. David Lee has appeared in just two games during January, while Tyler Zeller's minutes have been sporadic all year.
Moving at least one of them should be a priority regardless of the estimated return. Mickey, who is averaging 17.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per game in D-League this season, has been itching to prove his worth, and Stevens has admitted his curiosity, per Chris Forsberg of ESPN:
I’m really curious, but we do have a [frontcourt] logjam. That’s the reality of our situation. And, to his credit, he’s made the most of it by staying in a rhythm by playing up there and I think he’s done a lot of good things. Some things that will really be able to translate, I think. And some things that he just needs to continue to improve upon. He’s closer to ready than ever before because of his continued work.
Earning consistent playing time wouldn't be easy for Mickey—even if Boston got rid of both Lee and Zeller—but at least the rookie would have a legitimate chance to gather experience.
Conversely, it wouldn't make sense for Boston to simply dump players for nothing just to open up minutes for an unproven rookie. If the Celtics have an intention to aggressively shop Lee and Zeller, they should look for a specific return in order to cover up some other flaws.
Adding More Scoring
Boston has statistically been the second-best defensive team in the league this season, allowing 98.9 points per 100 possessions, per ESPN's Hollinger stats. The big issue has been the offense, especially against diligent opponents who get back in transition.
Stevens has figured out internal solutions in order to spark and improve his offense since the beginning of the year.
Thomas and Avery Bradley have both been excellent in creating shots, while Marcus Smart's enhanced arsenal isn't as big of a liability anymore. When teams rightfully abandon Smart on the perimeter, he aggressively pursues backdoor cuts and the Celtics keep him involved with funky plays like the one below:
It's an interesting high double-screening action, and Smart has become increasingly more dangerous when involved in similar sets. He has also shown off an improved floater in the paint opponents willingly surrender.
Boston has scored 104.5 points per 100 possessions in January, per NBA.com, which would rank seventh in the league this season. Those numbers offer cautious optimism, and they can partially be attributed to the Celtics' increased exposure to small ball: Olynyk, Jerebko and Crowder have all spent time at power forward and their three-point shooting has been phenomenal:
|3P% in Jan.||51.1||42.2||39.1|
There's some legitimate improvement here, but the hot-streak from beyond the arc isn't sustainable and is skewing the figures over a limited sample size. Even with the recent surge, the Celtics remain below-average in offensive efficiency during 2015-16.
Boston doesn't necessarily need another ball-dominant wing, but an accurate and mobile three-point shooter could do wonders.
A player like Kevin Martin would be an interesting fit. He can dart around screens and punish off-balance defenders as a secondary driver. Moving a frontcourt player for a low-maintenance wing scorer who is easy to fit in would certainly bring greater balance to Boston's roster.
All statistics are accurate as of January 25.
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