With the Celtics starting the second half of their season Friday night in Sacramento, the Green Street bloggers, Julian Edlow @julianedlow, Ben Rohrbach @brohrbach and Sam Packard @SPacShakur answer some key questions to preview the rest of the season.
SHOULD THE CELTICS TRY TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS — AND CAN THEY?
The acquisition of Isaiah Thomas on Thursday could be a sign that the Celtics are gearing up for a run at the playoffs. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Edlow: “As of Thursday morning the short answer was yes, in the lowly Eastern Conference the Celtics have a chance. Then mayhem broke loose at the trade deadline. Isaiah Thomas is a nice add for the C’s with his skill set and contract for the long term. But factoring in Miami adding Goran Dragic, Detriot adding Reggie Jackson, and news that Jared Sullinger is going to be sidelined with a stress reaction in his left foot, things have changed. It’s going to be another lottery season.”
Rohrbach: “I’ve been bouncing back and forth on this one, just as the Celtics front office likely has in recent weeks, but I’m coming around on the idea of making a playoff push. Danny Ainge was more of a buyer than a seller at the deadline, and Brad Stevens will continue working with whatever pieces are at his disposal to win enough games that their odds of receiving a top-three pick in the lottery would be miniscule. The confidence that Stevens — and whichever players remain next season and beyond — would gain in knowing how his system works is just as valuable as the difference between the No. 12 and 17 picks.
“As for whether the C’s can make the playoffs, after writing them off two weeks ago, I’m on board, so long as Jared Sullinger’s toe injury doesn’t keep him out too long. Their recent string of four wins in five games — including a stunning upset of the first-place Hawks — combined with the mess that has become of the Nets and the injury to Hornets point guard Kemba Walker leaves the C’s and Pistons with the best chance of finishing eighth behind the Heat. The Celtics have a lighter schedule and two fewer losses than the Pacers and somewhat control their own destiny with the most head-to-head meetings against the five aforementioned teams.”
Packard: “There are already 10 teams with worse records than the Celtics, and with the addition of Isaiah Thomas the roster is too talented to lose the requisite number of games for a top-five pick. Tanking is not a realistic option, so why not try something new and fun like winning as many games as possible?
“The Heat locked up the seventh seed by adding Dragic, but I do think the Celtics have a puncher’s chance at the eight. Their fate rests entirely on the health of Sullinger, who has been the team’s best player in the first half of the season. If he is out for an extended period of time, the Celtics will not have enough muscle on the front line to beat good teams late in games. Also, their biggest competition for the final playoff spot in the east, the Pistons, just got better by adding Reggie Jackson to replace the injured Brandon Jennings.”
WHICH PLAYER NEEDS TO PLAY BETTER?
Edlow: “Avery Bradley is the easy answer. He is in the first year of a contract that is due to pay him $32 million over four seasons and Boston isn’t seeing near the production it should be for the price it paid. For comparison, the newly acquired Thomas just signed a cheaper contract (four years for $28 million), however, Thomas’ 19.7 player efficiency rating nearly doubles Bradley’s (10.8).”
Rohrbach: “When motivated, Jared Sullinger is undoubtedly the best player on the Celtics, but he’s not always motivated, as evidenced by his two recent benchings and the fact he’s never really gotten himself into proper shape. Yet he outplayed Paul Millsap in the C’s recent victory against the Hawks. While his conditioning may not make great strides over the final two months, particularly with the toe injury keeping him sidelined for the foreseeable future, he can begin his improvement by stepping inside the 3-point line, where he owns one of the league’s worst percentages among players who attempt three per game, and planting his considerable backside in the post, where he’s shooting close to 60 percent and grabbing 10 percent of available offensive rebounds.”
Packard: “Kelly Olynyk. This is probably an unfair answer, because Olynyk has done a very good job coming off the bench; but with Sullinger on the sidelines for the foreseeable future, Olynyk is going to get meaningful minutes. He needs to improve drastically on defense, where he has been a liability. On offense, Olynyk should continue to be aggressive by attacking the basket and taking the open 3 when its available.”
WHICH PLAYER SHOULD BRAD STEVENS PLAY MORE?
Edlow: “No doubt the answer is James Young. At just 19 years old, Young is one of the Celtics’ most intriguing prospects, but he has spent the season out of the spotlight while alternating between riding the bench in Boston and playing big minutes in the D-League. With the All-Star break behind us, now is the time to give the silky smooth lefty some consistent minutes. If he can improve his defense, he has the potential to be a big-time offensive weapon.”
Rohrbach: “If the Celtics aren’t developing their first-round picks, then what are they really doing? James Young has played fewer minutes all season than Marcus Smart has in each of the past three months. In Young’s limited sample size, the C’s have been 7.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than without him while their defense has remained consistent, according to Basketball Reference’s on/off statistics. In the four games he has played more than 15 minutes, Young has averaged roughly 16 points, four rebounds, three assists and a trio of 3-pointers per 36 minutes. That’s encouraging.”
Packard: “If you want to develop talent, the obvious answer is 19-year old James Young. If you want to win as many games as possible, I think Jae Crowder should get serious minutes. Crowder is a high-energy player who consistently creates turnovers on defense. While he struggled as a starter, I think he will be an important rotation player moving forward.”
WHAT IS THE MOST INTRIGUING STORYLINE?
Edlow: “Marcus Smart is the most intriguing storyline this season, which speaks to the rebuild still being far from a finished product. Smart has lived up to his reputation as a defensive stopper, but he has learned to improve his jump shot (considered his biggest weakness) in an incredibly short amount of time. The rookie still has a lot to learn — whether he plays point guard or off the ball — but so far has shown the ability to rise to the challenge and learn quickly. His fast learning and willingness to step into any role the team needs him to should make Smart a big piece of Boston’s future, so get used to watching him play.”
Rohrbach: “Smart’s ankle issues disrupted his development, but his recent defensive performances against All-Star playmakers Jeff Teague (4-12 FG) and James Harden (4-21 FG) coupled with a steadily improving jumper (40.7 3P% in January) are signs of a budding force — even if his traditional statistics (6.8 points, 3.5 assists, 2.9 rebounds per game) don’t support that assessment. There aren’t too many reasons to be excited about the current state of the Celtics roster, but Smart’s potential as an All-Defensive talent is one of them, and his chemistry with newly acquired shoot-first point guard Isaiah Thomas is another.”
Packard: “How will Isaiah Thomas fit in with the young core? With Thomas under contract for the next three seasons, he will presumably play a considerable amount of time next to Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley. Will this three-guard combination work or will Bradley be moved in the offseason?”
DOES BRAD STEVENS HAVE A PERSONALITY?
Edlow: “Yes … he’s a human — and a very smart one at that.”
Rohrbach: “He’s no Doc Rivers, that’s for sure, but Ainge found precisely what he was looking for in Stevens — a young coach with the patience to see a rebuild through while committing himself 24/7 to developing young talent and studying basketball from every angle. If that means boring pre- and postgame interviews, then so be it. Either that, or Stevens is really a robot that Mike Zarren will unveil at the next MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.”
Packard: “There is no evidence of one. I cannot imagine Stevens going to the movies, listening to music or laughing at a non-basketball-related joke. Even his light-hearted interviews with Abby Chin are all about basketball. Maybe I don’t understand people from the Midwest, but there is little doubt in my mind that Stevens is a robot.”
WHAT WILL IT TAKE FOR THE CASUAL BOSTON FAN TO START WATCHING THE TEAM?
Edlow: “Diehard Celtics fans are some of the best fans in the NBA. You guys reading this know you are going to follow along through thick and thin as long as the rebuild takes. But this is Boston, so casual fans are a bit different.
“The Patriots just won the Super Bowl. The Red Sox won the 2013 World Series. The Bruins won the 2011 Stanley Cup … the Celtics are last in line. It speaks to how truly amazing Boston’s success has been that the 2008 Celtics are the last team in the four major sports to win a title for the city. But getting back to the question, this team is going to have to grow into a contender if it wants the casual fan to begin watching consistently.”
Rohrbach: “Barring the right ping-pong ball popping up or a first-round upset — one outcome more unlikely than the next — the Celtics should continue to experience a drop in television ratings and ticket sales until they can add a big-name free agent or complete a blockbuster trade or both — whether it’s this summer, the next or years down the road. Casual fans don’t tune in for developing talent and a well-schemed brand of basketball.”
Packard: “I have no idea, because winning or the hope of winning doesn’t seem to impact fan interest. The Celtics are closer to a championship than the Bruins, yet the Celtics haven’t been mentioned on the airways in months and instead we are stuck talking about Julien, Chara, Chiarelli and cap hell. The NBA is by far the second-most entertaining professional sport after football. There are probably 12 teams that have a legitimate chance at winning the title right now. There is an exciting, young, developing team that plays hard every night, but no one is paying attention, and it’s mind-boggling.”