Friday, July 14, 2017

After a Busy Offseason, What Can We Really Expect from the Celtics?

Celtics GM Danny Ainge has been hoarding assets and promising fireworks for years now. Did he deliver this offseason?
By Adam Lowenstein (@StatsAdam)

One year ago, I wrote about how the Celtics, who had just signed Al Horford, were in talks to bring in either Russell Westbrook or Blake Griffin.

We now know that those acquisitions were long shots, but the Celtics’ transaction buzz remains ongoing.

After signing Gordon Hayward and trading Avery Bradley, the Celtics are rumored to be in the market for three-time All-Star, and 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol.

After a seemingly successful draft and early offseason, the Celtics are Las Vegas’ third-most likely team to win a title, at 15-to-2 odds for the NBA championship.

However, just like 2016, the Cleveland Cavaliers lurk at 5-to-1 odds for the title, and LeBron’s squad has overwhelming odds at winning the conference. Can Boston get over that hump in the East?

Celtics fans still have a bitter taste in their mouths from the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, as they witnessed their C’s, who had home court advantage, get drubbed by LeBron and company. Just like during the regular season, the green’s offense, which owned the Eastern Conference’s best assist rate, played better than its defense. Still, neither the Celtics’ offense nor their defense was good enough to get past the Cavs.

The 2016-17 season stopped an 11-year run in which the Celtics’ ranking in defense was better their offensive one. On the bright side, Brad Stevens’ offense has improved each of the last three seasons and his defense had improved each year until 2016-17.

The former Butler coach’s declining defense could be due in part to the Celtics’ 33 attempts from downtown per game. With the Celtics shooting just 36 percent (ranked 14th in the league) from 3-point land and ranking in the league's bottom-five in rebounding, they clearly allowed too many fast break points.

In addition, the Celtics are losing their four best rebounders, according to rebound rate: Tyler Zeller (released), Kelly Olynyk (to Miami Heat), Amir Johnson (to Philadelphia 76ers) and Jonas Jerebko (to Utah Jazz), in addition to their best rebounding guard in Avery Bradley.

Bradley, who had a career year in terms of scoring and rebounding, was also the Celtics' leader in double-doubles and their second-best scorer. The silver lining might be that Marcus Smart’s win shares and defensive win shares last season were better than Bradley’s, but there's no doubt that he's a loss in a number of areas.

Although the Celtics will be losing a bunch of their best 2016-17 rebounders, the big change of green big men may be just what is needed. Aron Baynes’ rebounding rate just missed the top 50 in the NBA last season, while no Celtic ranked among the best 75 rebounders in the league.

Marcus Morris, the other former Piston that the Celtics have added to their roster, is just seven minutes younger than his twin brother Markieff, who is also known as the Celtics’ 2016-17 second-round nemesis. Marcus, the best defender against LeBron James last season, has missed just six games over the last four seasons, but could be at risk of a suspension or worse after the Morrises’ upcoming trial.

If Morris misses time, the Celtics will still be able to meander through the regular season, just like they did last year. With the likes of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Ante Zizic and Semi Ojeleye leading the Celtics through a successful summer league schedule, Boston once again appears to have depth heading into the upcoming season.

Isaiah Thomas’ ability to score in clutch situations, Hayward’s low-usage, high scoring rate, and Horford’s steady shot are all reasons for optimism. Throw in Jae Crowder’s ability to shoot very well from deep in victories (his 41.6% 3-point shot in wins, which hopefully gets more consistent, would rank 12th in the NBA if he shot that percentage overall), and the C’s clearly have enough offensive firepower.

It's hard to envision a scenario where the Celtics don't find themselves back in the Eastern Conference Finals again, and possibly the NBA Finals with another piece or two, but can they (or anyone) compete with the Golden State Warriors?

The leprechaun may have to be on the green’s side for banner 18 to come in 2018.

For more sports coverage, follow Adam Lowenstein on Twitter at @StatsAdam. Statistics used from Basketball-Reference.com, ESPN.com and TeamRankings.com.

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