Shooting and Shot-Blocking Headline Boston Celtics' Next Steps to Stardom
The Boston Celtics’ 2014-15 season didn’t exactly end gracefully, as Jae Crowder’s face and Kevin Love’s shoulder can corroborate. Still, it was an accomplishment to hang tough for four games with a team as talented as the Cleveland Cavaliers, and fans should walk away with their heads held high.
However, Boston now has the task of figuring out where to go from here. The team, as constructed, likely doesn’t have a championship-contender ceiling, but it also needs to worry about reading too much into one season and going for broke this summer.
The Celtics have a number of key decisions to make this offseason. They have some glaring holes on the floor, a few key pieces up for new contracts and renewed expectations after a 24-12 surge to end the year.
With nothing to do but look ahead to the future, let’s take a look at Boston’s five biggest priorities for this summer.
No. 5: Deal Gerald Wallace
After averaging 1.1 points, 1.8 rebounds and 0.3 assists in just 32 games during 2014-15, it’s safe to declare that Gerald Wallace’s NBA career is on its deathbed.
It’s a shame, because he was a truly magnificent athlete to watch in his prime, but as Wallace has lost his explosiveness, his overall game has deteriorated significantly.
Unfortunately, Wallace has one year and $10.1 million remaining on the gargantuan contract he received from the Brooklyn Nets.
It would certainly benefit Boston to move Wallace if it could; it would gain considerable cap flexibility and be able to not only chase talent, but also act as a trade facilitator with that extra room.
However, there should definitely be a limit on what the Celtics do to shed Wallace.
Per Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler, Boston would be willing to explore moving one of its myriad first-rounders in a deal that also got rid of Wallace.
Obviously, some of those picks are less valuable than others, but it still seems like a nonsensical move to sacrifice a long-term asset to get out of a deal that expires in 2016.
Unless the Celtics truly think they have the chance to sign multiple elite talents, they don’t need more than the roughly $20 million of cap room they will already have, and even if they re-sign all their free agents, they should still have money to burn.
Additionally, although he doesn’t see the court regularly, Wallace appears to have found a useful role. Brad Stevens praised him to ESPNBoston.com’s Chris Forsberg.
Forsberg writes, “Stevens has gushed about Wallace accepting his diminished on-court role and how Wallace takes pride in being a veteran voice on a young team.”
Expiring contracts don’t carry the same value in the league that they used to, and while Boston should jump on a good opportunity to move Wallace, it certainly shouldn’t hurt its future in doing so.
No. 4: Re-Sign Jae Crowder
Going purely off of the 2015 playoffs, Boston won the Rajon Rondo trade by a landslide.
Crowder, who took a beating against the Cavs, was terrific in the postseason. In addition to being the primary defender on James, he posted solid numbers across the board.
During 25 minutes per game, Crowder notched 10.8 points, five rebounds and two assists while drilling 51.7 percent of his shots. The 30 percent clip from three obviously could use work, but Crowder nailed a slew of tough jumpers and did a surprisingly consistent job of getting to the rim.
He isn’t elite at any one aspect of offense, but he’s a smart passer capable of keeping the ball moving fluidly, and he does a great job cutting along the baseline to get easy looks. Despite being just 6’6”, Crowder has the strength to guard the game’s more physical forwards at both positions, and he gives the team serious positional freedom.
A restricted free agent this offseason, Crowder has earned himself quite a bit of money on the open market. Per NESN’s Zack Cox, Boston should do everything possible to retain Crowder for not just his play on the court, but also his positive impact on the team’s culture.
He may never be a top-10 small forward or even a consistent starter, but Crowder was Boston’s best player at a weak position, and his emergence should absolutely make him an offseason priority.
No. 3: Snag an Emerging Talent at the 3
While keeping Crowder in green is important, the reality is that Boston needs to do more than just re-sign the 24-year-old to shore up the 3 spot.
Crowder hasn’t reached his ceiling, but there is plenty of quality talent available at small forward this summer, and Danny Ainge should do his due diligence and make some inquiries.
No, the Celtics aren’t going to come away with James, and they likely won’t pry Draymond Green from the Golden State Warriors, but there are still several intriguing players out there.
One option is Tobias Harris, coming off of a solid fourth year in the league. He averaged 17.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists on 46.6 percent shooting from the field and 36.4 percent from deep.
He’s a terrific athlete, a good finisher in traffic and the kind of versatile forward who could fit well in Stevens’ system. At 6’9”, he can also play some 4. And while there are definitely shades of Jeff Green in his inconsistent game, he’s only 22 years old and still has untapped potential.
Harris is a restricted free agent, but the Orlando Magic need to start thinking about their future cap flexibility and could prioritize players like Nikola Vucevic and Victor Oladipo over Harris. Plus, they have Aaron Gordon, who had some interesting moments in an injury-filled rookie season.
Khris Middleton, currently haunting the dreams of Chicago Bulls fans for his solid play in the postseason, is another option.
The 23-year-old sharpshooter averaged 13.4 points, 4.4 boards and 2.3 assists while connecting on 46.7 percent from the floor and 40.7 percent from distance. His percentages have sunk in the playoffs, but that’s because he’s getting tougher looks against an elite defensive team and also shouldering a bigger burden than he’s used to.
Middleton, praised for his two-way versatility by Sports Illustrated’s Ben Leibowitz, would slot well into the starting 3 position for the Celtics.
He’s great spotting up for jumpers and is a heady passer who could work well in the team’s offense. He’s more of a wing player than a frontcourt player, but as he gains weight, Boston might be able to get away with playing him at the 4 in ultra-small lineups.
He’s a great, rangy defender at the off-guard and small forward spots, and he could take some of the defensive burden off of Crowder, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. Like Harris, Middleton is a restricted free agent, but the Milwaukee Bucks already have Jabari Parker and may not be willing to shell out huge dollars for Middleton.
Other, less flashy options include DeMarre Carroll, who is essentially a more-polished Crowder, and Danny Green, an elite gunner who would be a huge boost for the Celts’ offense. Boston shouldn’t spend money just to spend money, but if it wants to splurge in free agency, it should consider doing so at small forward.
No. 2: Outside Shooting
Stevens’ system requires solid outside shooting, something Boston lacked overall, even with the acquisition of Isaiah Thomas. In the regular season, the C’s were 13th in three-point attempts at 24.6 but just 27th in percentage at 32.7.
Players like Crowder and Bradley can hit open threes on occasion, but Boston lacks a consistent, high-volume three-point gunner who commands the respect of defenses even when he’s having an off game.
The Celtics run a pace-and-space offense that allows playmakers to get open driving lanes as long as they have shooters giving them room to work. Boston has tried to compensate for its lack of shooting on the perimeter with big men like Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk who can stretch the floor, but they’re both inconsistent from three.
While the team can hope for internal improvements from Sully, Olynyk and Smart, it makes more sense to use some of its copious cap space to add a marksman or two. Even though shooting is more valuable now than ever, there are still plenty of players in the league capable of stroking it from deep, and this is a need Boston should be able to address without breaking the bank.
Cheaper options include Gary Neal (38.1 percent career from deep), Jared Dudley (39.6 percent career) or Chase Budinger (35.8 percent career).
If the Celts are willing to splurge a little on outside shooting, they could pursue more versatile talents like Green, Wesley Matthews or prodigal son Gerald Green. They would all cost a little more, but the C’s need to address this issue before they can take a step forward, and it may be worth the extra money ultimately.
No. 1: Rim Protection
More than any other facet of the game, this is why the Celtics had no chance against Cleveland. James and Kyrie Irving were able to get open looks at the rim off the pick-and-roll time and time again, and Boston had no one to contain them.
Boston’s big man rotation is talented offensively but largely ineffective on the defensive end. Per TeamRankings.com, Boston was 25th in points allowed in the paint during the regular season at 44.2. It has strong perimeter defense, but once opponents were able to neutralize Smart and Bradley off the pick-and-roll, they could pretty much do as they pleased.
Brandon Bass is a good post protector, but he could leave this summer, and he doesn’t do much above the rim. Sully and Olynyk are both poor defenders, and Tyler Zeller was exposed defensively against Cleveland.
Unfortunately, finding shot blocking is not an easy task, and it may be something Boston ultimately needs to do through the draft.
DeAndre Jordan had a terrific season and held opponents to just 48.5 percent shooting at the rim, per NBA.com. He’s worth a max offer, but if the Los Angeles Clippers have a deep playoff run, it is hard to see him jumping ship for a rebuilding Boston squad.
Roy Hibbert is another option who had a splendid year protecting the basket. Opponents shot just 42.6 percent against him at the hoop, an elite number by all accounts. However, there is no guarantee he would come to Boston, either, and his offensive game wouldn’t fit well with the C’s.
The Celtics could turn to the draft for a center, although they may need to trade up for someone like Kentucky defensive stalwart Willie Cauley-Stein.
Whichever way Boston decides to go about it, there should be no debate that the team’s most glaring offseason need is to improve at protecting the basket.