Biggest Needs for Boston Celtics During 2014 Offseason
The Boston Celtics are in no position to stand pat.
Just how busy this offseason turns out to be will depend largely on the opportunities that present themselves. The organization won't be doing itself any favors by trying to rush things. That creates an intriguing dynamic, made all the more alluring in comments made by president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to Boston radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub (per ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg):
I’m going to try to blow off some fireworks, but I have to be patient as well and we have to make sure that we don’t do deals just to do deals. We have to do the right deals. Those are a lot harder than most people think or believe or understand. I’m not making any promises, we have a busy summer ahead of us, and there's a lot of different directions we could go.
This would be a good time for fireworks.
And we don't mean sparklers.
This is time for a big bang or two, moves or acquisitions that will fundamentally reshape the roster both now and in the future. The Celtics are otherwise in danger of getting sucked into a protracted rebuild with no end in sight.
That's the last thing anyone wants to see, chief of all Ainge. Here's a template for avoiding just that.
Keeping Rajon Rondo
It's tempting to trade Rajon Rondo. It really is.
He's the best player on a team that's underperforming. If something is broken at a foundational level, there's usually a strong case to be made for fundamental changes. But this is one of those times when conventional wisdom isn't very helpful.
Rondo would be difficult to replace, and it would be hard to acquire equal value coming off a season marred by injury. The Celtics might be able to get a very good draft pick, but they will already have a very good draft pick.
And they already have plenty of young talent.
This team doesn't need to get younger. It needs to get better. It doesn't need many more pieces. It needs the right pieces. Rondo is almost certainly part of that puzzle.
Here's one thing we can be reasonably sure about. Between now and next season, Boston probably isn't going to acquire an All-Star caliber scorer. Its best bet in the near term is to get points on an ensemble basis, spreading the ball around to above-average scorers like Jeff Green, Avery Bradley and whomever else comes aboard.
In short, there will be no hero-ball in Boston anytime soon.
Given this offense's need to share the ball, a point guard like Rondo is essential. He's a force-multiplier, capable of making mediocre scorers look much better than they actually are.
There's an important psychological component to keeping Rondo too. He's a holdover from better times, a connection to Boston's winning past. And largely because of that, he knows how to lead. He's learned from the best, from Kevin Garnett to Doc Rivers—the latter of whom he remains in touch with.
One recent conversation with Rivers emphasized the importance of enduring a rebuild, per the The Boston Globe's Baxter Holmes, with Rivers reportedly telling Rondo, "You’re going to have to have patience."
Rondo has come a long way gleaning wisdom from the best of them. His understudy, Phil Pressey, has taken notice, according to MassLive's Jay King:
There’s so much you can learn from (Rondo) from a talent aspect. But the most I’ve learned from him is his leadership on the court – how he manages the game offensively and defensively. It’s like when he’s on the court, everything’s where it needs to be. Guys are in their spots. Guys are competing at a high level. Just, his leadership is unmatchable out there.
Even if you could replace Rondo from a talent standpoint, it's hard to find a match for the things Pressey's talking about. And those are the kind of things that will speed this rebuild along, turning younger talent into professional talent more rapidly and assuring a strong fabric between whoever's out on the court.
You just don't trade that.
Making Avery Bradley a Sixth Man
There's no question Avery Bradley is good enough to be a starter, but you could say that about most elite sixth men.
Like most combo guards, though, Bradley leaves something to be desired when paired with another point guard. He doesn't have ideal 2-guard size, and he's not a dominant scorer. In his fourth year, the 23-year-old is averaging 14.5 points, but he's getting those points on a bad team and shooting under 44 percent.
Boston would be better off with Bradley coming off the bench, handling the ball a little bit more and serving as the second unit's anchor. Think a defensively minded Jason Terry.
Bradley played some of his best, most efficient basketball coming off the bench for the majority of his sophomore season. A return to that role would reduce some of the pressure on him to score against bigger starting guards. His impact would be magnified leading the bench on both ends of the floor.
Moreover, Boston's bench could use the help. According to Hoopsstats.com, it ranked 16th in points-scored and 14th in defensive efficiency. That's not terrible—it's middle of the pack. But it leaves room for improvement that Bradley could provide.
Of course, this discussion presupposes the Celtics keep Bradley in the first place. The restricted free agent has faced a number of injury problems since getting drafted out of Texas, so the price will need to be right.
But assuming it's not an exorbitant one, that sounds like the direction in which Boston's headed. When asked if injuries have soured the organization's approach to re-signing Bradley, Ainge had this to say, per ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg:
Listen, I’ve often said the most important ability is availability. So I do think that’s a concern, but he is very young, and they are not any injuries that have set him way back. The shoulder injuries, two years ago, took away a summer of his development. But, listen, we’re big fans of Avery’s; injuries are always a concern, but we’re big big fans. You can see how he’s improving as a player every year.
The Celtics should be big fans. Though Bradley's numbers won't blow you out of the water, much of his contributions come on the defensive end. He's one of the best perimeter stoppers around, and the havoc he causes doesn't readily show up on a stat sheet.
Whether he starts or comes off the bench, he should continue to play a valuable role—so long as he's paid like a valuable role player.
Signing a Difference-Maker
The Boston Celtics had the right idea with Gerald Wallace. They were just about a decade too late to the party.
But the principle remains. Boston needs an energy guy who can turn games around at crucial junctures. It needs someone like Lance Stephenson, who just happens to be an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Indiana Pacers may be unlikely to retain both Stephenson and Evan Turner, so the Celtics should do due diligence on both of them. Either would be a valuable addition to the wing.
But what about affordability?
The Celtics are likely to find themselves about $10 million under the cap, but re-signing Avery Bradley could take a big chunk out of that. The organization will almost certainly look for creative ways to free up some additional cap space.
Somehow finding a taker for Gerald Wallace would be the easiest solution, but it will be a tough sell given that he has two more seasons on his contract, each worth over $10 million apiece. With the 31-year-old struggling to produce this season, there may not be a single team out there willing to take on that kind of financial burden.
Another option would be trying to move Brandon Bass' nearly $7 million salary. That would probably clear enough room to give Bradley a hefty raise and bring in someone of Stephenson's caliber.
Of course, Boston could wait to do the lion's share of its free-agent shopping when Rondo's salary comes off the books, but then we're definitely looking at an extended transition period. Unless Ainge wants to risk losing the attention of his fanbase, he'd be wise to make a splash sooner rather than later.
Boston has also amassed enough young talent to potentially add a star via trade. It's hard to say how much other teams value guys like Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk, though. Given that both big men will remain pretty affordable for the next few years, the better move seems to be keeping them—or at least one of them.
If there's a trade to be made, it probably involves packaging Bradley (via a sign-and-trade arrangement) with either Sullinger or Olynyk and some draft considerations. If that brought back a legitimate star this season, it would be hard to say no—even if it means foregoing the addition of premium draft talent.
In that scenario, the Celtics could potentially add a star via trade and someone like Stephenson via free agency. If you want to turn things around starting now, that's probably the way to go.
Drafting a Scorer
The Celtics should wind up with a top-five draft pick, or somewhere very close to it. That puts them potentially in position to select a premier scorer-in-the-making like Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins, especially if either of their stocks drops (or if the Celtics get a little lucky with the lottery balls).
Boston could also look to trade their pick if it translated into a far more instant upgrade.
Either way, the bottom line is this: This pick has to turn itself into a great scorer. Jeff Green is a nice second or third option, but he is not that team-leading scorer. Not by a long shot. He's too inconsistent, too inclined to defer whenever he's not feeling it.
Should the Celtics keep their pick and take a scorer (as opposed to another big man), the club's turnaround wouldn't be immediate. But there's enough of a veteran presence on this team that even a 12-15 point nightly contribution from a rookie could yield major dividends.
Remember that said rookie won't be depended upon to take the offense into his hands, not with Rondo around. And as already discussed, that's the big advantage of having Rondo around. He'll put rookie talent in a position where they don't have to force things, where they can let the offense come to them.
In theory that takes some of the pressure off Boston to trade this pick. Unless an absolutely irresistible offer comes along, the organization is better off thinking about the now and long term both. Someone like Wiggins could make an impact now, but he could be an All-Star down the road. The Celtics can't ignore that "down the road" part, especially without having any firm guarantee that the rebuilding will stop next season.
It would be great if it did, but that's no reason to throw caution to the wind and start importing veterans who may or may not be a perfect fit.
So priority No. 1 is avoiding desperation mode. Keep this pick unless it would be crazy not to.
Priority No. 2 is taking pressure off of Jeff Green on the wing. Even if he leads the team in scoring again, there needs to be another option who can slash and shoot, someone with potential star pedigree.
Whatever happens this draft, don't expect lottery appearances to become a regular thing for the Celtics. Head coach Brad Stevens isn't a fan of tanking, according to MassLive's Jay King:
Stevens is not oblivious to those who advocate tanking. But he stressed again Friday that he wants his team to build as much momentum as possible over the final three games of the regular season. He wants the Celtics to improve fourth-quarter execution. He wants them to eliminate defensive breakdowns, which have sometimes come in flurries that turn potential wins into disappointing (for him, at least) losses.
This is a coach that wants to when now regardless of what resources are (and aren't) at his disposal.
That's the kind of culture you want to see, and it's the kind of culture that could help transform a young talent into proven talent overnight—perhaps all the more reason to keep this pick and see what happens.
Developing the Young Bigs
Jared Sullinger and Kylly Olynyk won't be eligible for restricted free agency until 2016 and 2017 (respectively). In the meantime, they'll be an awfully affordable one-two punch in the paint. And they're both coming along quite nicely.
Let's start with the 22-year-old Olynyk, a cerebral center who recently scored 25 points for the second time in this, his rookie season. The 7-footer is averaging 8.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, displaying a nice touch from mid-range that often eludes rookie big men. After his big performance, NESN's Ben Watanabe put some ceilings in perspective:
Let’s be clear, Olynyk is not Boston’s savior. Neither is Jared Sullinger, Rajon Rondo or Avery Bradley, regardless of their encouraging moments this season. Collectively, though, they could be on to something. Not “championship within three years” something, but the start of a respectable foundation so that when that savior does arrive, he has something to work with.
Guarded optimism is indeed in order. We're looking at a very solid big man in the making, someone with a diversified skill set who can do more than bang in the painted area. ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg took a look at how far he'd come in February:
There have been glimpses of his potential along his first-year odyssey -- 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting against the Lakers last month, or 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting versus the Hawks on New Year's Eve -- but his playing time and production have been inconsistent. Even still, you can see progress in his game.
While he's still a bit too hesitant with his shot, Olynyk has thrived recently by putting a focus on everything but his own offense. At times we've seen a more aggressive rebounder, a more competitive defender and a player content to facilitate offense with excellent passing skills.
The premise for Forsberg's analysis was the already emerging similarity between Olynyk and the iconic Dirk Nowitzki. It's a comparison that's sure to role eyes, but even a poor man's Nowitzki is nothing to sneeze at. As Bleacher Report's Michael Pina noted, "The most appealing thing about Olynyk is his offensive potential. He’s tall and can shoot. These two characteristics are rare, helpful and heavily sought after by NBA general managers."
Now for Sullinger, the guy who fell to the Celtics at the 21st-overall pick in 2012. The 22-year-old has increased his production markedly in his second season, proving to have been quite the steal in the process. He's more than doubled his scoring average to 13.3 points and he's grabbing 8.1 rebounds per contest.
Even if Sullinger never gets any better, that's pretty solid for a guy taken in the latter third of the first round. But there's reason to believe Sullinger could actually get much better. He's only making 43 percent of his field-goal attempts, down significantly from his rookie season.
As Sullinger has become a greater focal point for the team's offense, he's struggled to remain efficient. That's going to have to change. A full season of Rajon Rondo getting him the ball in his comfort zones will certainly help, but there are certainly realities that must be faced.
Sullinger is an undersized power forward and he has to compensate for those physical limitations with improved skill in the post and a better mid-range shot. He'll have to do his best impersonation of Elton Brand in his prime.
The good news is time is on his side. He got a lot of valuable playing time this season. More of the same will put Sullinger in position to succeed in a big way.