Diagnosing Boston Celtics' Remaining Roster Flaws

Brian Robb@CelticsHubFeatured ColumnistNovember 9, 2016

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 6: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics goes for a loose ball against the Denver Nuggets on November 6, 2016 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The Boston Celtics are just six games into the 2016-17 NBA season, but concern is already starting to bubble up in the wake of a 3-3 start. 

Key rotation pieces, including Kelly Olynyk (shoulder), Marcus Smart (ankle), Jae Crowder (ankle) and Al Horford (concussion), have already missed time. But their absences do not excuse a defense that's allowing 111.8 points per game—the third-highest mark in the league. 

"We're coming out too cool," Smart said Monday of the team's play. "[Opposing] teams are coming out ready. We're so used to being the guys that are sneaking up on everybody; that's just not the case this year."

The Celtics have managed to stay competitive despite the inept defense, largely due to standout offensive performances from guards Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley. However, for a squad that had aspirations to be the best defensive team in the league, the regular season's first two weeks exposed glaring holes throughout the roster.

The eventual returns of Olynyk, Crowder and Horford should help stabilize some issues, but let's examine the flaws team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge will likely watch closely in the next few weeks. Without some prompt internal improvement, he may look outside the organization to address the concerns. 


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CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 27:  Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics boxes out Taj Gibson #22 of the Chicago Bulls on October 27, 2016 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or u
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Rebounding has been a worry for head coach Brad Stevens from the first day of training camp. The Celtics lost their best rebounder (Jared Sullinger) to the Toronto Raptors in free agency, leaving a major void in the frontcourt. Evan Turner, a 6'7'' small forward who grabbed the team's fourth-most rebounds per game in 2015-16 (4.9), also departed to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Horford is a significant upgrade over Sullinger in many facets of the game, but defensive rebounding isn't one of them. Sullinger was a top-15 player when it came to defensive rebounding rate last year, while Horford hovered around a league average rate for a center.

The team's early season numbers back up that assessment. Before Horford went down with a concussion, the Celtics were getting beat up by opponents with bigger front lines (Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets) on the offensive glass.

Now, through six games, the team ranks 27th in defensive rebounding percentage and is only slightly better (24th) on the offensive glass.

As undersized bigs, Horford (6'10'') and Amir Johnson (6'9'') have left Boston vulnerable in the paint and reliant on smaller wing players to help crash the boards. Avery Bradley (team-leading 8.7 rebounds per game) has helped out on that front, but he hasn't had enough support from his teammates.  

"We had good rebounders [last year], but that’s something we all have to do a little bit better job of," Stevens said. "I think Avery's really taking a step in that direction with going and pursuing balls. He’s had a nine-rebound game and an 11-rebound game already. We’re gonna have to be a team that—sometimes the guys that block out won’t get the rebounds. The guys that block out have to let somebody else get the rebound."

Getting to the Free-Throw Line

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 24:  Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics shoots a free throw during the second quarter of Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Atlanta Hawks during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on April 24, 2016 in Bost
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There's a troubling trend in Boston: No one outside of Isaiah Thomas is getting to the free-throw line with any regularity. 

The 5'9'' point guard ranks ninth in the league with 8.7 free-throw attempts per game, but no one on the roster outside of him is averaging more than 2.0 per game. The sample size may be limited, but Stevens acknowledged the lack of easy points at the charity stripe is no surprise.  

"We don't have a lot of guys that have historically gotten to the line," he said. "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." 

Boston's strong shooting start from the field (48.8 FG%) has largely masked this issue. Once red-hot players such as Bradley and Thomas cool off, though, the Celtics will need to improve their 26th-ranked free-throw output in order to keep pace with the league's elite offenses.

"You’ve got to be aggressive," Thomas said. "You’ve got to want to get fouled. You’ve got to attack the paint and play from the inside out."

The injured trio of Horford, Crowder and Olynyk don't historically get to the line at an above-average rate either, so Boston's front office ultimately may try to trade some of its young depth and draft picks in order to find another offensive creator.

Acquiring someone who can get into the paint and draw contact would help the team's offense and also take pressure off of Thomas. 

Defensive Effort

Oct 29, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA;  Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) stands on the court in the second half against the Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center. The Celtics defeated the Hornets 104-98. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Spor
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season started, Bradley expressed his belief that the Celtics were capable of being a top-two or top-three defense. Early injuries have hampered the team's effectiveness, but it's safe to say Boston has plenty of work to do to come even close to that lofty goal. 

Despite returning 11 players from last year's roster, Boston's points allowed per possession ranks dead last in the NBA. Opponents are making a league-worst 11.2 threes per game and only turning the ball over 13.7 times per contest (26th in league), a shocking turnaround for one of the most gritty defensive teams last year.

"I thought this was possible," Stevens said Sunday of the defensive decline. "I think anytime that you have a year where you achieve relative success on one end of the floor, there’s slippage that’s bound to occur because shortcuts are bound to be taken. What’s most disappointing to me is the lack of physicality. But that’s on me, like I told you. I’ve got to play the guys that play more physical, like, that’s just the way it goes.”

Internal changes may be made to the bench's rotation to try and turn the tide, but the head coach also believes the defense will look different once the roster is back at full strength.

"Losing guys out of our lineups, obviously Jae and Al and Marcus," Stevens continued, "we haven’t had all three of those guys in one game; those are three of our best defenders. But the reality is that even with that, even with the idea that one, two, or three of those guys are out at once, that we should be better than we’ve been.

"I don’t think the group that’s played will necessarily be, especially with the group that we had out there [Sunday against the Nuggets], I don’t think we’re going to be a top-10 defense. But we can be 12th or 13th [with that group], right at the end of the season, that’s for sure."


BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 2: Tyler Zeller #44 of the Boston Celtics defends Robin Lopez #8 of the Chicago Bulls during the first quarter at TD Garden on November 2, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Celtics have had a fouling issue for the past couple seasons, in spite of being a strong overall defensive team.

In past years, Boston's feisty defenderssuch as Bradley, Smart and Crowderregularly produced perimeter turnovers that helped offset its high fouling rate. Those same turnovers have been hard to come by through six games, but the constant fouling remains prevalent.

Opponents are piling up 30.3 free-throw attempts per game, as teams punish a shorthanded roster that lacks a true rim protector. The fouling issue is further compounded by a tendency to maintain aggressive defensive tactics while in the penalty.  

"We've got to be a little bit better with playing without fouling," Stevens explained. "Especially when other teams are in the bonus. We showed some clips on that and talked about that. That's one of the many things we've got to get better at. Easier said than done because we're undersized and we're going to have sometimes where we're going to foul. We have to minimize the times on the unnecessary fouls."

There's no one culprit across the roster, as seven players commit at least 2.5 fouls per game. But reserve bigs such as Zeller, Jonas Jerebko and Jordan Mickey have been the biggest offenders, averaging over five fouls per 36 minutes. A couple members of that trio are likely to be sent back to the end of the bench once Olynyk and Horford return to action. 

In the meantime, the Celtics' perimeter stoppers need to play smarter and get back to their defensive roots, according to Thomas.

"We’re fouling too much and we’re not getting stops," he said. "We’re not the type of team to outscore teams on any given night. We’ve got to figure something out on the defensive end, because offense it seems like we get what we want."

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com are accurate as of Nov. 8. 

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