2018 NBA Offseason Review: Boston Celtics
A quiet offseason allows Boston to rely on internal improvement and the return of two featured stars as they look to fend off competitors in the East.
Too many times, an adage is emphasized in the domain of today’s sports: “Championship or bust.”
Of course, there are other things such as tickets to sell, players to improve, and a future to build. The Celtics take solace in the latter.
Still, this past season they defied expectations and pushed the King and his henchman to the brink of 7 games. And despite not tearing down the castle that is the Cavs reign, Boston looked like the young prince destined to inherit their rightful spot atop the throne of the East. So how do they make the next jump?
Well, the silver lining is found in the LeBron exodus. Wipe off the windshield and a championship trophy glimmers in the distance. With young pieces, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and to a lesser extent; Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, replacing the injured Gordon Hayward valiantly, the future is bright. You might even need to throw some shades on for this one.
Tatum and Brown took exponential leaps this year. Tatum, picked third in the 2017 draft, quelled any reasonable draft doubts with a standout debut. He did everything Hayward was supposed to do; shot three’s at a high clip, defended the best player, and provided dribble relief for their abundance of guards.
The former Duke star averaged 13.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.6 assists on 47.5% field goal shooting and 43.4% three-point shooting. Pitted against rookie counterparts Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Tatum was by all means the most efficient.
Jaylen Brown’s rookie season left a trail of question marks. Was his ball-handling ability skilled enough to play the 2? Could he add a three-point shot to his already staunch defense?
If anything, Brown answered outstanding questions by soaring above and beyond. To say he is twice the player is not outlandish. After all, he doubled his scoring and steal output and nearly doubled assists and rebounds.
The Hayward injury was absolutely devastating. I would never wish a broken leg — especially one that excruciating — on my worst enemy. Howbeit, the young players got a chance to shine like Rudy Ruettiger when he sacked the quarterback and was lifted into the air.
For a team destined for greater things in the future, such an injury could be considered a blessing in disguise — if not for the obvious backlash from Boston fans for saying such a thing.
It’s easy to forget the type of player Hayward is. Despite a high-profile within basketball circles, Hayward tends to maintain a low profile. So when a workout video (with Drew Hanlen, because who else?) was released, Boston fans breathed a sigh of relief. His 25 jump shots sunk through the cylinder like a basketball playing robot.
The host of step-backs, jab steps, and fadeaways, reminds fans that an All-NBA appearance was once reality, not fantasy. Foreshadowing of a bright Boston future, Hayward looked like his Utah self.
With a scary profusion of assets, Hayward coming back, and the incubation of young talent, the Celtics are East favorites until proven otherwise. Fundamentally, Hayward is a 2018 offseason coup. For the sake of this article, I won’t count him as one.
Additions: Brad Wanamaker (one-year, $831,311) Jabari Bird (two-year, $3 million), Robert Williams (27th pick in 2018 draft)
Subtractions: Shane Larkin (Anadolu Efes, one year, $1.3 million) Abdel Nader traded for Rodney Purvis (waived)
Re-signed: Marcus Smart 4-years, $52 million, Aron Baynes (2-years, $10.6 million)
Potential Subtractions: Greg Monroe
Marcus Smart embodies Boston culture
If you’re within earshot of a Celtics fan, you’ll hear faint whispers of the undervaluation of Marcus Smart. And they’re right, as Smart does all the little things. He is ground zero for Celtics culture, inspiring teammates with gritty charge attempts, loose ball frenzies, and feel-good stories. So when free agency rolled around, teams with cap space were expected to throw hefty offer sheets at the former Oklahoma State guard. Except that didn’t happen. And just like that, Boston was able to walk away relatively scot-free.
And while his hustle plays may be the basketball equivalent to Tom Cruise stunt scenes, his statistics tell a different story. Even if you sum up Smart’s best figures, he looks a year away from playing in China.
With offensive fireplugs in the fold, Smart was not a feature in Brad Stevens’ offense. Given only a sample size of opportunities, Smart has to take advantage.
Simply put, offensive efficiency is not in the Marcus Smart dictionary.
Scoring a meager 0.77 per pick and roll possession, Smart struggled to create even with teammates’ help. In such plays, he graded out as a bottom-tier player, at the 42.7 percentile. That being said, his volatile play infected other extremities of his games as well.
Rarely featured in an offense brimming with star power, it’s still of note that Smart could not find ways to find shots for himself. With an 8.9% frequency and 0.79 points per possession, he grades out in the 35th percentile in isolation-driven plays.
Yes, Smart has had weight issues in the past. He’s made some amends on weight loss. Yet his grandest strength is made perfect in weakness. By using his linebacker build, Brad Stevens could maximize Smart’s output. In sets like these, Smart even backs down power forwards.
Don’t sell Brad Wanamaker short
While the departure of Shane Larkin is certainly not addition by subtraction— Larkin was notably valiant in spot-duty when Kyrie went down — the addition of Brad Wanamaker is at least a lateral move. Wanamaker provides better defense than the Larkin, standing 5 inches taller and weighing 30 pounds more. He is more of a combo guard but proved to be a solid passer in his time overseas.
In 179 career games overseas, the former Pittsburgh guard averaged 12.8 points 4.3 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 29.2 minutes. The one vital difference between him and Larkin is 3-point shooting. Wanamaker shot just 2.4 threes a game, at 34.3%.
Synergy Sports narrows down the guard’s NBA range three-point attempts. Last season, 18.7% of his shots were from NBA three-point range and he shot 36.1% on such shots. Of course, Wanamaker won’t be a high usage player on Boston.
He will have to move without the ball, which he did wonderfully playing next to former NBA players; Jan Vesely, James Nunnally, and Luigi Datome. He was was a fantastic secondary creator, placing top 10 in assists in leagues three times. He also did it an efficient rate, posting a 19.2 PER with Fenerbahce last season.
His pickpocket ability could prove valuable to this Boston team. For the past 5 years, Wanamaker placed within the top-5 in league competition in steals. Already equipped with defensive menace, Marcus Smart, and thief, Terry Rozier, the second team will instill fear into opponent’s souls.
This defensive lineup could very well be the kryptonite to the Hampton’s 5 (Okay maybe not, but still).
Kawhi Leonard was only an idea
The disgruntled star made it clear that he was ready to bolt from the team he won 2 championships with (well made clear by his uncle at least). What the Spurs wanted in return was the main constriction to the Kawhi-Boston pairing. Like a girl out of their league in a bar, the Spurs would not budge, and you really can’t blame the guy trying to make his move. Conceivably, Danny Ainge shot his shot and whiffed. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Still, blame should not fall on his shoulders. He’s made gutsy moves before. There is a discernible pay off for each of them. Swinging for the fences and swapping Jeff Green for Ray Allen and then turning around and trading for bright prospect Al Jefferson for the aging Kevin Garnett was audacious.
Swapping the most revered hero—the mighty Isaiah Thomas—since Paul Revere for an oft-injured and rivaled Kyrie Irving was a dicey endeavor. Time and time again, Danny Ainge walks the line of audacity and suspicion, but with calculation and fortitude. If the past informs the future in any form, Ainge cannot be blamed for withholding a cupboard of assets on a possible (dare I say, probable) rental.
Draft moves—or lack of them
With a whimsical GM at the helm, anything was in the realm of possibility come draft night. There were murmurs of the team moving up to snag Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., or Mo Bamba.
All three rookies are decidedly transcendent talents and could have added another brick to the house of assets, but it was not a necessity. The team already has a solid foundation of draft picks that could be shipped for a star in the future (Anthony Davis???) if they decide to star-shop.
Howbeit, the Celtics stayed put and got the player they wanted at 27. Robert Williams is a talent rarely available to a team that is coming off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. After all, scouts slotted him inside the top-10 last year.
Despite being a steal at 27, there is a cogent reason his stock deflated. A series of mishaps and miscommunication legitimized preconceived notions surrounding the big man. First, he overslept a media conference call. Then, came the missed flight and missed team practice. Behind the obvious cloud of doubt and worry, was Danny Ainge, unruffled by the background noise of Williams.
“We’re comfortable with who he is,” Ainge said of Williams. “A lot of the people we’ve talked to — his coaches, some teammates, his trainers — everybody likes Robert, Ainge told 247Sports. I know he’s not perfect, but most players aren’t. We think he’s got a great upside. We’re very excited to have him.”
On the basketball front, Williams is everything you want in a modern big man. Shaped by the basketball gods with a chiseled 238-pound frame, any worry about his 6’9’’ height — generally on the smaller end for centers — is dismissed by his domineering 7’5’’ wingspan. He’s bouncy and blocks shot at will, recording 2.5 blocks in two seasons. Simply put, Williams warranted Clint Capela comparisons.
Much like Capela, Williams’ offensive game is predicated on guard play. Unable to utilize dribbling moves — much less post moves — to create shots, Williams is a one trick pony. Right now, he excels at running the floor and being on the receiving end of alley-oops.
There is a small chance he inveigles a role akin Jordan Bell had his rookie year in Oakland. In the slightest, Williams will have vast opportunities to learn from the talent in front of him. In time, he will earn the chance to outpace his current label.
The saying ”championship or bust” does not define the Celtics organization. After all, the roster is littered with young talent and players that take a yearly trip to the fountain of youth (Al Horford nods in agreement).
It is not now or never and it is certainly not championship or bust. No, this never-fail system is a calculation of youth and assets, timely moves, experience, and a backup to the backup plans. Cooked up by none other than Danny Ainge.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com, and Synergy Sports Technology.