Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Opening Thoughts

The wait is over and basketball season is back.  The Celtics finished their preseason with a promising 6-1 record and tonight they seek to carry that momentum into the regular season.  The game takes place at 7:30 pm in Boston against the lowly 76ers, whom the Celtics defeated 81-65 in their final preseason game last week.  

The Sixers severely lack depth and scoring ability.  They plan to rebuild around their talented new rookie center, Jahlil Okafor, but overall they are currently one of the worst teams in the NBA.  The Celtics have the depth and talent to become one of the top teams in the East, so expect an easy victory tonight.  Here are some important things to watch for in the season opener:  

1. The Starting Lineup – Smart – Bradley – Crowder – Lee – Zeller

Brad Stevens dabbled with several different starting lineups throughout the preseason, but this one was most prevalent.  Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder have all stepped into leadership roles while David Lee is also a natural leader.  However Amir Johnson is much more capable on defense than Lee, making him one of several players who are banging on the door of the starting lineup.

Lee is a great addition … just not necessarily a great starting power forward.  He brings intangible assets such as veteran presence, leadership, and offensive versatility.  Unfortunately he is just not that effective on the court anymore.  He helped Golden State win a title last year but barely received any playing time during the postseason.

His offensive awareness helps the team run smoothly and he has developed a nice rapport with Bradley.  However Lee’s defense is unreliable and his scoring ability showed further regression during the preseason.  If Lee starts tonight, look for him to gradually relinquish that role to Johnson.

Lee and Zeller have played well, but not as well as Johnson and Kelly Olynyk have played off the bench.  The rotation may change frequently throughout the season.  Furthermore guards Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner, two of the team's top playmakers, are part of the second unit right now.  They are fighting for starting roles as well.  Still, the biggest questions remain in the frontcourt, where six talented big men are fighting for four rotational spots.  

2. Interior Presence – Somebody must step up

The frontcourt puzzle will play itself out.  The Celtics have plenty of talented big men and some will earn more minutes than others.  However one of the best ways for these guys to establish themselves in the rotation is to step up their interior defensive game. 

The Celtics have spent the last five years getting outmuscled and outrebounded.  They need immediate improvement in paint presence so that they no longer look helpless against opponents who can score effectively inside.  Offensive rebounds have also been a major issue. 

Smart, Bradley, Crowder, and Terry Rozier give the Celtics an elite defensive presence in their backcourt.  However, once opponents penetrate inside, the Celtics bigs often look overmatched against (what should be) inferior opponents.  Lee and Olynyk are the biggest culprits of getting beaten inside by inferior players.  Zeller is guilty too. 

Look for Johnson to fight for minutes, as well as a starting role, by building upon his defensive prowess.  Johnson’s high level of activity on defense makes him very valuable.  He has an underrated quickness that enables him to impact the game in many ways.  

This team does not need Johnson to be a big-time scorer.  He just needs to consistently work hard and use his size and athleticism to maximize his defensive impact.  Furthermore, Sullinger and Mickey are on the outskirts of the rotation, but they can still earn some minutes if they are able to help control the paint by grabbing boards and playing physical defense.  Sullinger got hot towards the end of the preseason, finally parking his gigantic body under the rim and proceeding to pull down 14 rebounds during their final preseason game.

3. Noel and Okafor – The Saviors of the Sixers?

Sixers fans have been waiting for months to see their star big men in regular season action together for the first time.  Okafor and Nerlens Noel are both exceptionally skilled centers.  Okafor is a massive threat in the post while Noel is freakishly athletic.  The young and talented 6’11’’ centers combine for an intriguingly ferocious frontcourt in Philly.
Many believed that Okafor would be the #1 overall pick this past summer.  However the 19 year old, 270 lb freshman somehow slipped to Philadelphia at #3, right after leading Duke to a national championship.  Nevertheless the massive youngster has NBA-ready post moves and an NBA-ready body.  Essentially, he is teenage Al Jefferson with a 7'5'' wingspan.

Nearly half of this year's draft class believes that Okafor will win Rookie of the Year.  It's easy to see why, especially when you put him alongside a blossoming Noel, the #6 overall pick in the 2013 draft.  The exciting duo will give the Celtics a lot of trouble, but other than two big men, the Sixers don't have much else going for them.

Expect Okafor and Noel to combine for approximately 25 points and 20 rebounds tonight.  The rest of the game should belong to Boston.  Okafor will show off some nifty offensive plays in his NBA debut, working the post against Zeller and the Celtics.  Nevertheless the Sixers stand little chance of winning the game.  

Prediction: Celtics win 94-81.  Look for Smart to dominate on both sides of the ball, Crowder to set the pace in the hustle department, and rookie point guard Terry Rozier to come up with some big plays in his first official NBA game.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Celtics Rookies Implicated in Louisville Escort Scandal

During the Celtics’ preseason trip to Milan, Terry Rozier declined to speak to reporters about the ongoing investigation into the Louisville sex scandal.  He simply said,
“When it’s time to answer those questions and deal with that, I will. But right now I’m just trying to take in this moment with these guys out here and have a lot of fun with my teammates. So, like I said, when that time comes to answer that, I will.”
This morning, ESPN’s Outside the Lines aired an in-depth investigation into the scandal.  Katina Powell, who runs the escort service, claims that from 2010-14 many Louisville players and recruits were treated to on-campus dorm room shows complete with strippers, dancers, and sexual encounters for money.  

In her book about her business dealings with the Louisville basketball program, she claims that several high school aged recruits, including rookie Celtics Rozier and Jordan Mickey, had sex with her dancers for money.  The dancers were paid by Andre McGee, a former Louisville grad assistant to the basketball team.    

Rozier recently told Outside the Lines,
"I don't want to talk about it. ... I was already committed before I took my visit. ... I will say, though, Coach P [Pitino], as far as the dorm situations and visits, he'd go out to eat with the recruits and their parents. As far as after that, he wouldn't know. ... I can say his nose is clean."
Mickey could not be reached for comment.  If these allegations are true, Louisville and head coach Rick Pitino will face deadly sanctions, not just from a recruiting standpoint but from a legal one as well.  

Promoting prostitution is a Class D Felony and both Louisville officials and Powell are in danger of facing prison time depending on how the case unfolds.  A major point of focus will be whether or not Powell personally profited from the exchanges. 

It is highly unlikely that McGee, a grad student at the time, could afford to pay for all these expensive sex parties.  

Powell claims that McGee would often bring wads of cash to the parties and hand out money to the recruits to “pay” the dancers to simulate a strip club environment inside the dorm rooms.  McGee would allegedly ask the recruits which girl they liked, and then would negotiate deals with the individual strippers to have sex with the recruits. 

This story is gaining a lot of momentum and it is very unfortunate that two promising young Celtics players had to be involved in this sinful scandal out of Louisville.  In addition to the young recruits, many of the dancers, including Powell’s own daughters, are said to have participated in these sex parties as minors.  However the age of consent in Kentucky is 16. 

The Louisville program may be forever damaged by these allegations and Pitino’s coaching legacy will be forever tainted if it is determined that he knew anything  about the escort services.  The school may very well be stripped of their 2013 championship.  

Whatever happens in Louisville – here’s to hoping that the scandal will not be a huge distraction for Rozier and Mickey as they begin their promising young professional careers in Boston.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Five Takeaways From Last Night’s Preseason Game

The Celtics showed off their depth and versatility last night with a commanding victory over the Brooklyn Nets.  Boston defeated Brooklyn 109-105 however the Celtics never trailed and they firmly controlled the game from start to finish. 

Boston led by as much as 18 before inserting non-rotational players such as Corey Walden and James Young into the lineup for the entire fourth quarter.  Overall, the Celtics were undeniably impressive in their first taste of NBA preseason action.  Here are five key takeaways from last night’s victory.

1. The Celtics defensive backcourt wreaks havoc.  As expected, the Celtics displayed high levels of energy and were incredibly active on defense.  They contested nearly every single opposing shot in the first half and frequently harassed opposing ball handlers with tight defensive pressure.  The Celtics recorded 12 steals and 9 blocks, frustrating Nets players and causing them to lose their cool and play errant basketball.  Brooklyn point guard Jarrett Jack was ejected in the second quarter for tackling Jonas Jerebko after Jack had turned the ball over to Jared Sullinger.  

The Celtics use hustle, resilience, and tenacity to create chaos for opposing offenses.  It was very impressive that the Celtics could keep their defensive intensity level high even with three of their best on-ball defenders missing the game.  Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Terry Rozier are combo guards that bring explosiveness and tenacity to their backcourt defense while often producing subsequent fast-break points.  The Celtics scored 18 fast break points last night and that number will only go up when those guards return from their respective ailments. 

2. The Celtics defensive frontcourt still lacks paint presence.  This is an issue that has plagued the Celtics for five years.  While the Celtics can outrun almost any opponent and can produce offensively in a variety of ways, they still lack an interior defensive anchor.  The Nets played poorly last night but they still out-rebounded the Celtics while managing to score 50 points from inside the paint.  The Celtics big men need to do better.  

Amir Johnson is a slight upgrade from last season in terms of defensive presence, but without a commanding force that truly deters opponents from frequently attacking the rim, Johnson and the other bigs must learn to work together more effectively.  It is worth noting that David Lee also did not play last night, however majority of Lee’s contributions will come through his offensive versatility and veteran leadership rather than his defense.

3. The Celtics have ridiculous depth.  Before the game, I wrote about the depth on the Celtics roster and that depth is what enabled them to dominate the Nets even when four important Celtics players were sidelined.  

The Celtics theoretically have enough talent to field three NBA starting lineups, so opposing second units will always be overmatched against Boston's bench.  The Celtics backups exhibit zero drop-off in both production and intensity. 

 There is no rest for the weary against the Celtics, who attack their opponents with intensity and fresh legs by mixing in so many different hard-working defensive-oriented players into the lineup.  Many teams find themselves struggling to field a passable roster during the middle months of the long NBA season, but the Celtics have the talent to always be productive, regardless of what combination of players is on the court.

4. I’m going to keep saying it - R.J. Hunter may be the future face of this franchise.  Deep down, we can all see that this kid is special and there is no ceiling on his potential.  Hunter was stroking it from three-point range in the first half last night and then filled up the rest of his stat sheet in the second half.  He works hard and has the ability to score like crazy.  Obviously he’s just a rookie and can’t be trusted yet as a reliable volume scorer in the NBA, but that hasn’t stopped him from finding countless other ways to contribute.  

His length and basketball IQ often help him intercept passes and he recorded a team-high 4 steals against the Nets.  He also contributed 11 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists in his first game against NBA opposition while showing no hesitation when pulling up from three-point range.  His jump shot will only become more lethal as he gradually becomes more comfortable in the NBA.

5. Sullinger looks very out of place.  He’s clearly uncomfortable about his uncertain role in the rotation and he honestly looks like he belongs on another team.  After all the offseason hype about Sullinger finally getting in shape, he predictably failed to do so.  Furthermore he shot 1-8 from the field last night, chucking up erroneous long range jumpers.  It is hard to watch Sullinger launch three-point attempts when everybody knows that he should be using his gigantic backside to post up defenders.  

There was a time when Sullinger was one of the best young players on this team, but with a measly two rebounds, three points, and four fouls in 12 minutes of action yesterday, it is hard to envision him receiving meaningful playing time this year.  The offseason acquisitions of Johnson and Lee make Sullinger entirely expendable, but truthfully there are no teams right now that would be interested in trading for a young player that isn't showing any improvement either from a skills or a conditioning standpoint.

Sullinger will likely be relegated to a bench role, and that’s probably for the best if Stevens wants his team to be as fast, active, and aggressive as possible.  Sullinger could be a starter for many NBA teams but he is holding himself back from reaching his full potential.  He will only play significant minutes this season when Lee is resting or when another big man gets hurt.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Deep Impact

The Celtics were surprisingly productive last season, and after upgrading in the offseason, they are ready to turn heads once again.  Evan Turner, Avery Bradley, David Lee, and other Celtics players have not been shy in talking about the team’s remarkable depth at every position.  This team expects to be playoff-bound for the second straight year, and for the first time since 2010, the roster features fifteen legitimate players – all non-busts – who are ready to compete. 

Yes, the Celtics still lack a star scorer (let alone three like the 2008 Championship team) but Danny Ainge has fashioned an undeniably impressive foundation of young hard-working players.  R.J. Hunter may eventually grow into a bigtime scoring role, but in the meantime, the Celtics will operate with fifteen different guys (arguably sixteen if you count James Young) with unique skillsets and excellent work ethic.  They have fifteen different players that could potentially be starters in the NBA if they were not all crammed together on one roster.  Ainge has quietly transformed the Celtics into the deepest team in the East.

Check out the box score from their preseason exhibition win against Olimpia Milano.  Every single Celtics player contributed.  Turner, who led the team with three triple-doubles last season, was out due to a knee injury.  Fourteen of the remaining fifteen players scored points. (way to go James Young – perhaps you would have gotten on the board too if you were more concerned with consistency on the basketball court rather than consistency on the dance floor.)

The roster can be broken down into three logical rotations.

PG: Marcus Smart
Isaiah Thomas
Terry Rozier
SG: Avery Bradley
Evan Turner
R.J. Hunter
SF: Jae Crowder
Jonas Jerebko
Perry Jones
PF: David Lee
Amir Johnson
Jared Sullinger
C: Tyler Zeller
Kelly Olynyk
Jordan Mickey
*SG James Young is not listed on these rotations because he’s clearly still not ready for meaningful minutes.

Defeating Milan is obviously no big deal.  However it is extremely encouraging to see that all fifteen Boston players who touched the court in their first preseason game registered positive plus/minus ratings.  In other words, the team played well from start to finish, regardless of which combination of players was on the court. 

These preseason trips to Europe inherently build a great deal of chemistry and comradery for NBA teams.  Many of these players have a chip on their shoulder from being cut or traded by previous teams, and many of them have a chip on their other shoulder from being told by many Celtics fans to tank for a lottery pick last season.  

Ainge promised each and every one of these players an opportunity to contribute for the Celtics and they all bought in, working hard under Brad Stevens to silence the doubters and surge to a playoff spot in the second half of the season.  This roster is full of hard-working talented players and that is no accident. 

These like-minded individuals often form a brotherhood during these kinds of trips and a passionate culture becomes infectious.  The 2008 championship squad traveled to Italy in the preseason and bred a powerful winning culture known as “Ubuntu” to unite the team, while priding themselves on hard work, defense, and faith in a coach that identifies with and speaks to the players. Sound familiar?

This team may not yet have the star power to win a championship, but they have everything else they need to become a top-four team in the East.  With a team-wide focus on defense and three productive players at every position, this team is incredibly well-equipped to handle the grind of a long NBA season.  Better yet essentially every player is capable of playing multiple positions, so the possible lineup combinations that Brad Stevens will dabble with are endless. 

These Celtics are multidimensional with an ability to play big or small.  They will often look to outrun opponents – but they can also work the middle with newly acquired veteran big men, Lee and Amir Johnson.

There is a plethora of three point shooting ability that will help their offense regardless of whether they play fast-paced or decide to slow it down.  Working the ball inside and using Lee to establish a an inside-outside presence was very effective during their preseason games in Europe. 
Something interesting to watch out for – Lee and Bradley have formed an unlikely scoring duo in the starting unit.  The two of them have combined for 57 points in two preseason games.  Isaiah Thomas obviously continues to be the offensive lightning rod as their sixth man, but Lee’s veteran leadership seems to be rubbing off on Bradley, who at 24 years old is the longest tenured Celtic. 

I wrote about Hunter’s bright future in Boston and mentioned that Bradley’s inconsistent jump shot is one of the reasons that Hunter will have the opportunity to shine as a sharpshooting volume scorer.  However Lee’s presence, as well as the battle for playing time, has seemingly motivated Bradley to “fix” his jump shot.  Thus far in the preseason he is 7-8 from three-point range while playing his usual tenacious defense, and while his long range buckets came mostly on wide-open looks, it does appear that Bradley has removed a hitch from his jump shot that hurt him last season. 

Many of Bradley's three-pointers were also assisted by Lee, who was scoring effectively and frequently drawing double-teams in the paint.  The veteran leadership that Lee is demonstrating is very valuable to a team with so many young players.  Coming off a championship season with the Warriors, Lee knows what it takes to be successful and has frequently drawn comparisons between the Celtics and the Warriors.  Bradley seems to love having him on the court and in addition to helping him because more effective as a player, hopefully Lee teaches the young veteran a thing or two about being a leader as well.

The Celtics get their first taste of NBA action tonight in Brooklyn against the Nets.

Don’t be surprised if the Celtics are out there running way too hard for a preseason game.  It’s not like they have to worry about fresh legs.