Nov. 21, 2016
Panic Stations: Are The Boston Celtics In Trouble?
This wasn't supposed to happen.
I'm not talking about the new president-elect, I'm talking about the sub-500 Boston Celtics.
After ending a roller coaster ride of a 48-win 2015-16 season in disappointing fashion, the Celtics broke their free agency drought by acquiring Al Horford, improved the team's talent level drastically and were expected to improve internally too with the abundance of young talent at their fingertips. The Celtics were seemingly ready to evolve from the gritty, feisty, heart-stopping squad it was a season ago, into one of the few teams in the league that could even dream of challenging the NBA's pair of superteams. Two weeks ago, this was a Celtics team that I was expecting would instantly become a real threat to LeBron's six-year-old Eastern Conference crown.
It's only been seven games, but it's pretty safe to say that at this point, the Celtics are miles away from that lofty expectation. Boston are 3-4 and don't look anything like a playoff squad, let alone a franchise that has the fifth best title odds. When you think about it, the Celtics are actually pretty lucky to be 3-4 too. Opening night against that random D-League team from Brooklyn was pretty close to being a catastrophe, they needed eight Avery Bradley treys to beat Charlotte and if it weren't for Amir Johnson's random third quarter heat check against the Bulls, the Celtics may have lost that game too.
Potentially the worst part about the Celtics' opening act has been that Brad Stevens doesn't seem to have any answers. For the first time in his NBA coaching career, Stevens looks lost. He's throwing out random lineup combinations that he has never tried before, he's changing his rotation every game and has altered his game plan every three seconds, all in a fruitless attempt to get any sort of consistency out of his squad early on. Celtics fans should be more scared about Stevens' start to the season than the actual team's. Ever since Doc Rivers ditched and Brad came in, Boston's success has been almost purely predicated on Stevens' ability to get the best out of inferior talent. Without his coaching wizardry over the past three seasons, the Celtics would be just another mediocre team.
So what exactly has gone wrong for Brad Stevens' Celtics so far?
If you ask Marcus Smart, the problem is that, "We ain't got no heart right now." While this is a sentiment that any avid NBA fan should adore, just playing with heart doesn't win you ball games. If that were the case, the Rockets would never win a game.
The reality -- however obvious -- is that Boston look awful because of their injury problems and their defensive issues.
Offensively speaking, the Celtics have looked phenomenal. They currently rank third in offensive rating, trailing only the Warriors and Cavs. Isaiah Thomas still looks like an All-Star on that side of the ball, Avery Bradley has improved his shooting and playmaking ability and Marcus Smart is no longer Tony Allen-esque from deep. The entire team looks cohesive and comfortable within their pacey, unselfish, motion offense.
But on the other end of the court, the Celtics have been nothing more than hot garbage. In a league where Mike D'Antoni is coaching a team led by James Harden and Ryan Anderson, the Celtics rank dead last in defensive rating. They give up 112.3 points per 100 possessions, a mark that falls at least 3.3 points below every other team in the association and a number that is significantly worse than their defensive rating of 100.9 from last season, which had them ranked fifth in the NBA.
At this point in the season, it's easy to chalk those struggles up to injury. Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk have both missed chunks of the season so far, while Al Horford and Jae Crowder have both been out for the past four games. However, these health problems don't paint the full picture of Boston's woes. Last season the Celtics didn't have Horford at all and had Jared Sullinger in his place, who couldn't run. And at the end of March, the Celtics had a nine game run without Crowder where they went 5-4. In that stretch, the Celtics somehow managed to snap the Warriors' 54 game home winning streak by playing some of their best defense of the season.
The losses of Horford and Crowder are excuses, but they aren't valid ones. Based on last season's success, the Celts should still be respectable without the pair. But seeing as they clearly aren't, it's hard to see that getting the duo back from injury will help to return the Celtics back to their suffocating, air-depriving defensive best.
Skeptics of this train of thought will point out that the Celtics may just be getting unlucky. Prior to Sunday's matchup against the C's, Emmanuel Mudiay was shooting just 27% from the floor. He then decided to erupt for 24 points in the first quarter of that game. Against the Wizards on Wednesday, Otto Porter had an out-of-body experience too, when he exploded against the Celts, tallying 34 points and 14 rebounds.
The thing is, the Celtics aren't just getting unlucky. In fact, the Celtics' luck this season has been about bang average when you consider that opposition teams are only shooting 0.2% higher on contested shots when facing Boston, per NBA.com. A high percentage on contested looks is usually the root of unsustainable scoring, but the Celtics have been largely unaffected. Sure, Mudiay and Porter probably won't get close to matching their performances against the Celtics at any point this season, but the C's are inviting these types of games with some piss-poor defensive breakdowns and decisions.
Part of the issue the Celtics have had this season has been that their usual defensive stoppers -- particularly All-Defensive First Team member Avery Bradley -- who are the pillars of the Celtics' defense just haven't been nearly as good as they have been in the past. The likes of Bradley and Marcus Smart haven't looked like their usual locked in selves. They have been caught napping far too many times and have lacked their usual intensity (hey, maybe Smart was right, maybe a lack of heart is the problem). Just check out this play where Bradley and Jaylen Brown (who looked like a good defensive prospect at Cal) get caught ball-watching and completely miss the subtle misdirection from Beal and Porter:
This is a three that can easily be prevented, by you know, actually looking at the guy you're guarding. This type of play has happened far too much so far for Brad Stevens' men and it urgently needs to be fixed. Whether it's due to the increased offensive workload for Bradley, or that Marcus no longer has his twin super powers to feed off from his orange-tipped brother, Jared Sullinger, it needs to improve.
Random, sporadic defensive breakdowns don't give you the worst defense in the league on their own though. By far the most pressing issue facing the Celtics is their pick-and-roll defense. Bad pick-and-roll defense can allow breezy middle penetration for any opposing side in the world. Once constant and consistent middle penetration is unlocked for an offense, the rest of the court can open up.
The Celtics have had to learn this the hard way this season. The C's are allowing middle penetration on almost every single pick-and-roll. What this causes isn't necessarily open layups, but help defense at the rim that opens up free looks from the outside off of drive-and-kick basketball. This in a nutshell is why the Celtics are allowing their opposite numbers to shoot a scorching average of 38.7% from downtown, the second worst mark in the league.
So what exactly is so ghastly about the Celtics' PnR defense that is causing all of this? Well, let's take a look:
Look how high Tyler Zeller is coming up to try and contain Emmanuel Mudiay's sideline PnR. The Celtics clearly want their bigs to try and contain guards on pick-and-roll, as their on-ball defenders almost always go over the screen. This is fine, a majority of NBA teams do this. What they don't do however, is bring their big man that far out. All this does is allow guards like Mudiay to scoot past slow-footed bigs like Zeller and get straight to the rim.
Watch how on this play, Zeller again comes up too high and John Wall eats him alive, with a furious drive to the rim that requires weak-side help from Avery Bradley, which results in an easy kick-out to Beal. This play doesn't end up with a basket, but shows you exactly the problem at hand for the C's:
Boston's ability to defend pick-and-rolls in this fashion will undoubtedly improve when Al Horford comes back, who unlike Zeller, can actually do a decent job at defending out on the perimeter. But even so, no big man in the league, however mobile, should be trying to defend John Wall that far away from the ri
Bringing a big that far out of the lane also has unintended consequences for the Celtics' rebounding numbers. Anybody even remotely interested in the NBA could tell you that the Celtics stink at this aspect of the game. The C's have lost each rebounding battle by an average of 8 boards this season, rank dead last in total and defensive rebounding rate and are giving up a comical 12.7 o-boards per contest. This problem however, goes far deeper than just having bad rebounders on the roster. Much has been written and said about the Celtics giving away Jared Sullinger away for free, but do you really think he would help Boston's rebounding numbers when our big men are coming this far out of the lane?
Just look how easy it is for the 240 lbs Gortat to feast on that rebounding opportunity when his man, Tyler Zeller is fifteen feet away from him.
Brad Stevens urgently needs to change this. The solution won't be simple, but it needs to come quick before the losses start to pile up. Maybe the Celtics will begin to switch pick-and-rolls more, in an attempt to try and cut-off any middle penetration. Perhaps, the Celtics will look at ICE defense (you know, that thing you hear Tom Thibodeau's raspy voice blasting out from the sidelines every night?), to keep bigs closer to the rim, where they can coral more rebounds and make sure every layup at the rim is contested without any need for help. Celtics fans shouldn't fret, Brad Stevens rarely gets this sort of stuff wrong, so it's only a matter of time until he figures this whole thing out soon.
Once this is all fixed, stupid mental errors stop occurring and everyone is back healthy, the Celtics will be back to their frightening best. As mentioned before, the offense has looked great, it just needs a competent defense as its partner.
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