Tuesday, December 5, 2017

2017-18 Boston Celtics Keys to Success

Boston lost Gordon Hayward to open the season, but that has not stopped Brad Stevens from leading the Celtics to one of their best starts in franchise history with stellar play from Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and MVP candidate Kyrie Irving.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

2017-2018 NBA Awards Predictions

With the Celtics and Cavaliers tipping off the NBA regular season tonight, after an unprecedentedly chaotic offseason that featured 15 All-Stars changing teams, it is time to break down predictions for the NBA’s end-of-season awards.

AP Photo/Darren Hauck

Most Improved Player: Aaron Gordon

In his fourth year in the league, the 22-year-old Gordon is a prime breakout candidate. After playing three positions including center during the preseason, Gordon appears poised to lead the Magic in both points and rebounds this season. His preseason averages of 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds in 23.9 minutes were considerably better than his 12.7 points and 5.1 rebounds over 28.7 minutes per game last season.

Gordon is demonstrating newfound confidence, improved physicality, and consistent aggression in the paint. He also appears to have improved his three-point shot, which he converted at a .429 rate this preseason compared to .288 last season. 

Gordon accredits much of his development to mental training and meditation and he is exhibiting the potential and athleticism necessary to develop into a dynamic high-volume scorer. The Magic traded away Victor Oladipo to rebuild in the offseason and Gordon has a great opportunity to seize a big-time scoring role in Orlando.

MIP Runner-ups: Myles Turner, Marcus Smart

NBAE/Brian Babineau via Getty Images

Sixth Man of the Year: Marcus Smart

Plenty of talented scorers have sixth man roles around the NBA, but very few of them can shut down the league's best players on defense.

Smart wears down opponents and inspires his teammates with relentless physical intensity, diving for loose balls and always doing the little things right. 

Embracing his role as the sixth man, Smart takes pride in leading the second unit. He also lost 20 pounds in the offseason and has demonstrated tremendous improvement in his jump shot during the preseason.

With a vital role and heavy minutes off the bench in relief of youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Smart will play up to four different positions for the Celtics while facilitating energy as their "sixth starter."

6MOY Runner-ups: Andre Iguodala, Eric Gordon

San Antonio Express-News

Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard

Watching the lengthy 6’7’’ Leonard lock down opponents can be mesmerizing. As the best all-around player on the second-best team in the West, Leonard has become a perennial contender for both DPOY and MVP by causing nightmares for opposing scorers and coaches with elite toughness and defensive awareness. 

Despite being expected to miss the Spurs’ regular-season opener because of a quad injury, Leonard should quickly return to wreaking havoc on defense.

DPOY Runner-ups: Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert

Rookie of the Year: Ben Simmons

Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
The #1 overall pick in the 2016 draft would have played his way into ROY consideration last year, but he suffered a season-ending foot injury prior to the start of the season. 

Now healthy, the 6’10’’ Australian forward is expected to play a variety of positions for the 76ers, including the unique point forward role seen for stars like LeBron James, Draymond Green, Kevin Garnett, and Larry Bird. Simmons has astounding court vision and dribbling skills. If he stays healthy, he will develop into an elite magician in the interior amidst a league dominated by three-point shooting.

ROY Runner-ups: Milos Teodosic, Dennis Smith Jr

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Most Valuable Player: Anthony Davis

Coming off a career year in which the 6’10’’ forward averaged 28.0 points and 11.8 rebounds, the 24-year-old Davis has looked unstoppable in the preseason. Playing alongside DeMarcus Cousins in the bruising New Orleans frontcourt, Davis racked up 37 points and 15 rebounds during their third preseason game.

As a young superstar establishing individual dominance during the age of super-teams, Davis needs to stay healthy and continue building on the monumental production he exhibited last season when he produced the fourth-highest Player Efficiency Rating in the NBA (27.59) and the second-most points per game of those four players. 

Russell Westbrook now shares the ball with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony and will no longer attempt 24 shots per game, while James and Kevin Durant sacrifice MVP votes to the teams and talent they choose to play with. As one of the most dynamic big men in the sport, Davis could shock the basketball world by leading the Pelicans to a playoff berth while putting up career-highs across the board.

MVP Runner-ups: James Harden, Kawhi Leonard

Stuart Cahill-Boston Herald

Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens

Last year, the Celtics finished atop the East for the first time in nine years and now Brad Stevens has two new All-Stars to help lead his team. Gordon Hayward helped Stevens lead Butler to a NCAA Championship game in 2010, while Kyrie Irving propelled LeBron and the Cavaliers to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances. 

Stevens will not have any difficulty in getting this motivated group of guys to buy in, as the Celtics will rally around their new talent. Look for them to win around 58 games while finishing atop the conference.

COY Runner-ups: Gregg Popovich, Quin Snyder

Jim Beckel-The Oklahoman

Executive of the Year: Sam Presti

After losing Durant, the Thunder were supposed to finish near the bottom of the tough Western Conference. Instead, Westbrook led them to the playoffs and captured his first MVP award. 

Presti rewarded his devoted point guard with a $205 million contract and a new pair of All-Star teammates. George and Anthony, like Westbrook, are high-volume scorers who won Olympic gold medals representing the USA. 

If OKC’s offense meshes, George and Anthony will punish defenses by peppering them with drives and jump shots whenever defenders scramble to converge on the lightning-quick Westbrook. 

On paper the Thunder feature one of best new starting lineups, but coach Billy Donovan is tasked with managing an array of eccentric individual personalities. He will need them all to work together to foster a healthy team culture, but at their best the Thunder could become viciously unforgiving on offense.

EOY Runner-ups: Scott Layden, Danny Ainge

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Daniel Theis Impresses in Preseason Debut

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Excitement swirled around the debuts of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and the new-look Boston Celtics on Monday as they defeated the Charlotte Hornets 94-82. Boston's starting lineup demonstrated terrific offensive potential, as Irving skillfully penetrated the lane, created scoring opportunities for teammates, and even threw down a dunk.

Aron Baynes drew the start alongside Al Horford in the frontcourt because of Marcus Morris’ ongoing legal case. The 6’10’’ Australian center made his presence felt with two offensive rebounds and a reliable midrange jumper that gradually drew Charlotte’s big men away from the paint. Baynes tallied 10 points and five boards in 18 minutes. He and Horford, two skilled shooting big men, opened up the floor for Irving and the other Celtics to operate near the hoop.

But while the basketball world was enamored with Boston’s new starting lineup, it was an unknown rookie off their bench that arguably had the biggest overall impact on the game.

Daniel Theis, the 25-year-old German forward who was quietly signed by the Celtics back in July, seized his first taste of NBA preseason action with terrific production, remarkable confidence, and fiery play. In 14 minutes, he quickly racked up 12 points, seven rebounds, three assists, one block, and one steal.

Playing alongside other international recruits and rookies, the 6'9'' Theis commanded a leadership role by frequently directing teammates and constantly staying active on offense to help space the floor while creating opportunities for offensive rebounds and second chance points.

Theis provided a glimpse of his potential, as well as a reminder that he led Brose Bamberg to three consecutive German League Championships over the last three years. He was named the league’s Best Defender last season and its Most Effective Player the year before that.

AP Photo/Steven Senne
Unlike many European big men who struggle with the transition from international leagues, Theis appears both mentally and physically ready to embrace the challenges of a faster paced game with rugged battles in the paint against seasoned veterans.

Jonas Jerebko played a valuable role for the Celtics over the past three seasons with energy, physicality, dedication, and a high basketball IQ. Theis appears to bring all those things, but in a younger and more athletic body with an ability to either shoot from deep or slam down tip-in dunks and alley-oops.

Theis has seemingly modeled aspects of his game to those of another great German basketball player. Dirk Nowitzki once utilized his unique blend of height, sharpshooting, and physicality to help usher in a new era of the NBA.

While Theis may not score as prolifically as his future Hall of Fame counterpart, he will do his best impression while providing terrific energy and some unexpected leadership for the young Celtics bench.

Boston appears poised for a great season. The additions of Irving and Hayward alongside Horford in the starting lineup make the Celtics incredibly difficult to defend, especially when role players like Theis and Baynes are knocking down open shots.

The Celtics needed frontcourt reinforcements after losing Jerebko and Kelly Olynyk in the offseason. Theis will still need to build on this performance in order to earn consistent minutes, but so far it appears that he and Baynes are ready to step into critical roles as two of Boston's best new big men.

Friday, January 27, 2017

All Eyes on Isaiah

I.T. can have many different meanings.

For most people, “Information Technology” probably comes to mind. Anybody who has worked in a restaurant might think of “Iced Tea,” while seasoned travelers may envision “Italy.”

But in Boston, I.T. stands for Hope.

Isaiah Thomas’ season numbers are staggering.

29.1 points per game, leads the Eastern Conference.

9.8 points scored off the drive per game, leads the NBA.

10.1 fourth quarter points per game, currently leads all players, this season and every season, since individual quarters first became tracked twenty years ago.

“The King in the Fourth” is the Celtics’ most prolific scorer in recent memory. He might even be their best scorer ever.

Playing in his second full season in Boston, the 5-foot-9 underdog, who once saw 59 players drafted ahead of him in 2011, has catapulted himself into elite status.

With astonishing finishing ability and sharp fluctuations of speed, Thomas baffles defenders and seemingly scores at will during crunch time.

His relentless dribble-drive penetration is balanced with a lethal pull-up jumper, and he is shooting 42% from beyond the arc in the final frame.

Thomas has singlehandedly transformed his Celtics into the highest scoring fourth quarter offense. They also have the second best fourth quarter point differential.

When he met with reporters on Thursday after being named to his second consecutive All-Star game, Thomas spoke from the heart.

"It’s stuff you dream of as a little kid… to be the guard and play for the Celtics and for them to be chanting MVP, it doesn’t seem real. So I’m just, for now, I’m staying in the moment. I’m embracing it. These fans are everything to me."

Thomas has restored the Celtics' identity as a physical and hardworking team, and they now trail the Cavaliers by just 3.5 games.

With trade rumors swirling, perhaps Danny Ainge will find a way to complement his star point guard with a bigtime frontcourt playmaker (like Blake Griffin), which would immediately shift Boston’s narrative from playoff-bound to title-hungry.

Thomas ices fourth quarters, but he recognizes his team's need for more fire in the first half.

After aggressively recruiting Al Horford during last year’s All-Star weekend, Thomas nearly helped Boston land Kevin Durant as well. Durant arguably would have put the Celtics atop the East.

Nevertheless, Thomas is extremely well-liked around the league. He will have plenty to chat about with his fellow All-Stars next month, especially with Boston rapidly climbing in the standings.

In the meantime, players and fans are quickly realizing that I.T. stands for hope. And for heart.

For overcoming adversity and striving to be great.

For winning streaks and MVP chants.

For Celtics Pride and a chance to make history.

For the underdog. For the Little Guy.

And perhaps one day soon...

For champion.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Jae Crowder Leads the NBA in Three-Pointers Defended

This is the three-point era. NBA teams are utilizing versatile players and small ball lineups to attempt a higher percentage of three-pointers than ever before.

Due to the sharp increase in threes, some even believe that a four-point line should be implemented. This truly is the era of Steph Curry.

As teams rely increasingly on the three-point shot, the importance of defending the three-ball increases accordingly.

But closing out on perimeter shooters requires extraneous effort. It takes a special kind of player to consistently protect the three-point line.

Jae Crowder is special. In addition to locking down opposing scorers on a nightly basis, he currently leads the league in three-pointers defended with 4.9 three-point contests per game.

Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ranks second in the category with 4.7, while Al Horford is a distant second-best on the Celtics with 3.3 per game.

Despite faltering against an underrated Detroit Pistons team last night, the Celtics have a 7-3 record when Crowder plays. His focus and determination facilitate defensive stops, which transition into fast break opportunities.

Furthermore, Crowder's unique blend of size, quickness and toughness makes him crucial in limiting opponents’ offensive production.

When Crowder went down with an ankle injury, the Celtics' physicality waned and they lost five out of eight games.

Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart may be relentless when it comes to harassing opposing ball handlers, but they lack the height to cover sharpshooting forwards and centers.

To overcome recurring size discrepancies, Crowder claims that the Celtics "have to get a little more nastier on the defensive end," to prevent opponents from feeling comfortable.

Crowder was understandably frustrated after the Pistons outrebounded the Celtics 52-33, while Boston uncharacteristically yielded more than 100 points for the third consecutive game.

But the energetic 6’6’’ combo forward is doing everything he can to combat the problem, utilizing his energy and versatility to defend both the perimeter and the post.

Crowder's passionate defensive play partially explains his +35 plus-minus rating for the season, which is second-best on the team. Only Horford has a better rating, with an astounding +59.

But in addition to defending three-pointers, Crowder is knocking them down.

Crowder has converted 38% of his three-point attempts this season, noticeably better than his 34% mark last year. He is astonishingly one of seven Celtics players shooting at least 37% from beyond the arc.

In contrast, only Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko accomplished that last season.

Shooting percentages typically fluctuate over the course of a long season, so while the Celtics have demonstrated flashes of brilliance, they clearly still have room to improve.

Nevertheless, fierce competitors like Crowder enable the Celtics to contend against the league's top teams.

As the Celtics continue to progress from early season injuries, they will develop into a dynamic and cohesive unit that challenges the Eastern Conference elite.

Crowder has grown into a veteran leader and a lockdown defender for this young Celtics team.

Watch for him to set the defensive tone early on Friday night, by putting the clamps on Rudy Gay, leaving DeMarcus Cousins to fend for himself when the hapless Sacramento Kings come to Boston.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Marcus Smart’s Defense is Destabilizing Opponents

The Celtics' defense has struggled mightily against both big men and sharpshooters in the absence of Jae Crowder and Al Horford. After losing three consecutive games, coach Brad Stevens shook up his temporary starting lineup by inserting Marcus Smart for Jaylen Brown.

Smart leads by example and plays with a ferocity that exemplifies Celtics basketball. The energetic three-guard starting lineup featuring Smart, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley has scrapped together three wins in four games. During all three victories, the Celtics held their opponents under 100 points.

Smart's aggressive "KG-like" intensity exasperates opponents. It has also been crucial in reestablishing the Celtics’ reputation as a defensive-minded team that wins games through hustle and hard work.

During last Thursday’s 115-87 flogging of the New York Knicks, Smart's defense proved too overwhelming for Carmelo Anthony, who was ejected during the second quarter for excessively cursing at referee Tony Brothers.

This marked the second consecutive game that Smart’s physical play facilitated the ejection of the opposing team’s best player, after Washington’s John Wall was previously tossed for earning a flagrant 2 foul.

Had Smart started in Washington, it is unlikely that the Wizards would have battered the Celtics 34-8 in Boston’s worst first quarter in franchise history. It is even less likely that Otto Porter would have scored a career-high 34 points.

On Monday night in New Orleans, Smart drew an offensive foul against Solomon Hill, who dunked and flexed his arms to the crowd, oblivious to the fact that he was celebrating his own turnover as Smart sat on the ground laughing at him.

During last night’s 90-83 victory against Dallas, coach Brad Stevens implemented a rebounding strategy that focused on crashing the boards with Smart and Boston’s other athletic guards.

The result: the Celtics outrebounded the Mavericks 53-32, their best rebounding margin since November 5, 2014.

Crowder and Horford’s pending return will strengthen the Celtics defense even further, but in the meantime, Smart has seized a leadership role in his third season.

With elite defensive skills, awareness and unrelenting intensity, Smart could join Bradley on the All-NBA Defensive team. Both guards have blossomed into dynamic two-way playmakers and young leaders for a legitimate Eastern Conference contender.

Smart's focus and passion are infectious to his teammates. He inspires them by playing fearlessly against stronger opponents and revels in the challenge of defending taller players. As Terry Rozier told reporters in September,

"You need a guy like that... That’s one of the guys I’ll always take on my team, a guy like Marcus Smart, because he’s always going to make it tough on the opposing team and you always know he’s got your back and he’s always going to play hard."

After missing the first three games of the season, Smart has returned to form as one of the NBA’s premiere defenders. His versatility enables him to cover three different positions, sometimes even four when necessary.

Smart is constantly improving and has eagerly embraced his expanding role as an indispensable leader and a difference-maker for the young Celtics.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gerald Green Deserves Your Respect

There is a difference between being liked and being respected.

Gerald Green was well-liked during his first two NBA seasons in Boston. He averaged 10 points per game as a sophomore and momentarily shocked the basketball world by dethroning Dwight Howard in the 2007 Slam Dunk Contest.

Green was certainly no hero, but his raw potential and freakish athleticism represented hope during a dismal 2006-07 Boston Celtics campaign.

The Celtics finished 24-58 that year – their second worst record in franchise history.

Nevertheless, the 6’7’’ Green became a fan favorite in Boston thanks to his energetic play and rim-rattling dunks. During his 15 minutes of fame at All-Star weekend, the rest of the basketball world became aware of his offensive potential.

A few months later, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Kevin Garnett to Boston for draft picks and a package of players centered around Green and Al Jefferson.

In other words, if not for Green, the Celtics may have never won their only NBA championship since 1986.

That’s a good reason to like him. Here is why you should respect him:

Since being traded nearly ten years ago, Green has worked tirelessly at rounding out his game to become a better player. He does not blame the Celtics for trading him for Garnett; he would have done the same thing.

Boston was his first home as a young adult and he is ecstatic to return to the city where his NBA journey first began.

"It's an amazing dream to come back to the team that drafted me so I'm blessed man. I'm blessed to be sitting here talking to you right now. I'm very honest and very humbled to be back with the Boston Celtics."

As one of the last players drafted out of high school, the 18th overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft spent time in China, Russia, and the NBA D-League on the way to transforming his basketball identity.

He wants you to know that he is not just a dunker.

“This is my 12th season professionally so I'm very mature now. I still got a lot in the tank. Legs feel good, everything feels good about myself. I feel like I've learned so much about myself. I feel like I'm a way better defensive player. I know I'm a way better defensive player than when I first came here.”

Now 30 years old, Green is excited to begin the new season with an important role and a newfound veteran’s mentality.

Green will be a mentor and a high-volume scorer off the bench for one of the NBA’s youngest and most talented teams.

Furthermore, his height, athleticism and ability to provide instant offense enables him to play multiple positions for Brad Stevens’s various small-ball sets.

It was only three seasons ago that Green played in all 82 games for Phoenix and averaged 15.8 points while shooting 40% from three-point range.

It is comforting to have a player on the floor who can create scoring opportunities for himself. The Celtics roster is built around hard workers and tough defenders, but they were plagued last season by long stretches of inefficient offense during close games.

Green’s ability to score in bunches can command the attention of opposing defenses, which frees up teammates to focus on spacing the floor, setting quality screens and making smart cuts.

Isaiah Thomas has a similar effect for the Celtics starters.

Unsurprisingly, the two scorers loved playing together in Phoenix. As Green puts it, he and Isaiah are “like Kool-Aid and sugar.”  Thomas heavily recruited Green in the offseason.

Danny Ainge also got a pretty sweet deal on Green. The swingman will make the veteran’s minimum this season, thus preserving vital cap space for potential midseason trades.

Green may be getting paid less than James Young and Demetrius Jackson, but as a big-time scorer off the bench for an elite Eastern Conference contender, he will be one of the best value signings of the NBA offseason.

An explosive offensive threat with a chip on his shoulder is exactly what the Celtics needed. Green will become a fan favorite in Boston once again.

So grab a glass, a spoon and some ice cubes. It’s time for some Kool-Aid and sugar.