There is a subtle unease among the Green faithful as the NBA trade deadline draws nigh. For those who lust for lotto luck, the prospect of pushing toward the playoffs seems a fool's errand. Even the prideful who cry "playoff bound" fear the team's trove of assets are not worth the paltry pickings that the deadline rumors whisper of....alas.
Truly, it is hard to find clear paths in the cold depths of this winter. Yet, with a bit of foresight and a touch of luck there are signs hidden if one looks down as far they can see. There may just be some value in "going for it" and creating some momentum as we head toward the offseason.
In a weak Eastern conference with assets to burn and free agent money to spend, the current status of the team may have significant bearing on which direction this "turning point" leads.
Where They Stand Now
It's easy to lose perspective over the course of a long, frustrating season of development. The Celtics have had three different incarnations of themselves since the start of the season, but they have made some significant progress -- especially defensively -- since the start of the season.
Boston has been effective in defending pick-and-roll situations with a 3rd ranking 0.86 points per possessions vs. the "roll man" and a 7th ranking 0.74 points per possessions vs. the "ball-handler," per Synergy Sports. Over the past 10 games, the Celtics have been able to reconstitute their defensive chemistry and build off their strong pick-and-roll foundation to generate some robust rankings in:
- Opponent's points/100 possessions: 5th
- Mid-Range Shooting: 11th
- Above the Break Threes: 4th
Watching film on the team, it is apparent that their hustle and rotations have been substantially more in-tune over the past month plus. The perimeter defense has seen a marked improvement, as has the "multiple efforts" tenacity that has been a part of Coach Stevens' checklist since day one.
Boston is playing at a fairly high level defensively, which has allowed them to stay in games and pull out some victories they were incapable of earlier in the year. But, there are still a couple of glaring deficiencies.
The first area that stands out is "rim protection." Boston is allowing a less-than-ideal 64.8% inside the restricted area, ranking 27th in the league over the past 10 games. Boston has only given up 9.8 offensive rebounds per 100 possessions, which is 5th best and indicates that the Celtics have still had trouble limiting opponents scoring success at the basket.
According to Synergy's Play Type data, since the beginning of the season, Boston ranks:
- 24th in "Post Defense"
- 27th in "Isolation"
- 29th in "Put Backs"
While it would be nice to be able to parse this data by time period, the team's poor interior conversion rate suggests that these likely haven't changed substantially. Outside of Tyler Zeller and Brandon Bass, Boston has not been able to consistently defend the rim -- be it on the initial drive or by securing the defensive rebound and eliminating second chance opportunities. Simply put, Boston lacks length at the five and mobility at the four in a majority of its defensive front court pairings.
The most glaring issue offensively is that Boston has had an anemic attack in terms of efficiency, where they rank a paltry 27th scoring in the restricted area and 25th in Above the Break Threes. These are two telltale areas of a weak Pick-and-Roll game, which is supported by their 27th "Ball Handler" ranking, according to Synergy.
Boston just hasn't gotten enough offense out of their perimeter attack and not enough defense out of their front court. Despite these significant deficiencies, the Celtics have shown the ability to execute their schemes well-enough to hang in virtually every game and be in a position to win in the last four minutes.
This begs the question -- can the Celtics add enough to tip the scales in their favor and start winning with more frequency against the above .500 teams? Boston's defensive improvements have shown to be effective for hanging in games and they have enough on both sides of the ball to keep most games close. But, the "missing ingredients" leave them short against the better opponents.
What's on the Table?
Without getting into a discussion about team-building in the "Analytics Era", let's use the Atlanta Hawks as a over-simplistic example of what can be accomplished when you have a collection of players whom all do 1-2 things at a "elite" level -- all of which complement the others' respective skills.
With the trove of assets at their disposal, could Boston acquire a couple of "non-superstar" players who are elite at a few key game elements that the Celtics are currently lacking? If so, can that be accomplished in a manner that leaves the team with enough assets left over in reserve to hold out for that "final piece" to the puzzle?
Based off recent rumors, it seems like the possibility is there to accomplish this. Isaiah Thomas, Ty Lawson, and Goran Dragic all represent the type of Pick-and-Roll offensive dynamism that Boston is sorely lacking. An infusion of high level offense from the primary ball-handler could make a substantial difference in the type of space Boston's perimeter players have to work with in "Spot-Up" situations as well as creating easier looks for the offensively skilled bigs, in both "Low Post" and "Roll" situations.
If Boston could also add a post player that commands a double team on the block more frequently than Jared Sullinger currently does, the combination of the two could drastically alter the quality of the offensive looks for all players. Common wisdom suggests waiting until the offseason and seeing if the draft or free agency could provide a superior two-way option to Enes Kanter. However, Kanter's size is intriguing and his defensive woes could have as much to do with rotating roster, roles, and coaches as any personal flaws.
Sliding Doors to the Summer
While none of the rumored options would appear to be the type of acquisitions that move the needle, it all depends on price. The moves that are likely to be available may not be the type that lead directly to championships, but they could be the moves that lead to the moves that lead to the title.
For example, owner Wyc Grousbeck recently mentioned the team could potentially have enough cap space for two max players. That is in addition to the 10 first round draft picks the team has over the next four drafts. But cap space and draft picks are less valuable when the current team is not playing at an inspiring level.
It's all about the "pitch" when it comes to sales, and that is exactly what NBA free agency and trade negotiations are all about. As currently constituted, Boston has to sell their team and its current players almost entirely on "vision" with little tangible for outsiders to go off of. There hasn't been enough sustained team or individual success for much more than speculation.
However, if Boston is able to add one or two key ingredients to this puzzle and go on a sustained run over the second half of the season and into the playoffs, that "pitch" is likely to become much stronger -- magnified even more so by having the assets necessary to sell multiple players on becoming a part of a contender.
Boston could theoretically make this trade deadline part of a three act rebuilding play that continues on this offseason and culminates with the 2016 free agency summer, a year where the cap could jump close to $30M. The team has enough assets to "draft, develop, and deal" their way from an upstart young up-and-comer to a team that can sell the "one piece away" mantra to the market place.
In a historically weak Eastern Conference it may pay dividends to add the first domino by Thursday in order to be in a superior position to attack a larger second domino come July. And if that can be accomplished, that final domino might not be as far from reality as it may appear today.
Team-building doesn't have to always go "zero to superstar" -- turning these "chips" into 'chips may be a matter of crawl, walk, run...