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Three Questions: A primer for Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers

As we prepare for one of the tankiest preseason games in recent memory, let’s take a primer look at the Celtics and the Sixers with a few key questions.

1. Will the Celtics rebound better?

Gerald Wallace, via Chris Forsberg:

“[In the first game] We didn’t box out, we didn’t rebound — we have to understand that our guards gotta help our bigs out. In the second game, I think we did a pretty good job of helping, defensively, and we did a great job of boxing out and communicating on defense.”

Wallace is exactly right in his assessment. In the first preseason game, Boston’s guards (here defined as Crawford/Bradley/Brooks/Bogans/Lee as well as Jeff Green since he played almost exclusively from the wing) totaled five rebounds between the six players as Boston was out-rebounded overall 46-26, obviously a massive margin.

Against New York, the Celtics actually managed to turn the rebounding totals around, winning the boards 36-34. The five players listed above, and Crawford replaced with Phil Pressey, grabbed 12 rebounds. Some of the guards (Lee with four boards and Pressey with three) made up for others (Bradley with zero). But that’s how it should be, and it was evident that the small contributions from some guards went a long way for the rest of the team.

2. Will Kelly Olynyk shake his cold shooting? And is Sullinger a 3-point shooter?

Two questions, but whatever. Once again, from Forsberg:

Bradley noted that Stevens “yelled” at Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger during Wednesday’s game about passing up open 3-point attempts.

It’s easy to understand why Forsberg was yelling at Olynyk. Summer League gave us ample evidence that A) Olynyk can shoot 3-pointers and B) Olynyk knows which 3-pointers to take. He’s an intelligent basketball player and a good shooter, and he’s been passing up 3-pointers in preseason.

Sullinger, however, is another matter. At no point have Sully’s 3-point attempts in preseason looked comfortable, as he is 0-4 to this point.

Stevens must know something we don’t about Sully’s range, because 3-pointers were not a part of his arsenal last year. Sullinger’s four preseason 3-point attempts are just one fewer than his total from all of last season (45 games in his case). He finished the year 1-for-5.

That’s not to say Sullinger is, by any means, incapable of hitting 3-pointers. This, from Basketball-Reference.com, shows where he scored most of his points in 2012-13.

As you can see, Sullinger didn’t shoot a ton from mid-range, but several of his average spots (the splotches of green near the perimeter) were very nearly 3-point shots. He didn’t quite extend to the 3-point line in 2012-13, but he was close, and for a second-year player, it’s not uncommon for an offseason to make a significant difference in range.

Sullinger hasn’t looked good so far, but it’s telling that Stevens has been yelling at him to take more treys while most of the rest of us were shouting the exact opposite.

3. Wait, how bad is this team really?

Matt Moore of CBS Sports:

Are the Celtics really, truly bad? It’s assumed they’ll be bad. Kris Humphries is at worst their seventh best player. But they also have veterans (Avery Bradley,Jeff Green, Rajon Rondo, Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Rondo) along with young talent like Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger. If you choose to look at each of those players in their best light, you can talk yourself into this team being marginally competitive.

Moore, a staff writer for CBSSports.com/NBA as well as a co-host of the Eye On Basketball podcast, goes on to raise the case that maintaining mediocrity in the NBA is a terrible route to take. Teams who can’t sign or trade for marquee free agents should rebuild through the draft if an annual 8th seed in the playoffs isn’t a worthwhile goal.

He’s right, of course, especially given the punitive new NBA tax laws and the absurdly low guaranteed rookie contracts (Anthony Davis, for example, makes just a little bit more than Courtney Lee this year). But I think Moore, like many Celtics writers/fans earlier this summer, has talked himself into this team a little bit too much. Boston’s problems on offense are going to be pronounced. Their defense, under Brad Stevens, may be around league average, but even when Rondo comes back, Jeff Green is likely to be the top scorer. Green is an excellent third-option, or even second in some lineups, but he’s going to encounter defenses designed to stop him, and unless he has added a lot to his game, he doesn’t have the offensive creativity to punish teams for focusing on him.

Boston isn’t hopelessly bad like Philadelphia. If Gerald Wallace is going to be better this year, the Celtics will certainly win a few games. If the young guys can put together some chemistry when Rondo returns, that number might even be inconveniently high. But those are both pretty big ifs, especially since Stevens — a very smart coach — is in his first year.

I don’t have any issue with Moore’s assertion that Boston might be better than some might think. But I also don’t think the Celtics are going to be good enough to take themselves out of the running for a top draft pick. This is not a middling team. This is a bad team with some nice young pieces, especially without Rondo.

Is that enough to win Boston more games than Philadelphia? Sure. But if the Celtics can land a marquee prospect in the loaded 2014 draft, I’d rather he was surrounded by players like Bradley, Olynyk, Sullinger and a healthy Rondo as opposed to Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams and Evan Turner.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

  • hax

    Danny could trade the non-next year picks and this team for a whole team of 2014 draftees. 😮