Biggest Surprises and Disappointments for Boston Celtics

Grant Rindner@grantrindnerContributor IIIDecember 23, 2014

Biggest Surprises and Disappointments for Boston Celtics

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    Say what you will about the Boston Celtics' 10-15 start to the season, but it has been anything but boring.

    Between the break-neck pace of the new offense, the stellar play of Marcus Smart and the C's repeated clutch struggles, there has been plenty for fans to watch even as the team stands at the bottom of a shaky Eastern Conference.

    Oh, and there's that whole Rajon Rondo trade business too.

    Now that we're two months into the season, it is safe to say we have a solid handle on the C's, although the recent blockbuster trade could certainly change some of our perceptions going forward.

    The C's may well wind up being in the lottery once more, but they are absolutely one of the more compelling such teams in the league.

Disappointment: The Haul for Rondo

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    In case you’ve been in a sensory deprivation tank for the last week, the Celtics dealt Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks for a largely underwhelming package. 

    Rondo had been dangling on the trade market for long enough that Boston was never going to get full value for the All-Star, but the Mavs deal didn’t even meet diminished expectations.

    When it was all said and done, the Celts ended up with Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, plus a first- and second-round draft pick.

    Nelson and the Celts are having “preliminary discussions about his future role,” per RealGM’s Shams Charania, indicating that a buyout could be possible.

    Crowder and Wright have potential, but both never cracked more than role-player status in their time with Dallas.

    Wright is averaging 8.7 points on absurd 74.3 percent shooting, but it remains to be seen how much of that was a product of Rick Carlisle’s offense. 

    Additionally, there’s no way he keeps up his 25.89 PER if Brad Stevens ratchets his minutes up into the 28-32 per-game range.

    He should at least help defensively, where he managed to average 1.5 blocks in just 18.5 minutes per game. 

    Crowder is a decent defender, but he hits just 33.3 percent of his three-pointers and isn’t a great fit on this roster loaded with wing players.

    If Jeff Green is dealt, Crowder could get an extended look, but there’s no guarantee that happens.

    Perhaps worst of all, there’s a chance both young players are gone from Boston in 2015-16.

    Crowder is a restricted free agent so it’s less likely, but Wright could bolt next summer if he so chooses.

    And for as much as the league values additional draft picks, it’s unlikely Boston finds a huge talent at the tail end of the first round.

    All in all, even if Rondo never returns to peak form, this trade was a big disappointment for the C’s.

Surprise: Tyler Zeller, with or Without Rondo

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    After being a bit player with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Tyler Zeller has come out of his shell with Boston.

    The 7-footer is averaging 9.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists while shooting 64.8 percent from the field in 19 minutes per game.

    He’s played so well he stole the starting center spot from Kelly Olynyk, where he’s now notching 12.3 points, 7.3 boards and 1.2 blocks each night. 

    Zeller doesn’t have tremendous upside, and he can’t shoot like Jared Sullinger or Olynyk, but he’s consistent and excels in his role. 

    Few bigs run the floor as well as Zeller, and he has great hands for making tough catches in traffic. 

    He’ll hit mid-range jumpers when left open, and Zeller is probably the best pick-and-roll big man on Boston’s roster. 

    He isn’t an elite defender, but opponents are shooting just 47.5 percent against him at the rim, per NBA.com.

    While many believed it was Rondo who was making Zeller into a standout, the center has continued to excel with him in Dallas.

    He has scored 36 points on 17-of-24 shooting and snagged 12 rebounds in the two game’s since Rondo was dealt.

    Though Boston’s roster is undeniably in flux, it’s safe to say it's found a real keeper in Zeller.

Disappointment: Pick-and-Roll Defense

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Despite having several capable perimeter defenders, the C’s defense has been poor all season, especially so in the pick-and-roll.

    Smart has an uncanny ability to navigate screens without getting picked off, but the same can’t be said for the rest of Boston’s guards. 

    Avery Bradley is not nearly as good at pick-and-roll defense as he is in the half court, while Marcus Thornton and Phil Pressey are defensive liabilities due to their size.

    None of the big men are elite rim protectors, so when a guard gets into the paint, they can generally get a quality look at the basket. 

    It’s one of the reasons the C’s are giving up a 17.3 PER to opposing point guards and a 19.4 PER to centers this season, per 82games.

    Zeller, Olynyk, and Sullinger are all uncomfortable switching out to cover opposing guards, and none of them are quick enough to deny penetration.

    Olynyk is particularly bad, picking up fouls at an insane rate and doing too much reaching.

    Rondo isn’t the elite defender he once was so his absence may actually help the C’s defense, and Wright’s athleticism should allow him to corral opposing guards and protect the rim, but pick-and-roll coverage should remain a problem for the rest of 2014-15.

Surprise: Evan Turner the Point Guard

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    USA TODAY Sports

    With Smart sidelined by an ankle injury and Pressey not playing well enough to command heavy minutes, Stevens turned to Evan Turner as primarily ball-handler for stretches, and it proved to be a savvy move.

    While Turner has been maligned in his career for his lazy defense and questionable shot selection, there’s no denying his passing instincts.

    For the season, Turner is averaging nine points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting a solid 47.7 percent from the field. 

    At 6’7”, Turner has the ability to see over opposing defenses, and he does a decent job making reads out of the pick-and-roll. 

    He also has the ability to push the ball in transition and get the opposing defense on its heels in order to create high-percentage looks.

    The athletic swingman is now second on the team in assist percentage at 21.1 according to Basketball-Reference.com, trailing only Pressey.

    Turner didn’t start against the Miami Heat, and he’s likely to go back to a bench role as Smart grows comfortable starting, but the 26-year-old certainly provides nice depth. 

    If Green winds up being traded, expect to see Turner’s minutes balloon and his facilitating role grow even more.

Disappointment: Late-Game Execution

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    USA TODAY Sports

    By now Boston’s difficulties closing out contests are pretty well known, and the team’s 3-9 record in games decided by seven or less points clearly speaks to that.

    The C’s aren’t a supremely talented team, but they execute wel- enough throughout the first three quarters to stay competitive in most games.

    However, when it comes down to the final handful of possessions, the Celts struggle to get quality looks, which should only get worse with Rondo gone.

    Stevens’ offense works best when Boston can push the pace and get quick looks, something that happens less when the game slows down and teams are looking to work the clock. 

    Usually the Celts settle for long, contested jump shots instead of driving to the basket when it’s crunch time.

    According to NBA.com, Boston shoots just 37.5 percent in the clutch, which ranks among the worst marks in the league.

    Because the C’s lack a consistent post threat or an elite one-on-one scorer, they have trouble generating the kinds of late-game looks teams like the Mavericks or Golden State Warriors do consistently. 

    Now without a veteran ball-handler, the ball will likely find its way to the younger Celtics, who are still learning how to pull out close games.

    All that being said, if the C’s wind up going into the tank there may not be many close games left to worry about.

Surprise: Jared Sullinger's Shooting

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    Randy Belice/Getty Images

    Sullinger shot plenty of threes in 2013-14, but his attempts from distance were more of a liability than an asset back then.

    This season, he has made significant strides and is now a legitimate threat from outside.

    He’s hitting a respectable 41.7 percent of his jumpers from 16-23 feet, and his three-point percentage has improved to 36.7, per Basketball-Reference.com. 

    Overall, Sully is scoring 13.6 points per game and hitting 45.9 percent of his shots overall. 

    That’s a significant improvement from his ghastly 42.7 percent clip as a sophomore.

    He isn’t much of a corner shooter, but he can fill it up from straightaway and on the wings.

    With his improved shooting, Sullinger not only opens up the floor for his teammates but also himself. 

    The threat of Sully outside gives him the ability to pump fake and drive where he has a nice touch and in-between game.

    He can also function better in pick-and-rolls now as he has the added threat of popping out for a mid-range jump shot in addition to rolling hard to the basket.

    Now that Rondo is gone, some of those easy three-point shots will be harder to come by, but Sully has proved this season that he is capable of getting and hitting those shots. 

    Sure, he is going to have a few cold streaks here and there, but Sullinger’s improvement from deep has been a positive storyline for the C’s in a somewhat grim season.

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