Celtics management is nearing a crossroads, where they may have to part with some formerly coveted players or delve into the luxury tax to upgrade their roster because as team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge acknowledged this season, it is not a championship-caliber team.
It won’t be easy. The Celtics do have a $28.5 million trade exception that will be a tricky coupon to use because the trade market could develop later than usual because of the two extra playoff spots in each conference. Also, the Celtics will have to use draft pick compensation to make a deal. Potential trade partners know the Celtics want an impact player and will demand multiple picks.
The Celtics’ issue over the years is their desire to grasp too tightly to their plethora of draft picks, and it hasn’t resulted in acquiring that impact, All-Star-caliber veteran as management believed.
So the club used those picks, with Ainge and his staff having an uneven and erratic record with those selections. The hope was the Celtics would land a gem. Ainge scored massively with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, each drafted third overall in back-to-back years, but what has hurt the organization is lack of production from other recent first-round picks.
The Celtics did not help themselves with last year’s draft — in which they had three first-round picks. While Grant Williams, taken 22nd overall, has turned into a solid rotational player, the Celtics still have no idea about 14th overall pick Romeo Langford, who has missed most of the past two seasons with injuries.
Meanwhile, the Celtics could have taken defensive ace, swingman Matisse Thybulle, but instead traded his rights to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for the 33rd pick, which the Celtics used to take Carsen Edwards. Edwards has not lived up to expectations but has showed flashes of being a rotational player when given the opportunity.
So the Celtics have essentially only received contributions from Williams despite having three of the first 33 picks. That can be damaging to a team’s depth.
The Celtics scored with this year’s 26th pick, Payton Pritchard, who has immediately turned into the team’s backup point guard and most reliable reserve. Aaron Nesmith, tabbed to be an NBA-ready shooter when drafted out of Vanderbilt, has been slow to adjust but has potential.
Yet, Ainge gave away the 30th overall pick, which Memphis used to select TCU senior Desmond Bane, who is averaging 10.3 points and shooting 48.3 percent from the 3-point line. Because the Celtics didn’t want to make a roster deletion to make room for another guaranteed first-round contract, it took back two future second-round picks in return. That hurts depth.
Using the full mid-level exception on Tristan Thompson hard-capped the team, meaning they cannot exceed a certain salary number, but it wasn’t a mistake for a contract. Thompson has played the way he usually does, rebounding and scoring occasionally. Did the Celtics need another big man? Yes, after they decided to jettison Enes Kanter, who was moved to Portland for a trade exception.
Thompson, however, isn’t the large defensive presence the Celtics needed to contain bigger centers such as Joel Embiid, forcing them to get by with more team defense against bigs.
Ainge also decided that Jeff Teague was a better point guard option than Brad Wanamaker, who signed with the Golden State Warriors. Teague is currently out of the rotation because of his inability to score in the paint or serve as a distributor. The organization decided Isaiah Thomas, begging for a chance to return to the NBA after another hip surgery, wasn’t an option.
The organization’s problem is they were perhaps too loyal and dedicated to draft picks and signees, refusing to make roster moves to clear space. Teams such as the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers are constantly searching for roster upgrades while the Celtics have stuck with this roster — besides Thompson, Teague, and the draft picks — since last season. Ainge did not make a deadline trade last spring.
That complacency along with injuries, COVID-19 issues, and some inconsistent play is why the Celtics are here, one game above .500 nearly halfway into the season. Things could change but it’s probably going to require Ainge to take some calculated risks, perhaps part ways with members of the current squad and hope that the impact player the team has been seeking to replace Gordon Hayward can be obtained in the next five weeks.
But the Celtics didn’t get here quickly. A series of questionable drafts, lack of roster moves, and passing on capable free agents, such as Bryn Forbes, who is shooting 46.9 percent from the 3-point line for the Milwaukee Bucks and earning $2.3 million this season, has cost them dearly so far.
HOW ABOUT THOSE JAZZ?
Three-point shooters have it covered
Believe it or not, the Utah Jazz have the best record in the NBA and they have been the most impressive team in the league the past two months. They are wiping out opponents, such as the Celtics, with the ability to place four above-average 3-point shooters around former defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert.
The Jazz simply spray the ball around or dive into the paint and dish to shooters. Of their four starters besides Gobert and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jordan Clarkson, the player with the lowest 3-point percentage is 38.7 (Bojan Bogdanovic). And Joe Ingles is leading the league shooting 45.1 percent. When the Jazz shoot and defend, they are difficult to beat, especially with point guard Donovan Mitchell remaining efficient as a scorer and becoming a better playmaker.
“I think the biggest thing for us, we’ve had games where we’ve been up 20, 30; when we get a lead, not to kind of let up when he get up 10,” Mitchell said. “Just continue to keep our foot on the gas on all fronts. I always relate this back to the Bubble, we kind of got laxed a little bit on the finer details. That’s what’s helped us this year. We’ve done a good job of that. It’s going to be really crucial coming up.”
The Jazz lead the NBA in point differential at 9.7. The next highest team is the Los Angeles Clippers at 6.8. The key to Utah’s success is Mitchell trusting his teammates more than in the past, and those teammates becoming better shooters and scorers. That combination has been difficult for other teams to defend.
“The first step is seeing the [play to be made] because if you don’t see it, you’re in trouble,” Mitchell said about playmaking. “Once you start to see the read, that’s the first step. It becomes how do you get to make those reads? My approach to it is not getting into a crowd. Setting up how to make a pass, setting up how to draw the defense in and then get into a spot where I can still create a pass, that’s the biggest thing for me and it took me a while to figure that out. It’s not easy when you’ve got guys doing this for years and I’m just coming into the league.”
The Jazz basically spread the floor, leaving space for Mitchell or Mike Conley to dive into the paint and score, lob, or dish. Usually, one of those three methods have been effective.
“Now we have shooters in every spot so being able to play with guys who can make contested threes, that threat keeps the defense out,” Mitchell said. “So if I get into the paint, we have a layup, we have a floater, we have Rudy [on the lob]. It makes it a lot of easier when you have guys who can shoot it that well from the outside. It’s always going to be the same, understand that’s the goal, the goal is trying to get into the paint and create an advantage.
“That’s the one thing that I’ve understood since I’ve been here and we’ve done a great job of doing it this year.”
Pelicans have Zion, but they still can’t get stops
The New Orleans Pelicans fired coach Alvin Gentry because they didn’t play good enough defense. This season, under Stan Van Gundy, the Pelicans are eighth in the NBA in scoring and 24th in points allowed and tied with the Celtics, among other teams, for 20th in field goal percentage allowed.
Van Gundy knows the Pelicans will never win a playoff round if his young team doesn’t improve defensively. It’s been an arduous process.
“Just frustrating. It’s so hard. Our guys are playing well offensively,” he said. “There’s so much pressure on your offense you’re going to talk about every missed opportunity on offense because you have to score virtually every time when you can’t stop anybody and that’s where our team is at right now. We’re just not doing enough well.”
There is a perception the Pelicans should be better. They have Zion Williamson, perhaps the heir apparent to LeBron James if his health allows, and reigning Most Improved Player Brandon Ingram. Still, the Pelicans are under .500 and losing close games.
”I think they’re both capable of [closing games], to be honest,” Van Gundy said. “They’re perfectly capable. Neither one of them is afraid of the moment. There was no fear of passing up shots. Those guys are perfectly capable of winning games right now.”
Van Gundy believes Williamson is a generational player despite his small sample size (51 games, 23.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 60.2 percent from the field at age 20.)
“It’s amazing what the guy has done,” Van Gundy said. “He’s 14th or 15th in the league in scoring and the only guy with a better effective field goal percentage in the top 50 scorers is Steph Curry and that’s barely. He’s being efficient. His assist numbers are up. What the guy is doing 50 games into his career is phenomenal.”
THE NETS ARE RISING
If Big Three are all healthy, look out
The Brooklyn Nets haven’t played their full lineup much this season. Kevin Durant has missed games because of COVID-19 protocols and injuries. Kyrie Irving took two weeks off with personal issues, leaving James Harden to try to win games at times by himself, and he did such last week in a stirring comeback against the Phoenix Suns.
So what happens when the Nets get healthy, get practice time, and the trio of Durant, Harden, and Irving really mesh? It could be a championship combination.
“We really haven’t had a lot of time to practice; we haven’t had a lot of time to play with a full squad, just to be able to gel and build our chemistry as other teams have,” Brooklyn center DeAndre Jordan said. “Everybody is excited for the opportunities they have, regardless of who’s in and who’s out. We have guys who are going to come out and give us great minutes, regardless of who is healthy or not. It builds confidence and also some great habits for us.”
The Nets know they have plenty of time to get things together but their recent winning streak has shown the rest of the league they are close. The goal this season is a championship, despite all the injuries, issues, and newcomers.
“We’re still a ways away from being what we want to be,” Jordan said. “I don’t think our radar should go up more if we’re playing the Lakers. It should be that way if we’re playing a team that’s under .500. But we realize how important this game is. Being on the road during the pandemic, we’re forced to hang out with each other. You can’t do a lot of stuff outside the hotel. We talk about basketball. We talk about life. There are times where you go a little crazy but we’re OK.”
One of the issues for the Nets has been defense. They can score with any team, especially when at least two of their Big Three are scorching. But they can’t continue to win consistently, especially in the postseason, by just outscoring teams.
“I do think we’re getting better in our primary defense,” coach Steve Nash said. “I do see small improvements. Eventually, it would be nice to get there and have a bigger toolbox. We’re still in the camp of focus on our basic tenets defensively. Everything is so new here and we’re trying to double down on our basic principles.”
Nash, the former two-time MVP, was asked about his experience with the Lakers, which was essentially the end of his career. He broke his leg two games into his Los Angeles tenure in 2012 and never returned to form. He eventually retired after playing just 15 games in 2013-14. It wasn’t the way he wanted to go out.
“It was a tale of two sides, my experience with the Lakers,” he said. “It was a disaster that I couldn’t find my health and basically my career unraveled after hours and hours of fighting for whatever I could. It wasn’t meant to be. The other side of the coin was the people in the Lakers organization that was so good to me. Incredible experience to be part of that fabric. It was an incredible experience and a disaster all at once and I don’t regret any of it.
“It was a unique experience. I was so blindly focused on returning to play and playing as long as I could and in a sense I was so naive and I really thought I could get back. The truth was that was probably never in the cards. Ever since I broke my tibia in my second game with the Lakers, my body has never been the same. I was so clouded by returning to play I wasn’t thinking about anything else.”
The Celtics will travel to winter-torn Texas Sunday evening after their game against the Pelicans but the weather is expected to clear up for their game Tuesday. The Mavericks game with the Houston Rockets Friday was postponed because of an unusual and devastating winter snowstorm in Texas. The Celtics will play the Pelicans in New Orleans Sunday, spend two days in Dallas, then head to Atlanta for a game Wednesday … The NBA is expected to release the schedule for the second half of the season in the coming days, which is leaving great uncertainty for teams with road trips. The Celtics will have a West Coast trip to Los Angeles to play the Lakers, then Portland and Denver. The Celtics also will play at Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Memphis, and Houston. For the East Coast, the Celtics are expected to play three games in New York against the Knicks and Nets … The Nets are leaving a couple of roster spots open to accommodate players who will eventually be bought out. They briefly signed center Norvel Pelle but he was released to make room for former Oklahoma City swingman Andre Roberson, who was a free agent and is still trying to prove he’s all the way back from a devastating knee injury that cost him nearly two years. Meanwhile, there could be potential opportunities for players participating for Team USA after AmeriCup qualifying, which resumed Wednesday. Former Celtics Isaiah Thomas, Joe Johnson, and Brandon Bass are on the squad while former Celtics’ trainer Ed Lacerte is the lead trainer. Also on the team is former UConn standout Josh Boone, The team is coached by former Milwaukee coach Joe Prunty. An assistant is Yale coach James Jones, who will have to wait until next season to return to school because the Ivy League opted out of the season … Former Celtic Dave Cowens was promoted to vice chairman of the NBA Basketball Retired Players Association after spending time as director. Former Blazers guard and 76ers coach Johnny Davis was named chairman. Ex-NBA standouts Sam Perkins and Grant Hill were also named to the board of directors, joining Thurl Bailey, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Dave Naves, Sheryl Swoopes, and Jerome Williams.