The Boston Celtics' regular season hasn't quite begun as expected. The team is off to a 2-3 start and has some glaring issues to address.
Boston enters the season with a promising young core, some intriguing perimeter defense, mobility and a healthy dose of shooting. Unfortunately, things haven't quite clicked, especially on the offensive end.
The Celtics are currently putting up 98.3 points per 100 possessions, ranking 22nd in the league, per ESPN Hollinger stats. That mark would've ranked 27th last season. On the flip side, Boston statistically has the sixth-best defense through five games.
These figures need to be taken with a grain of salt due to the small sample size. The Celtics haven't quite defended as well as the numbers suggest, nor does the offense look like a lost cause. Even so, the eye test does raise some legitimate question marks.
Boston ranked 20th offensively last season. The hope heading into the year was that this group would have enough firepower for an above-average placing.
The pieces are all seemingly there—willing shooters in every position, good passing and fast feet across the board. With the raw elements in place, perhaps the Celtics could become a consistent threat even in the absence of a superstar capable of initiating and carrying the offense.
But filling the void of a clear No. 1 option is tricky. Isaiah Thomas has been the sole reliable playmaker, and the offense fades out when he takes a seat. Boston is 10.3 points per 100 possessions worse offensively with Thomas on the bench this season, per NBA.com.
With a knack for creating something out of nothing, he is elusive, as his explosive drives to the rim collapse defenses and open up opportunities for others. No other Celtic can penetrate with the same efficiency as Thomas does here:
When Thomas sits, there is also a lack of playmaking in general. He is a pick-and-roll wizard who can operate in tight spaces, something Boston's other guards struggle with.
Marcus Smart has improved in that regard since taking over the starting point guard duties for the Celtics, but there is plenty of room for growth.
Once Smart gets enough space to operate within and is presented with a clear passing option, he is excellent at delivering the ball to his teammates. If he is pressured, things can sometimes get stagnant. Take a look at this play:
Smart misses a clear dish to Jonas Jerebko here, who slips the pick and is open for a three on the left wing. Smart tunnel-visions on the drive and then kicks the ball out awkwardly to the perimeter instead.
Evan Turner also gets his fair share of pick-and-roll opportunities. He is capable of the occasional nice play, but most of the time, he stops the ball and looks for his own shot:
Those types of anger-inducing, mid-range heaves are Turner's trademark. He puts up a couple of them per game, and they don't help the flow of the offense even when they find their way through the net.
Also worth noting in the above play: There wasn't a single defender within 15 feet of Jerebko, one of the Celtics' better shooters, when Turner pulled up. Turner rarely changes his mind when deciding to shoot even if a significantly more efficient alternative presents itself.
David Lee was also expected to give the offense a boost, but he has looked stiff. The once-elite post-up skills have been nonexistent so far, and even smart passing can't make up for Lee's lack of scoring threat.
More minutes for Thomas would solve a lot of Boston's immediate issues, but living through the growing pains with Smart remains in its best long-term interests.
Just three games into the season, Boston head coach Brad Stevens decided to shake up his starting lineup. He replaced the mediocre Lee and Tyler Zeller pairing in favor of a more versatile duo of Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson.
Overreacting early with such major changes is rarely advisable, but it was certainly necessary in this case. The Zeller-Lee combination was an experiment to begin with, and Boston's army of big men can all start or come off the bench.
Zeller has fallen off a cliff on both ends of the court since preseason, while Lee hasn't found his form. Johnson is the team's best rim protector, while Sullinger has been solid all around.
Finding the right balance in such a crowded frontcourt has proved to be a headache for Stevens. He's said he would rather not play all five of his big men in every game, according to Kevin O'Connor of CelticsBlog, although he has so far:
I'd prefer not to, but I probably will. We'll just figure it out as it goes. That's the thing that keeps you up because that's a puzzle. And so hopefully we can maximize it and play to each strength as well as we can. But I don't know, that's gonna be something we may have to change down the road.
Keeping everyone happy will be tough. Jerebko has also looked solid, although Stevens has split his minutes between the forward positions. He isn't really fast enough to contain natural wings, and he excels when playing in a stretch-4 role. He and Kelly Olynyk could make for an intriguing offensive pairing when Boston needs points in a hurry, although the two have only shared the court briefly so far.
The internal hierarchy in the backcourt will be restored once Smart returns from his toe injury. Minutes in the frontcourt, however, may fluctuate for a while longer. Every big brings something to the table, and Stevens will have to continue experimenting until he discovers a consistent formula. Until he does, things will remain messy up front.
Even though almost every player on Boston's roster has the green light to launch open three-pointers, those shots haven't been going in. Though they're taking the sixth-most threes per game, the Celtics rank 22nd in three-point percentage, connecting on just 31.6 percent of their long-range attempts.
There have been several occasions during which Boston has shot itself out of games, with no one being able to drain a jumper.
If this trend continues, defenses will eventually park in the paint to prevent Thomas' drives, surrendering threes to weaker shooters.
Boston doesn't have a single guy shooting over 40 percent from long range. Jerebko has met that mark over a season before, which is why throwing him into a stretch-4 role more often could be beneficial. He has enough off-the-dribble bounce to dart past the slower power forwards when they close out on him.
Even though the offensive issues are most alarming, rebounding is also a problem. Boston is 25th in rebounding differential so far at minus-4.6 per game. The Celtics weren't exactly killing it on the glass last season, either, but they often managed to keep the rebounding battle even.
The board struggles can partially be attributed to Boston's defense scheme, which has its players switching frequently and rotating all over the floor. There is more emphasis on contesting every shot and closing out on shooters and less focus on boxing out opposing big men.
A lot of the Celtics' immediate issues don't necessarily have a foolproof fix.
Experimenting more with Jerebko as a power forward rather than forcing him to play out of position is something that would likely be beneficial to the team on both ends of the court. He brings the necessary shooting, and Stevens can play Johnson next to him in matchups that require rim protection and rebounding.
Olynyk has been pretty solid defensively, but playing him together with Jerebko could be damaging in the rebounding department. With so many big men combinations available, Stevens will continue tinkering to make his team's flaws less pronounced. There is an optimal allocation of playing time, and Stevens just has to discover it through trial and error.
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