Friday, May 1, 2015

The 2014-15 Celtics Season in Review: A Bridge Year Unlike Any Other

Can Marcus Smart, Brad Stevens and the rest of the Celtics take the next step in 2015-16?
By Adam Lowenstein (@StatsAdam)

The 2014-15 Boston Celtics season was officially the second one for Brad Stevens as the team’s head coach, but was it really?

Did he actually have a full-fledged basketball roster for more than a few months since replacing NBA champion Doc Rivers? Was Stevens drawing up out-of-bounds plays for the same players each year? Did the former Butler Bulldogs coach even have a semblance of consistency with his NBA team?

In a game fraught was one-and-dones, like most of the high-caliber college basketball programs today, he sure did have a consistent roster from year to year in the Horizon League. His freshman became sophomores, who mostly became juniors, and a lot stayed around for their senior seasons.

Matt Howard, Ronald Nored and Andrew Smith all played four years with their head coach, and Shelvin Mack played three seasons for the Bulldogs.

Stevens, self-admittedly, is not a salesman, so drawing free agents to Boston will be challenging on the surface no matter what, even if Kelly Olynyk’s one-game-suspension armbar squandered the green’s chances of signing Kevin Love (it did not). The Celtics’ next phase truly has not begun, because the team has shifted depth charts more often in the last two seasons than a Celtics fan has dropped F-bombs at LeBron James at TD Garden in the 2015 playoffs.

The prime example of the Celtics not being ready for their next phase came with the green trailing by six points with 36.1 seconds remaining in their final game of the season: Game 4 of the first round against the Cleveland Cavaliers. After Marcus Smart forced a Cleveland turnover, the referees went to the official replay monitor to check on the call that eventually went Boston’s way. The wait time allowed mega-minded Stevens to set up a play that could keep the team’s season going for a bit longer. Isaiah Thomas inbounded to Smart, who found Luigi Datome for a pretty good look at a 3-pointer. However, No. 70 failed to convert on what could have made the game a one-possession contest with 30 seconds remaining.

Stevens had to depend on Datome, who was playing in his 58th career National Basketball Association game. This is by no means an indictment of the 27-year-old Italian’s future in the league, but he still has as many 3-pointers made in the NBA playoffs as any person you will bump into on the street today. The Celtics’ experience and talent was just not enough for the LeBron James-led Cavaliers, or for the NBA playoffs for that matter (no matter how bad the Eastern Conference is). But keep in mind that Stevens’ team had heart. His players did not allow the Cavaliers’ seemingly monumental lead earlier in the game to faze them.

Even if Datome had hit from long distance on the 81st 3-point attempt of his American professional basketball career, the Celtics still would have been down, 99-96. Even if Datome had hit from long distance, Boston still would have been 4-for-23 from 3-point land in the contest.

While the improbable comeback from the 21-point deficit would have been a bit more likely if he had made the shot, the Celtics would still have had to stop the Cavaliers on the next possession. Then, if Cleveland did not foul Boston on the Celtics’ offensive end of the court, the Celtics still would have had to hit a 3-pointer to force overtime. And Stevens and company would have had to win the extra period to win their first game of the series. Yes, their first game of the series.

I emphasized all the obstacles that were in the way of the Celtics at the end of Game 4 of the first round of the 2015 NBA playoffs just to show how much of an uphill climb the 2014-15 season was for the green. Of course, the reason that the Cavaliers swept the Celtics was that there was no LeBron James-like player or a Kyrie Irving-like player in green. But it was this green team led by Stevens that did not give up; but it was this green team that saw more players enter and leave the locker room than close to any other squad in NBA history; but it was this green team that stayed around to fight until the end.

While the Celtics will need star power, shooting and rebounding to actually contend even in the Eastern Conference, Stevens looks like he might have found some players that can be key to the team’s future:

The only Celtic with a better single-season free-throw rate (minimum 100 free throws) than Isaiah Thomas had in his 21 games with Boston in 2014-15 (12.6 attempts per 100 possessions) is Paul Pierce, who produced better free-throw rates in two different seasons. Thomas’ free-throw rate with the Celtics would have ranked fourth overall in the league this season behind Russell Westbrook, James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins.

Jared Sullinger, who had one of the franchise’s best offensive rebounding years ever in the 2013-14 season, could be an important rebounder for the team moving forward as long as he can stay on the court.

Speaking of health, restricted free agent Jae Crowder, who is thankfully relatively unscathed after Game 4, seems to be the next big-time versatile player in Boston. He is ready to make an impact, and it looks like there is a long career ahead of him. Crowder, who will turn 25 on July 6, guarded LeBron and put up a statistical line that is only done by the best of the best in the NBA this postseason: In Game 3, he posted 16 points, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks. At that point in the playoffs, the only other players who had posted a line of that kind were LeBron James, LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin.

In addition, let us praise ironman Brandon Bass who, until Crowder’s arrival in Boston, was the best Celtics player-who-could-help-a-playoff-contender-right-now on the roster. Do you remember the last time Bass missed a game for the green? I am not sure you do. We have to go all the way back to a far away land when Mickael Pietrus was starting for the team. No. 30, who turned 30 on April 30, was last inactive on February 22, 2012 when Pietrus played a game-high 44 minutes in a 119-104 loss in Oklahoma City.

Since then, Bass has played in 309 consecutive games, including 30 postseason contests (29 of which he started).

In addition, only 11 NBA players have participated in more regular season and playoff games than he has since joining the Celtics at the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season (334 contests). Can you believe that Evan Turner, who is entering the second year of his team-friendly contract, has played 339 total games in that span? Even with all those miles on Turner over the years, he became just the fifth Celtic in playoff history to go for 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in Boston. The other four: Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson.

I didn't mention Jonas Jerebko or Avery Bradley in my statistical ramblings, or even Smart or Olynyk, but therein lies the problem: too many role players. If Danny Ainge can pull off a war-chest-of-assets trade again, then this is the perfect roster to have heading into the 2015 offseason.

However, is the team’s big offseason going to be the upcoming one or in the following year? Celtics fans just have hope the answer is not neither, because Stevens has the makings of being a coach that can be immortalized in Boston, as long as he has something close to a competent and consistent roster.

For more sports coverage, follow Adam Lowenstein on Twitter at @StatsAdam. Statistics used from

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