Boston Celtics' Biggest Needs Heading into 2016-17 NBA Trade Deadline
After a slow start out of the gate, the Boston Celtics have begun separating themselves from the playoff pack in the Eastern Conference.
The impressive stretch has kept the locker room upbeat, but All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas knows there is still work to do.
"We're feeling good about ourselves, but we're nowhere near where we want to be. We're moving in the right direction," he said.
Boston's stellar play has not covered up the fact that this team still has major holes. With ample young players and future draft picks at the disposal of general manager Danny Ainge, opposing teams will surely give the Celtics a call and try to get them to part with some valuable pieces of their future before the Feb. 23 trade deadline.
Here are a few areas the team would be wise to address in those conversations.
The Celtics expected to have a top-five defense this year, but they've spent the majority of the season ranked in the bottom half of the league in defensive efficiency. Their biggest problem on that end? An inability to prevent second-chance opportunities for opponents, according to head coach Brad Stevens.
"Our first-shot defense—even as I go throughout the year now, and I've really started to break down where we are defensively and why we are there and everything else—our first shots that we're allowing, I feel pretty good about. We have to shore up the rebounding somehow," Stevens said.
The Celtics lost their top rebounder (Jared Sullinger) and a rebounding wing with size (Evan Turner) in free agency and have failed to adequately replace their contributions over the first three-plus months of the season.
The end result has been a 74.9 defensive rebounding percentage, which ranks 28th in the league. Boston is also surrendering 13.9 second-chance points per game, the fifth-most in the NBA.
A pair of undersized big men in Al Horford (6'10") and Amir Johnson (6'9"), whose rebounding numbers are declining, have left Boston exposed in the paint on a nightly basis. Boston's best rebounding big man (Tyler Zeller) has fallen out of the rotation since Stevens elected to go small with his lineups, further magnifying an issue. Stevens admits it's an area that the team might need help in from a personnel standpoint.
"It's a good question," Stevens said when asked about adding a rebounder. "From my standpoint, from my seat, I look at how can we block out a little bit better, how can we pursue the ball a little bit better. How can we rotate guys a little bit better to have better matchups, whatever the case may be.
"Do we need to switch more, even though we're switching a lot? Because that keeps the ball in front of you and lets you block out at the very least. But I've said it all year, we're not going to win many rebounding battles. If we can manage it, then we have a chance to win."
Adding a strong rebounder like Kyle O'Quinn, Nerlens Noel or Jeff Withey could do wonders for the Celtics in the final two months of the season as they try to manage those battles.
4. Wing Depth
Injuries to Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown and Jae Crowder have forced the Celtics to lean on the likes of Gerald Green, Terry Rozier and James Young for significant stretches of the 2016-17 season.
Crowder is healthy now, but Bradley has missed 12 straight games with a sore Achilles. The recovery timetables for Bradley and Brown (strained hip) remain uncertain.
Those question marks put the Celtics' wing depth in a precarious position heading into the homestretch of the regular season. Rozier has shown promise but is undersized at 6'2'' and is shooting just 37 percent from the field.
Green's a streaky shooter who remains a major defensive liability at age 31. He has the worst defensive rating on the entire roster and is an easy target for opponents to attack when he's in the game for extended minutes.
Young has played some of the best basketball of his career in the past three games, but he's still an unreliable option. He's been out of the rotation for more than half of the season and barely made the final roster over R.J. Hunter in training camp. The Celtics also declined his fourth-year rookie option in October, another indication of their lack of trust in him.
None of those players are particularly appealing options for Stevens, so looking for a two-way wing should be a top priority for Ainge. A strong defender like P.J. Tucker in Phoenix could be an ideal target to take an onus off Crowder. Nick Young, at 6'7", is a guard with size who wouldn't cost the Celtics many assets and help the second unit spread the floor with his 41.7 percent three-point shooting.
3. A Bench Playmaker
Isaiah Thomas has transformed into one of the NBA's best playmakers in the first half of the 2016-17 season.
The 5'9" point guard ranks seventh in the league with 8.7 free-throw attempts per game, but his supporting cast presents a problem: No one else gets to the charity stripe with any kind of regularity. Marcus Smart ranks second on the roster averaging 2.7 per game.
"We don't have a lot of guys that have historically gotten to the line," Stevens explained earlier this season. "It's not going to be a team that is going to get to the line as much as some others probably. Certainly Isaiah, and he gets to the line a lot, probably carries the majority of our load right now."
A high-powered Celtics offense has gotten away without a second playmaker for the first 56 games of the year, but it's a flaw that will surely become magnified as the postseason approaches. Smart opponents are going to key in on Thomas, and Stevens lacks a reliable option to create offense on nights when perimeter jumpers aren't falling.
A look in the Western Conference finds a few players that could check this box for the Celtics. Lou Williams is on an affordable contract for the Los Angeles Lakers and averages 18.5 points per game off the bench. Danilo Gallinari averages 6.0 free-throw attempts per game for the Denver Nuggets and would fit well within Boston's pace-and-space offense. Teammate Will Barton (13.8 points per game) also could be available if the Nuggets look to consolidate their young crowded backcourt.
One way or another, the Celtics need to find a spark plug for when their offense stalls. They are best served looking outside of their current roster for one.
2. A True Center
The Celtics arguably only have one true center on the roster right now (Tyler Zeller), and he's been a borderline rotation piece for much of the season, averaging a mere 12 minutes per game in 33 contests. Boston's starting 5 is Amir Johnson and, like the majority of the team's big men, is undersized at 6'9".
Al Horford (6'10") and Kelly Olynyk (7'0") both spend some time at the center spot as well, but neither has the bulk to handle some of the formidable rebounding bigs with size in the Eastern Conference (Jonas Valanciunas, Dwight Howard, Marcin Gortat, Robin Lopez) that the Celtics could see in the postseason.
Given the possibility that Boston could see any combination of seven 7-footers in the first two rounds of the playoffs, it should protect itself against a major size mismatch. The league is flush with capable big men in both conferences, and Ainge should try to find an additional rim protector who won't leave the backline exposed.
A number of Western Conference centers who are playing for non-playoff teams (Tyson Chandler, Andrew Bogut, Kosta Koufos) could likely be had for a limited return in assets.
Chandler's rebounding and defensive IQ make him a terrific fit, but his bloated contract ($39 million through 2018-19) may be enough to deter the Celtics from making a play for him. If so, an expiring contract (Bogut) or reasonable deal (Koufos earns $8 million in 2016-17) would do the trick.
1. Another Star
Few teams have the necessary assets to make a run at a star player like Jimmy Butler or Paul George via trade. The Boston Celtics are one of the best-positioned suitors, flush with assets in the form of young promising players (Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart) and future draft picks.
Boston's current roster is just 2.5 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but Danny Ainge is under no illusions about his team's chances of becoming a championship contender.
"I have a great deal of respect for the teams in this league," Ainge told 98.5 The Sports Hub last week. "Golden State is one of the best I've seen in a long time. I think that's going to be very challenging but very possible. I believe in miracles.”
A core of Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford is probably not enough to get the Celtics past the Cleveland Cavaliers, but adding another All-Star such as Butler or George would close the gap between the two squads considerably. Unlike other teams, the Celtics would not have to tear apart their core to acquire a big name (if one becomes available) since they could include a 2017 first-round pick swap with the Brooklyn Nets as well as a 2018 unprotected Nets first-round pick in any potential package.
Blockbuster deals involving stars rarely occur during the regular season, but Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reported last week that Boston had its eyes on Butler and George. If the Chicago Bulls or Indiana Pacers decide they want to hit the reset button on their underwhelming seasons in the next week, you can bet the Celtics will be there waiting with a compelling offer for either star.