With the 2012-13 season nearly halfway finished and the Celtics in the midst of a four-game winning streak, we figured it would be a good time to team up with our friends at ESPNBoston for our first 5-on-5 of the season. Topics on the menu this week include the Celtics offense, Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green, and whether the Celtics still need to make a move despite their recent resurgence.
1. The Celtics offense continues to linger amongst the bottom-third of the league in efficiency. Given the additional talent added to the roster this year, what needs to be done to make the offense more reliable?
Chris Forsberg: With Boston’s defense consistently generating more stops since the return of Avery Bradley, it’s a little bit surprising to see the Celtics’ transition numbers still lagging behind. Boston simply isn’t taking full advantage of opportunities off of stops, particularly with an inability to get to the free throw line for easy points. The Celtics need to be more aggressive going at the hoop in transition — and getting more production beyond the the 3-point stripe from anyone not named Pierce wouldn’t hurt the offense either.
Greg Payne: The Celtics need to do a better job of balancing the production between their starters and their reserves. They need to get consistent double-digit scoring outings from the likes of Jason Terry and Jeff Green to help diminish some of the pressure on Rajon Rondo and co. Additionally, the Celtics play at a below league average pace, and speeding things up a bit given the athleticism they boast shouldn’t be difficult and should aid their offensive production.
Brian Robb: Getting both the starters and second unit playing well during the same game would be a start. We saw glimpses of it during the Knicks game Monday night but it hasn’t seemed to come together much this year. I think the key remains though with finding consistency within the offensive “role” players. These are the guys that need to be counted on for 8-12 points per game, when given the ample minutes. Jason Terry, Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee, and Jeff Green all fall into this category. With the defense improving now, it should allow for easier opportunities for this team and these players on the offensive end.
Ryan DeGama: If Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green can find any level of consistency that should help the C’s overall efficiency, but this is not a team with much firepower and one that is regularly lured into shooting the same long twos with which they bait their opponents. After three years of weak offense, I’d argue a personnel change is necessary to juice the offense. The C’s need a prime-of-life wing scorer or a young post presence to really change the equation. But as long as they continue to make their runs with defense, that’s probably not in the cards.
Brendan Jackson: The Celtics offensive efficiency was an unfortunate casualty of their early season inconsistencies. The team lacked both offensive and defensive identities which led to Doc Rivers mixing and matching lineups, changing rotations, and completely shifting his approach. The C’s initally tried to go small, alternating the role of Avery Bradley’s stand-in between Jason Terry and Courtney Lee. When that proved ineffective, Rivers inserted Jason Collins into the starting lineup and moved Kevin Garnett back to the power forward position. This proved disasterous. When Bradley returned, so did the Celtics consistency in approach, identity, and lineup. The efficiency numbers now just need to catch up.
2. Can Jared Sullinger consistently repeat his performance over the past 10 games? (8.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 24 minutes per game, 55% FG)
Forsberg: Absolutely, so long as he continues to improve defensively and avoids rookie whistles. Pop quiz: Who is the best individual defender on the Celtics right now? It’s Sullinger, who is allowing a team-best 0.696 points per play and ranks in the 95th percentile in the league. For a player who admits he was lost in Boston’s help scheme at the start of the year, those are startling numbers. That sort of defense will keep him on the floor for long stretches and his scoring and rebounding will come naturally through steady court time.
Payne: Yes. Sullinger has two important things going for him: First, he’s proving that he has a great feel for the game and knows how to obtain the necessary position to be successful, both in terms of scoring and rebounding. Second, teams still aren’t focused on him, which plays right into his wheelhouse. When he plays alongside the likes of Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett, those three draw the majority of the defense’s attention, which gives Sullinger more freedom to be the self-described “nagging” rookie who rips down rebounds and out-hustles opponents in the paint.
Robb: The rebounding should continue without an issue, but I still worry about Sullinger’s ability to sustain his shooting around the basket. He’s a craft player and he’s learning, but his lack of athleticism leads to a high percentage of his shots being blocked around the rim. The encouraging thing however is the fact his mid-range game is ahead of schedule. Outside of 10 feet, Sullinger is knocking down those looks with solid consistency for a rookie big, given him added reliable weapon in his offensive game. As long as he can continue to dodge foul trouble despite his added minutes, I expect Sully to be able to maintain these numbers, while factoring in a dip in his FG%.
DeGama: His impact-to-minutes ratio is one of the highest on the team so assuming he can stay clear of the refs long enough to actually play those 24 minutes, there’s no reason he can’t up the modest numbers cited above. If Doc is able to stretch him out to 28-29 minutes a game, we may have a double-digit rebounder on our hands. Color me excited about the Jared Sullinger era.
Jackson: There is nothing outside of the “rookie wall” or (gasp!) injury that would prevent Sullinger from maintaining this mastery. This is exactly the type of player that Sullinger was projected to be prior to the draft so his performance this season really shouldn’t come to much surprise. It is wonderful to see a guy reaching his potential despite the draft day red flags. So far, his back is fine and he’s still finishing over the NBA frontcourt players. If those two things remain true, his numbers can only go up.
3. To what do you attribute Jeff Green’s up and down play? Is the fact his current numbers align fairly closely with his career numbers a red flag or a encouraging sign given his continued recovery from heart surgery?
Forsberg: I’m inclined to lean towards “this is who he is” given how alarmingly similar his offensive per-36 numbers are for his entire career. And yet you can’t dismiss the idea that there might be more. Offensively, he showed increased aggression the last two times out — first feasting on Steve Novak and then celebrating his one-year anniversary from heart surgery. Can he maintain his recent production and — more importantly — can he take it to another level? The encouraging sign: his individual defensive numbers have been surprisingly solid lately. You’re left wondering if some confidence might be enough to allow him to (finally) shift to that next gear.
Payne: I’ve thought all season that Green’s inconsistent production has more to do with his personal mindset than anything else. I can’t discount opposing defenses entirely, but Green has the versatile skill set to counteract anything the opposition wants to throw at him. If he’s up against a smaller defender, he should be posting up. If an opponent throws a bigger guy at Green, he should be slicing by him towards the rim. The Celtics aren’t going to call many plays for Green, so it’s really on him to consistently harness an aggressive mindset and take the ball to the hoop. He’s shown flashes of being able to do this every night, yet we haven’t seen it with that kind of regularity. The numbers suggest Green is what he is at this point, but if he can ever play with a more consistent fire, he’ll rise above what his current stats say.
Robb: This may not be what the Celtics brass signed up for, but it is what Jeff Green is. An up-and-down player, an inconsistent shooter from distance, and a guy who will always show flashes of being capable of more. With that said, as a finished product, he’s the most talented reserve at the small forward spot the Celtics have had since James Posey. He will do some offensive heavy lifting against the right opponent or when he has the confidence on any given night. The biggest area I’m watching him now though is on the defensive end. As Chris said, he’s shown signs of progress there lately, especially against Carmelo Anthony Monday night. If he can start to become more of an asset on that end of the floor, it will go a long way in defining his role with this team.
DeGama: The heart surgery is a red herring. Green has been mediocre his entire career. He was mediocre in OKC, a borderline disaster in Boston his first go round and we’ve all seen the array of passive disappearances this season. There’s been a lot of speculation around his mental approach to the game, suggesting that he isn’t “locked in” or that he can’t “bring it every night.” Let me venture this alternative explanation: he just isn’t that skilled. His weak handle means he’s not a great pick and roll player or someone who can regularly get his own shot off the dribble against small forwards. Also, for a guy who is supposed to have matchup advantages in the post against smaller players, he doesn’t have many moves.
Jackson: There’s no doubt that part of Green’s observed hesitance is heart-surgery-related, but one can’t ignore the fact that, statistically, he’s not getting any better. The sad truth is that there is no evidence outside of, “wow, this guy is athletic” and “I can’t believe he just made that shot” to substantiate the claim that Green will turn into a statistically productive player.
4. Once Chris Wilcox returns, the Celtics roster will be fully healthy. Will the Celtics good health fortune continue for the remainder of the year?
Forsberg: Way to totally jinx them with this one. I’ll be stunned if someone doesn’t blow out an ACL on Friday night now. Part of the concern about Boston’s up-and-down start has to be that they were relatively healthy for the entire stretch and didn’t capitalize. This team simply can’t count of full health given its injury history. We’ve seen how the absence of one player (Bradley) can throw Boston’s entire rotation out of whack. As usual, this team can ill afford any long-term injury to a key rotation player.
Payne: This is always difficult to predict, seeing as injuries can crop up at any time without any warning. So I’ll say hopefully. Health was such an important part of the Celtics’ run to the championship back in 2008, and with the way the C’s are playing defense right now, if they can remain healthy, they’ll likely rise back onto the list of legitimate contenders. Doc Rivers is always conscious of the minute totals of his veterans, and that’s really all he can do throughout the regular season. He’ll get the guys the rest they need and then pray that the Basketball Gods are smiling down on his club.
Robb: I doubt it, but the team’s depth makes it a possibility for the first time in a long time. In past years, the C’s had guys like Greg Steimsma play through a foot injury the entire year, simply because the team had no alternatives at the position. In 2013, Doc Rivers has options at nearly every position on the roster and the vast majority of those players are talented enough to have been starters at one point of their career. With the second unit finally rounding into form over the past week, minutes for the starters (outside of KG) should not be a major issue. Resting nagging injuries shouldn’t be an issue either when it’s needed. Boston can be proactive in protecting its players now, a luxury they haven’t had over the past few seasons.
DeGama: Not a chance. They’ve been sabotaged each of the last few years by injuries and through the early months of this season (including Avery Bradley’s absence). There’s no reason to think a team that relies as heavily as it does on aging stars like Pierce and Garnett won’t see some breakdowns. The question will be around when they happen and how damaging they are.
Jackson: No way. Are you kidding me? The Celtics have never and will never be fully healthy. It’s as close to death and taxes as it gets. What’s important for the Celtics is how they deal with the injuries when they occur. At the end of the season, there isn’t a single player in the NBA that’s 100% healthy. The C’s just need to take care of themselves off the court and soldier on.
5. Do the Celtics still need to make a move for a rotation-quality rim-protecting big?
Forsberg: Yes. Jason Collins can hold the fort, but, particularly given this team’s propensity for enduring health woes, an extra 7-footer is a necessary luxury down the stretch (one that Darko Milicic could have filled). Heck, you might still be able to get by with a Ryan Hollins-like addition if nothing else becomes available at a reasonable price. But Boston is committed to waiting out the process and swooping up the best available big, likely at the trade or waiver deadline.
Payne: I don’t think so. At the most they might consider picking up a lingering free agent for cheap money, but I doubt they’ll make any significant splashes come trade deadline time. The C’s brass has said all season it wanted to see how this team performed with Avery Bradley in the lineup, and it clearly has to like what it’s witnessing. Once the playoffs roll around the rotation will get tighter and Kevin Garnett will be able to play more minutes to further protect the rim. On top of that, Boston’s perimeter defense has improved significantly with Bradley back, and the pressure he and Courtney Lee put on the ball will help to prevent defensive breakdowns that leave the bigs exposed down low.
Robb: I think they do, not only to help the defense, but the defensive rebounding which has quickly fallen back to the middle of the pack in the NBA. Despite Sullinger’s strong play, he still has his physical limitations against bigger players and could use some help out there, given the other two best rebounders on the team are the aging duo of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Danny Ainge will need to get creative though in trying to add this kind of part, without taking too much away from the team’s current rotation. I’m not sure adding this piece at the cost of a player like Sullinger or Bradley would help.
DeGama: A Rondo-Bradley backcourt offers rim protection by stifling the point-of-attack but it’s hard to imagine Sully, Bass and KG providing the kind of rim protection the Celtics need. I think the Celtics need to go bigger against Miami should they draw them again in the playoffs rather than try and play Erik Spoelstra’s small ball game. To that end, the question is around what kind of rotation-quality, rim protecting big the C’s should pursue. Do they offload major assets and for for a star or are they again content to plug the hole with unsigned free agents and D-League guys?
Jackson: They already did when they moved Kevin Garnett back into the starting lineup. Outside of a blockbuster deal, it’s really hard to find a mid/late season pickup that will be a big contributor.