Doing Work: Celtics Learning to Play Complementary Basketball

Kevin C. Cox

Much has been made of the Celtics early season struggles. The continuity of this promising cast of characters has caused some unease among the green faithful. While "concern" has been a hot-button word around these parts, "optimism" should reign as well.

Newcomer Jason Terry recently alluded to the concept of the stylistic change necessary for these players to integrate into a new offensive system in order to become a unit. Local sports fans should be familiar with the Patriots concept of "complementary football". The ability of the individual to apply his skill set in a way that augments the unit as a whole is an excellent starting point for better understanding the challenge that lies ahead.

Let us take a closer look at the past tendencies of some key members of this team who are being asked to grow into the prominent offensive weapons necessary for success going forward:

Big Men:

Jared Sullinger - Favors the right block when playing in the post, but can operate effectively on either side. Tends to force at-basket action, but has a very good fall away jumper when he uses his off-shoulder and body to create space. Underutilized, but effective catch-and-shoot threat. Uses pick-n-pop and spot-up opportunities to good effect, showing the ability to shot-fake and pull-up off the dribble.

Brandon Bass - Dominant mid-range shooter when his feet are set, a threat even when guarded. Limited post game, prefers left baseline, where he uses threat of jump shot to attack the middle. Has trouble working off the dribble, likely due to finger/palm ratio, making it more difficult to control the ball. Good pick-n-pop from the right side and underrated off-ball cutter, both flashing across the lane and cutting to the basket.

Wings:

Jeff Green - Overused as a spot-up player historically, but effective when unguarded from mid-range or on corner 3's. More of a straight-line slasher, right-hand dominant and has difficulty changing directions with the ball. Underutilized low post game, effective on either block with hook shot, but more diverse repertoire when working toward the middle vs baseline. Strong pick-n-roll ability, both popping from mid-range and rolling to the basket. Potential as an ISO threat is likely limited to middle drives from left elbow/free throw line until he develops a more effective pull-up jumper.

Courtney Lee - Outstanding catch-and-shoot player, showing a strong ability to shoot with feet set and off the dribble within 17 feet. Also an underrated finisher in the lane, able to convert difficult shots at or near the basket. Good first step allows for solid conversion rate in middle ISO, though mostly relies on pull-up after a single dribble. Vision and pull-up shooting give him potential as pick-n-roll threat, though more early jumper than lane penetration. Prefers shooting moving right-to-left, creating more usage options from the right side of the court.

Guards:

Jason Terry - Excellent shooter from short, mid, and long range. Effective when set or working off the dribble. Favors the early jumper in ISO situations, using dribble to create space for shot. Likes to attack baseline from either side when isolated in the corners. Very good pick-n-roll player, mixes up direction off of pick well. Typically pulls up for uncontested close range shot. Prefers working in the middle of the court and tends to drive toward elbows off of right/left side pick action.

Avery Bradley - Highly efficient shooter, effective from all ranges. Very effective when guarded, using quick release or explosive first step to get shots off in catch-and-shoot or dribble pull-up situations. Steadily improving finisher near the basket, likely due to increased size/strength. Shows potential in ISO situations, using right/left hesitation cross-over to take advantage of his strong first step. Needs to improve inside-out dribble and overall ball-handling. Has had success operating pick-n-roll in the middle or the court, but ball-handling/space limitations have hurt ability in the corners. Is an outstanding off-ball scorer, using screens, cuts, and spot-up situations to create separation and maximize his combination of athleticism and shooting touch. Also shows promising multi-directional potential.

LOOKING AT LINEUPS

Success over the next three seasons will be inexorably tied to how these six players learn to perform with each other as well as Rajon Rondo. The ability of Garnett and Pierce to impact games will be highly dependent on the "new guard" and their capacity to sustain reliable "go-to" offense without them.

Thus far this season, Boston has been pretty poor in its off-ball execution. Its not surprising that the team has struggled offensively in terms of screens, cuts, and pick-n-roll execution considering the amount of new players being incorporated into the offense.

Doc Rivers has attempted to solve one of his positional log-jams by implementing a quasi small-ball lineup of Sullinger/Bass/Green. The three have had limited success working off of each other thus far, but based on the skill sets listed above, they do have the potential to be effective. The unit's lack of length has encouraged a high volume of at-basket attempts from opposition and the group's struggles with pick-n-roll defense is exacerbating the length issue farther.

However, projecting stout perimeter defense from the Lee/Bradley/Rondo trio eventually, it is worth going through the growing pains of this unit in order to realize their full offensive potency. Green and Bass seem to have strong left-side potential as a duo. To Date, Green has floated out on the perimeter even against his small forward matchups. But by utilizing Bass as a strong-side outlet, Green should be able to get on the block and utilize his post/ISO game from inside 17 feet with Bass adjusting to the baseline or elbow accordingly.

On the right side of the court, both Lee and Bradley present quality weak-side options for perimeter or baseline passing. Both players have good "counter" ability to play back to the middle from the right corner, using the threat of their outside shots to set up drives to the lane. Each could also use cuts and screens to free themselves for passes off of the recovering defense.

Jared Sullinger's underrated ability to catch-and-shoot and post ability from the right side make him an excellent baseline/elbow threat much as Bass is valuable from the left. In many ways Sullinger represents a hybrid between Green/Bass in terms of his low post and face up game. In a game of spacing, Boston can utilize Sullinger to balance the floor opposite the other two.

Although Rivers has been reluctant to use Terry as a ball-handler, he and Rondo are both effective at creating from the middle of the court. Considering the skill sets of the other players mentioned, keeping these two centralized toward the middle when each is playing the point would be a good way to take advantage of their pick-n-roll and ISO capabilities.

It will be interesting to see how Doc incorporates Chris Wilcox into this equation as well. As the season goes on, we are likely to see some type of "size" lineup with Garnett/Green/Pierce playing with either Wilcox or Milicic at Center. Wilcox is interesting because he represents speed and length, which none of the other front court pairings present.

Until we have more seasonal data to analyze, focusing on the core strengths of the six focus players will be extremely insightful to those looking to determine how chemistry is being developed. The more these players are in "complementary" positions on-court, the faster that chemistry will develop.

Celtics fans need only look toward the recent past to remind themselves of how long it can take to bake a good cake, skip through the commercials, and get this team firing on all cylinders....because it's a process, after all.

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