It goes without saying that the 2016-17 Celtics lacked rebounding. Brad Stevens’ could merely scheme around the issue with no hope of addressing it head on. The Celtics lacked a true rebounding presence and were summarily eaten up each playoff series until Stevens found a soft spot on the opposing team, forcing a lineup change. Difficult as it may sound, a team devoid of a true rebounding presence must ultimately live this way.
The problem got even more pronounced this off-season with the loss of Jonas Jerebko, Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk. All three were valuable pieces to Brad Stevens’s rebounding puzzle; replacing them will be important to the Celtics chances this year.
The Celtics are not asking you to feel bad for them, this is just how they play. Danny Ainge spoke about this at the trade deadline, explaining his apprehension to add a rebounder, solely for rebounding,
You can’t just put a rebounder that can’t shoot out on the court because it might provide some help on the rebounding end, because it takes away from our strength on the offensive end.
This is intriguing, as it dismissed the idea that the Celtics rebounding situation was a fatal flaw and instead proposed that it was an understood trade-off in the delicate makeup of the team and how they played. The acceptance of below-average rebounding may be a fundamental concept in team building, relative to the player market and current playing style in the NBA.
It would seem that they are continuing to follow this formula with their new additions. The new acquisitions mirror other rebounders of recent seasons more than stand out as high-level rebounders on their own. These players may be well placed to fill roles that Stevens is comfortable deploying to exploit whatever rebounding inefficiencies he sees.
That is not to say the Brad Stevens has life hacked rebounding; far from it. Bereft of dominant rebounders that fit the Celtics style of play, Stevens has roles he needs filled to compete on the boards. Here we explore some of those roles and attempt to identify qualified candidates.
“The Amir Role”
For as hobbled as Amir Johnson looked at the end of last season, he held an incredibly important role in Boston’s rebounding scheme. For the whole of his 20 minutes per game, Johnson was to battle on the defensive glass, and he did. Nearly 48% of Amir’s rebounds were classified as “contested,” giving him the sixth highest such rate in the league among players logging over 12 minutes per game.
Fans were concerned when they saw Robin Lopez laying the Celtics low on the glass in the Bulls series. And they had reason to be worried. Being able to compete on the defensive glass is extremely important for a team making it’s name on playing small. Giving up extra possessions on a consistent basis is simply not sustainable. And you guessed it, that was Amir’s role as well. Johnson led the league in the percentage of his defensive rebounds that were contested. Amir certainly isn’t a high volume rebounder, but he is a battler.
Aron Baynes & Jayson Tatum
Baynes’ 4 rebounds per game last year won’t light the world on fire, but he’s never averaged more than 16 minutes per game in his career. Of course, he does fare better in relative production. Like Amir, he competes, posting a contested rebounding rate of 42%.
Unlikely to eclipse his 16 MPG career high from last year, Baynes’ contribution will still likely be most admired through qualified production metrics, but the hole in the lineup left by Amir Johnson will be far less cavernous than it otherwise would be. Where Baynes doesn’t approach Amir’s quality is in collecting tough defensive boards. Aron collected a higher percentage of possible rebounds than Amir, but fewer contested ones. This is one area the Celtics will need a player to step up into.
Jayson Tatum could be helpful in this regard. Tatum averaged 7 rebounds per game in college and was able to secure 8 per game during summer league. His reach and quickness, combined with his athletic ability, allowed him to steal rebounds he otherwise may have had no right to.
This is not the type of grinding rebounder that people may be used to but, as stated earlier, this is not your prototypical rebounding team. His reach and athleticism seems to allow him to stay further away from the basket, therefore limiting the disadvantages he may otherwise exhibit in size and strength. He may not pull down 12 a game, but the Celtics aren’t asking him to.
“The Uncontested” ….. rebounder
Brad Stevens has pretty consistently assigned a wing player to cleaning up the defensive boards. With the unlikelihood of the Celtics winning against many teams 1v1 on the boards, adding numbers to the fight is a logical solution. Avery Bradley averaged 5 uncontested rebounds per game last season.
Evan Turner averaged 4 uncontested rebounds the year before. Turner also was able to run the break and initiate the offense, therefore allowing for some easy buckets before the defense was able to get set.
Gordon Hayward & Terry Rozier
Last season Gordon Hayward averaged 4 uncontested rebounds per game. Also armed with ball handling ability and plus offensive acumen, it is likely fans will see Gordon Hayward deployed in a similar way this year. This should get Celtics fans excited, as Hayward is amongst the best in the league on the break; he ranked in the 92nd percentile in transition offense last year. The Celtics fast break should be humming this year when Hayward is in the game.
Hayward had a scoring frequency of 67% in transition last year, averaging 1.4 points per possession with an EFG% of 75%. While of course rebounding alone did not lead to every transition opportunity, it is well known the Celtics like to get out and run, pushing the ball in transition. With Hayward assuming this role, it would seem, we may see a new gear for the Celtics transition offense.
Hayward can’t be on the court all the time, however. It is unclear how many more minutes Terry Rozier will earn this season, but he appears to be a good candidate to fill the role that Avery and Evan have had in the past. He will likely be asked to continue his impressive work on the glass and possibly step into the role in the system previously filled by Bradley and Turner. Rozier’s speed and athleticism allows him to recover quickly from the perimeter towards the glass. Last season he fared very well in relative production, averaging 2 uncontested rebounds per game while playing only 17 minutes per.
While he isn’t Gordon Hayward, Rozier is also capable in filling the grab-and-go role with the second unit, or in spot minutes.
Next is the “Marcus Smart Role”. This is like the snake, slithering around in the tall grass, waiting for a lapse in judgment or lack of awareness to strike. The Celtics often deploy Smart as a free safety on the offensive glass. Stealing rebounds and hopping over player’s for offensive put backs.
Marcus Smart & Jaylen Brown
Marcus averaged 1 offensive rebound per game. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it ranked 11th amongst guards who played at least 20 games and averaged at least 12 MPG. This role requires a player who is physical, or athletic enough to mitigate the need for physicality. Players above Smart like Russell Westbrook, Tony Allen, and Dwyane Wade exemplify this. This is what makes Marcus perfect for this role, he battles. Smart had a higher percentage of his offensive boards come from the contested variety than anyone else in his class other than the Grindfather himself, Tony Allen.
It seems very likely that Smart will be the Celtics’ rebounding free safety on the offensive glass again. But, if Boston want to match their production from a year ago, let alone surpass it, Marcus will need help. Last year Smart had Avery Bradley next to him, an adept offensive rebounder in his own right. Avery was the opposite side of the coin, using quickness to steal offensive rebounds.
However it is done, the Celtics will likely look for someone else to step up and replace Avery’s 1 ORB per game. Enter Jaylen Brown. In 17 minutes per game last year, Jaylen averaged 0.6 OREB himself. With a boost in minutes likely coming his way this year, he should have more chances to replace Bradley’s production.
Jaylen, like Marcus, is an imposing figure, unafraid to mix it up down low. Likely playing more at the off guard this year, he will be able to really use his size to his advantage on the offensive glass.
The Wing Rebounder
With the lack of traditional rebounding big men, the need for wings to chip in on both sides of the court is more pronounced. This was perhaps the Celtics’ most deficient area last year in piecemealing together their rebounding contingent.
Jonas Jerebko was productive in limited minutes, though he played more as a traditional forward than wing. Even with his limited role, Jerebko’s departure complicates the rebounding issue. Jonas was an important player for some of the Celtics smaller lineups. Not only for the ability to switch and cover multiple positions, but for his ability to make a representative effort of the glass, nabbing 19% of available defensive rebounds and a good rate of contested ones.
Being able to compete on the defensive glass is extremely important for a team making it’s name on playing small. Giving up extra possessions on a consistent basis is simply not sustainable. While the Celtics were seemingly clawing for options in the playoffs last year, this year has a few players to at least feel hopeful about.
Jaylen Brown & Guerschon Yabusele
I’ve already toughed on Jaylen Brown’s mature frame and predilection for venturing into the paint and battling for rebounds. With his anticipated minutes increase, his production must follow suit if the Celtics are to compete on the defensive glass.
It is difficult to ask a rookie to step in immediately and help a team in a specific role. The learning curve is too sharp and the rookie wall too hard to bank on them in any meaningful way. The most a team can hope for is for them to be aware enough to be playing to their strengths once April comes.
This is why Jaylen Brown’s maturation is so important this year. The Celtics need to be able to lean on him on the wing, in a plethora of categories, but especially rebounding. Jae Crowder has already displayed his inability to compete on the defensive glass. It’s not for a lack of effort; he often defends larger players and simply lacks the bulk and athleticism to also handle them on the glass. It will fall on Jaylen to pick up the slack, with hopefully a little help.
Guerschon Yabusele is making his long awaited debut in Boston this season. The 6’8 260lb big man spent last season in China and is fresh off a 7 DREB per game average. Whether it is his size and strength or his 7 foot wingspan, Yabusele more than handled himself overseas, grabbing 24% of the defensive rebounds available to him.
It is not wholly clear how his production will translate to the NBA. He will obviously have growing pains, as all rookies do. It isn’t unreasonable to project, with his size, strength and length combination, that he will have a proclivity for securing defensive boards. At the very least, this has been a calling card of his in the past. If he can earn minutes then, for the first time in a long while, the team should be in good shape.
The analysis that a player’s negative impact on the offense may outweigh his positive impact on the boards is not necessarily wrong, but it’s not something to blindly accept. It is the team’s job to find players that fit. A new crop has arrived this year and it’s Brad’s job to get the most out of them.
The possible outcomes of floor time and opportunity for the herd of young players is almost impossible to predict. Regardless of our predictions, ultimately it’s “wait and see”. The Celtics have options, though.
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