Boston Celtics Still A Player Away From Next Level

Nov 23, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas (4) celebrates with Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) during the third quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 16, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42), guard Marcus Smart (36) and forward Jae Crowder (99) on the court during a break in the action against the Charlotte Hornets in the second quarter at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 16, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42), guard Marcus Smart (36) and forward Jae Crowder (99) on the court during a break in the action against the Charlotte Hornets in the second quarter at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

For the second successive season, the Boston Celtics feature among the leaders in the Eastern Conference. However, it appears they are a player short of reaching the elite.

The Boston Celtics are currently in the fourth season of the Brad Stevens era. The Celtics’ head coach has led the team on a steady increase in the standings each year since assuming control. Stevens’ Celtics are coming off their second successive first-round playoff elimination.

In response to this, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, swung into action.

Having missed out on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes, Ainge changed his focus and secured the services of veteran free-agent forward Al Horford. A four-time All-Star, Horford’s versatility at both ends of the floor was seen as an ideal fit in Stevens’ system.

The four-year, $113 million contract he signed illustrated how much Boston valued his skill set.

With Horford in tow, the Celtics entered this season intent on adding to the previous season’s 48 wins and to push into the upper echelon of the league. Through the first half of the season, the Celtics are 26-15 and third in the Eastern Conference.

They have been increasingly impressive of late, winning nine of their past 11 games.

But are they good enough to compete with the elite?

Nov 12, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens draws up a play during a timeout for his team in the second half of the game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Boston Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers 105 to 99. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 12, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens draws up a play during a timeout for his team in the second half of the game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Boston Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers 105 to 99. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Strengths

On the surface, the Celtics’ first half of the season has been quite impressive. Here’s how they have fared in some of the important categories:

  • Points per game: 107.0 (Ranked 8th)
  • Three-pointers made per game: 12.0 (3rd)
  • Three-point attempts per game: 32.5 (4th)
  • Three-point shooting percentage: 37.1 (8th)
  • Assists per game: 25.0 (3rd)
  • Turnovers per game: 12.6 (5th)
  • Offensive rating (points per 100 possessions): 108.7 (7th)
  • Passes made per game: 331.3 (2nd)

Just by looking at some of these numbers, it’s clear the Celtics have a team-oriented, flowing offense. Having a high assist rate combined with a low turnover rate is a great recipe for an efficient offense.

This open style of play has led the Celtics to being the third-most proficient three-point shooting team in the league.

New addition Horford’s passing skills have also been on display with his 4.9 assists per game, the highest mark of his career to date. Wings Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley have been the leaders in the three-point shooting accuracy.

Crowder is hitting 2.3 per game at a 42.6 percent clip, while Bradley is nailing 2.1 per game at a 40.9 percent strike rate.

Thomas Turning Heads

But running the show and leading from the front all season has been Isaiah Thomas. He currently ranks fourth in the league in scoring, posting 28.4 points per game at an impressive 45.9 percent clip from the field.

He also leads the team in assists (6.2 per game) and three-pointers made (3.0 per game.

Most notably, he leads in the league in fourth-quarter scoring with 10.1 points per game. Thomas also ranks seventh in the league in free-throw attempts with 8.4 per game. These numbers all add up to a certain second All-Star Game appearance for the diminutive Thomas.

Nov 3, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) drives to the basket on Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) during the second quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs won 128-122. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 3, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) drives to the basket on Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) during the second quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs won 128-122. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Coming Up Short

One large issue with the Celtics this season has been their inability to defeat the cream of the crop in the league. Now at the halfway point the of the season, the Celtics have played eight games against teams with a superior record to this point of the season.

They have lost all eight of those games.

They have lost twice each to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors and the San Antonio Spurs. Further they have lost their lone games against the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets.

As the standings are currently constituted, the Los Angeles Clippers are the only team the Celtics have not faced that has a superior win-loss record.

One positive to take out these games is that they have lost in single figures in seven out of the eight games. The glaring issue, however, has been the amount of points they have allowed the opposition.

Over the eight games, they have given up an average of 111.9 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting from the field. If this number was over the course of the season, it would represent the second-most points allowed in the league and the worst field goal percentage allowed.

As touched upon earlier, the Celtics’ offense has been quite consistent throughout the season. So while as whole the team seems to be heading in the right direction, some of their key pieces could be holding the Celtics back from taking the next step.

Dec 2, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens talks with Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) and forward Jae Crowder (99) and guard Avery Bradley (0) during the first half against the Sacramento Kings at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 2, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens talks with Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) and forward Jae Crowder (99) and guard Avery Bradley (0) during the first half against the Sacramento Kings at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Player Analysis

Avery Bradley Net Rating

From a statistical standpoint, Bradley is having an excellent season. He is currently averaging 17.7 points and a team high 6.9 rebounds per game from the shooting guard slot. However when breaking down the metrics, his overall impact has been questionable.

He is the only Celtics starter with a negative net rating at minus-0.1 per game. But more alarming is the fact the Celtics as a team have a net rating of plus-8.1 when Bradley is off the court. Also, Bradley leads the team in minutes at 34.9 per game, which only exacerbates these figures.

Isaiah Thomas Net Rating

Here are the numbers for Thomas this season when he is on and off the court:

On
Offensive Rating (Celtics points scored per 100 possessions): 112.6
Defensive Rating (Opponents points scored per 100 possessions): 110.1

Off
Offensive Rating: 101.7
Defensive Rating: 98.3

There is a marked difference in the team’s offensive and defensive performance when Thomas is on or off the court. One plausible explanation is the pace (possessions per 48 minutes) measurement.

When Thomas is on the court, the Celtics average 99.12 possessions per 48 minutes. This would rank 14th in the league over the course of the season to this point.

When he is off the court, this drops to 96.87, which would rank the Celtics 25th in the league for pace. Therefore, the Celtics like to speed up the game when Thomas is on the floor and slow it down when he’s resting.

The problem is that Thomas has the worst defensive rating of the Celtics’ starters.  And as can be seen his net rating is stronger when he is off the court (3.5) than on the court (2.5).

Jae Crowder Net Rating

Of all Boston’s starters and main contributors, Crowder has had the most discernible impact with these measurements. As the Celtics’ starting small forward, Crowder’s impact on both ends of the floor can be seen with the following:

On
Offensive Rating: 112.5
Defensive Rating: 104.2

Off
Offensive Rating: 104.4
Defensive Rating: 107.7

As can be seen, the Celtics are noticeably worse both offensively and defensively when Crowder rests. Currently posting 13.0 points and 5.1 rebounds in 31.8 minutes per game, Crowder is an ideal wing in the modern-day NBA.

His ability to knock down the open three and defend a variety o players makes his a very valuable commodity.

Dec 7, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) reacts with guard Terry Rozier (12) and forward Jae Crowder (99) against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Boston Celtics defeated the Orlando Magic 117-87. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 7, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) reacts with guard Terry Rozier (12) and forward Jae Crowder (99) against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Boston Celtics defeated the Orlando Magic 117-87. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Decision Time

The Celtics find themselves at somewhat of a crossroads as the Feb. 23 trade deadline approaches. They have proven themselves to be the third best team in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland and Toronto.

They have two All-Stars on their roster in Thomas and Horford. They are well stocked at a variety of positions.

Bradley and Crowder are great athletes on the wings. Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk are still developing, but are key contributors off the bench. But from a pure talent standpoint, the Celtics are still a player away from competing with the absolute elite.

As detailed earlier, this can be illustrated in their 0-8 record this season against teams with superior records.

In terms of their trade options, there are two critical factors:

  • Will they look to add to their offensive firepower?
  • Do they wish to add another defensive presence to their rotation?

With Thomas leading the way from the point, an infusion of offence seems the most likely option. Considering Thomas’ greatest strength is on the offensive end, it’d make sense for the Celtics to capitalize on this end of the floor.

Further, considering the firepower that exists among the league’s leading teams, fighting fire with fire is a sensible approach.

The question is: who do they target and what do they have to give up?

The Celtics are can swap first-round draft picks in 2017 with the Brooklyn Nets and own the Nets’ 2018 first-rounder outright via the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce exchange from 2013.

They also own future first-round draft selections from the Los Angeles Clippers and the Memphis Grizzlies. Along with a number of up-and-coming players currently on their roster, they have plenty off assets that may appeal to the right team.

Dec 6, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler (21) against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. The Pistons won 102-91.Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 6, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler (21) against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. The Pistons won 102-91.Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Prime Targets

There have been a number of prominent players mentioned as potentially being available. The two most common names that suit the Celtics for a number of reasons are DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings and Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls.

Cousins is just 26 and Butler 27. Cousins is fifth in the league in scoring and Butler is 10th.

Therefore, the Celtics need to determine how much they are prepared to give up. A combination of first round picks and rotation players is likely the minimum requirement to land any player of significance.

Not just Cousins or Butler. And then the competing team need to be interested in what the Celtics have to offer.

As it stands, the Kings and Cousins himself have given every indication that he will remain with the Kings in the long-term. Of course, internal discussions can differ from their public sentiments. As for Butler, Chicago must determine if he is the player they wish to build around.

In the midst of a career year despite the Bulls’ struggles, it’d be a brave move to part with their marquee player.

Cousins is under contract until the end of 2017-18 while Butler is signed till the end of 2019-20 with a player option for the final year. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been hoarding assets over the several , waiting patiently for the right time to strike.

It’s clear from the past couple of seasons that the Celtics are a legitimate playoff team. But as we have already seen this season, matching it with the absolute has proven a much tougher task.

If Ainge feels he can bring in another star without draining the team of too much talent, he would be crazy not to roll the dice.

With the Celtics seemingly on the fringe of being able too seriously compete, “Dealer Danny” could very well be be bound to swing another game-changing deal for the Celtics faithful.

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