While we’re all caught up in the Boston Celtics’ unexpected playoff push (Banner 18, here we come), it’s important to remember this team is still very much a work in progress.
Though the Celts could very well ride newcomer Isaiah Thomas and Brad Stevens’ stellar coaching to a No. 7 or 8 seed, the franchise is not going to suddenly reemerge as a contender without some offseason action.
Boston has a number of holes it could choose to address either through the draft or free agency, depending on the intentions of the front office and the offseason landscape.
With the 2014-15 season winding down and fans focused on the potential postseason berth, let’s take a moment to exam the bigger picture and four major areas Boston needs to address in the summer.
Brandan Wright clearly wasn’t the answer, and though Tyler Zeller has had some nice moments starting at center, he doesn’t provide the above-the-rim defense the Celts sorely need.
Boston has gone from being a dreadful rebounding team to a competent squad on the glass, but it is still lacking a shot-blocker that can protect the paint.
The perimeter should be solid for the foreseeable future, even if Thomas’ size makes him somewhat of a liability, but opponents have the ability to get quality looks at the rim if they can elude the guards.
The C's rank dead last in the league at 3.8 blocks per game, and more advanced numbers back up the team’s futility at guarding the hoop.
The guards typically do a good job of denying the initial penetration, but when opponents get free off the pick-and-roll, they can generate clean looks at the hoop.
Boston doesn’t need to be an elite defense to become a playoff threat, but it has to improve on its 101.7 points allowed per game, good for 24th in the NBA.
The C's have plenty of skilled bigs, but none of them have the athleticism or timing to anchor the middle of Boston’s defense. Depending on whether the team makes the playoffs, it has several ways of addressing this issue.
It could look to draft a center like Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein or Texas’ Myles Turner and hope the finesse aspects of their games develop, or it could throw money in free agency at a player like DeAndre Jordan, Roy Hibbert or Omer Asik.
Whichever way Boston decides to go, the franchise has been lacking a true trim protector for years and needs to make acquiring one a top priority this offseason.
Starting Small Forward
Evan Turner has played well as a point forward, and Jae Crowder has the grit and defensive discipline to thrive in rotation minutes, but the C’s need a more all-around small forward who can grow alongside the young core.
The team’s recent strong play may have taken it out of the running for athletic Arizona freshman Stanley Johnson, but if it chooses to go the draft route, it could still end up with talents like Kansas’ Kelly Oubre or UCLA’s Kevon Looney.
If Thomas is a long-term fit, the C’s may not need a small forward who can be a first option scorer, but a player capable of attacking and creating off the dribble would be an improvement.
The problem with Crowder and Turner is that they are clearly limited players who can be exploited by savvy opponents.
Turner has shined as a playmaker, averaging 8.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists in 2014-15, but he’s a limited shooter and at times a questionable decision-maker.
Good defenses will dare him to hoist shots from beyond his comfortable range or crowd him into attempting risky passes. Boston should absolutely keep him around, but he isn’t the answer long term.
Crowder is a good defender, particularly at the 3, and he’s proven to be a decent passer, but he doesn’t have much of a three-point shot and cannot consistently create off the dribble.
If the Celts choose to explore free agency, they could attempt to lure Kawhi Leonard with a max offer, but more likely chase athletic, skilled prospects like Khris Middleton or Tobias Harris who can provide a consistent offensive spark.
Boston has scraped by this season at the 3 since dealing Jeff Green, but they need a more consistent two-way player for the future.
Wing Three-Point Shooting
Not including Smart's occasional three-point barrage, Boston has a serious lack of shooting on the wing that is keeping it from executing Stevens’ system at the highest level.
Bradley can hit when he’s open, but he still connects on just 35.7 percent of his triples, and we’ve already touched on the long-distance struggles of Crowder and Turner.
The addition of Thomas helped, as he is unafraid to launch from deep, but a large number of his threes come in transition or off the dribble. These are helpful, but they don’t provide the same system spacing that having lights-out shooters dotting the perimeter does.
Both Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger are unafraid to launch threes, but neither are good-enough options who can alleviate the need for improvements on the wing.
Stevens’ offense very much fits the contemporary pace-and-space idea, but the C’s simply lack the elite shooters to make it as potent as possible.
As a team, Boston is 12th in three-point attempts at 24.6, but just 23rd in percentage at 33.3. That gap has led to some grizzly shooting nights when the team collectively cannot find the mark.
Players like Smart and Sullinger will continue to improve as marksmen, but at this point the front office should be focused on looking externally to help deal with this problem.
The team's 2014-15 shot chart (below), illustrates its continued struggles to connect from the perimeter.
Boston could use the Los Angeles Clippers’ first-rounder to draft a gunner like Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, who shot 37.1 percent on 7.3 three-point attempts this season.
Another option is Georgia State’s R.J. Hunter. His efficiency has dropped as a junior, but he hit 39.5 percent of his 7.7 attempted triples during his sophomore campaign.
The good thing about adding shooters is that there are usually plenty available in free agency, and even though the league now values spacing more than ever, they can still be had at a fair price.
Pieces like Gary Neal, Louis Williams and Kyle Singler are all marksmen from the perimeter who could be acquired on reasonable deals and make an impact right away.
The fact Boston is 13th in points per game (101.0) with such ghastly spacing is a testament to Stevens’ success, but it could easily become an elite scoring unit with the right shooters.
The Celts have plenty of talented bigs on their roster, but the problem is they don’t have much balance in the frontcourt.
Sully, Olynyk and Brandon Bass are all capable of logging some minutes at the 5, but they’re more naturally suited for the 4 due to their jump-shooting tendencies.
Both Olynyk and Bass are unreliable rebounders, and while Sully can mix it up down low, he’s listed at just 6’9” and has historically struggled to defend centers.
Per 82games, he’s allowing a 19.9 PER to centers, compared to a more modest 16.2 PER for power forwards.
The only pure center on the Celtics’ roster is Zeller, but while he’s mobile on offense, he isn’t an elite rebounder and doesn’t have the strength to guard the league’s more physical 5s on the block.
In order to fix this problem, Danny Ainge and the front office need to work to create more balance in the frontcourt going forward.
That could come through the draft, or allowing Bass to walk and replacing him with someone more comfortable at the 5.
Assuming Sullinger comes back healthy, Olynyk continues to grow and Zeller’s excellent play is not a fluke, the C’s will have a crowded frontcourt rotation, and they need to make each roster spot count as much as possible.