The NBA’s preseason serves as each team’s very own steam press, loosening their roster’s inner lining and smoothing out unwanted wrinkles that gathered over the long offseason.
It’s a necessary period where new players can adjust to new coaches, and coaches their players. No roster stays exactly the same from season to season, but this process is far less complex for teams that boast continuity; the more familiarity there is with an instilled scheme, the more teachers there are to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
Heading from training camp to the preseason, none of Boston’s players were well-versed in the fundamental approach new head coach Brad Stevens would have towards the game and all its inner workings. That process remains a steady work in progress.
(Stevens will likely respond to that statement by saying it’s his job to create a system that accentuates his player’s strengths while hiding their weaknesses. But in reality the method is more of a chicken or the egg conundrum. For example, the Chicago Bulls pride themselves with a tried and true defensive ideology instilled by Tom Thibodeau. But would that system be as successful, both in Boston and Chicago, had Thibodeau deployed the skill of replacement level defenders instead of Kevin Garnett, Joakim Noah, and Omer Asik? The way he instructs five guys to protect the rim is outstanding, but if he didn’t have players capable of executing his plan, he’d be forced to try something else.)
Most of these Celtics are eager puppies in the early stages of development, with sentences pertaining to their individual production levels in 2014 ending more in question marks than periods. At least in the early going, it’s Stevens’ job to create core principles, then have the youngsters adapt. The task isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, but, then again, that’s why most people don’t expect Boston to make the playoffs. This season will be an uphill, never-ending learning process, and for the few veterans who’re locked into the roller coaster ride’s front row, it won’t be pretty.
After Boston lost its sixth preseason game against the offensively-dangerous-when-healthy Minnesota Timberwolves, one of those veterans, Gerald Wallace, lost it. Pontificating whether Wallace was wrong to call out his teammates before they’ve played a single regular season game is something I’ll leave to those who discuss such philosophy on television and the radio.
Getting to the bottom of why he said it is far more interesting, and way more relevant.
Wallace is entering his 13th NBA season because he acts out every moment like he hoped it’d be his last, treating his own body like a boxer treats a speed bag. He’s relentless and unforgiving, and his stinging criticism reverberated as such.
But not all Boston’s on-court failure should be chalked up as a lack of effort. Numerous schematic kinks are still in abundance, and given the fact that it’s still the freaking preseason, sometimes it’s difficult to separate physical exertion from basketball edification; it’s a lot easier to go all out when you know where you’re supposed to be.
Take, for example, defending the pick-and-roll. Without Garnett doing Garnett things, the margin for error here is thin enough to draw blood from a thumb. Boston must now rely on perfect timing and well-rounded chemistry to keep opponent’s out of the paint.
Here’s a snapshot from Sunday’s matchup against Minnesota that shows just how much ground Stevens and his players need to cover, literally and figuratively.
Here we have Alexey Shved and Ronny Turiaf running a side pick-and-roll. During the broadcast you could actually hear either Kris Humphries or someone on Boston’s bench yell the word “ice,” informing the on-ball defender (MarShon Brooks) that he needs to get in front of the screener and force his man towards the sideline.
As you can see in the picture above, Brooks is already out of position before the sequence even begins. He has no idea where Turiaf is standing, which is exactly what Minnesota wants.
Brooks collides with Turiaf just as Shved begins to turn the corner, putting Humphries (whose responsibility here is to sag on the wing and contain the handler until Brooks can recover) in a bind. Instead of having Humphries and Brooks swarm Shved and attempt to trap him against the sideline, Boston is effectively forced to switch on the play.
There’s now a canyon of space between Shved and Brooks, and the Timberwolves guard takes about a millisecond to recognize and take advantage. Humphries isn’t helping the situation with some questionable footwork, but to be fair, very few big men in the league could handle an attacking guard who’s afforded this much space.
The possession ends with Shved in the middle of the paint with multiple options (aka a worst case scenario). He could’ve kicked it out to Corey Brewer or J.J. Barea who were both wide open behind the three-point line, but instead he opts for a layup at the rim. Humphries nearly recovers to block the shot—good effort!—but is too far out of position and gets called for goaltending.
This entire preseason has been loaded with mistake-filled possessions like this one, mere fragments that throw everything off kilter. The Celtics haven’t exactly out-hustled any of their opponents, but that’s far from the main reason they’re getting beaten so badly.
As was highlighted wonderfully here, the strategies Stevens deploys on defense will have to change now that he’s coaching against players who aren’t 19 years old on an Atlantic-10 scholarship. In order for Boston to limit the pain that’s sure to come this year, Stevens needs to establish a consistent ideology, something I’m sure we’ll see his players execute as the season progresses and the games begin to matter.