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The Championship Checklist

There have been a lot of strong reactions in the wake of Thursday's Draft. Let's take a moment to appreciate how much progress Boston has made towards Banner 18, and unpack how much they have left to do.

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A lot of people, myself included, did not react favorably to Boston's selection of Terry Rozier.  Celtics GM Danny Ainge selected the Louisville guard with the 16th overall pick at the 2015 NBA Draft on Thursday, despite having a slew of guards on the roster.  Many of the Celtics faithful were somewhere between confused and disappointed, given the number of available prospects who filled a need on the team.

However, Rozier has the potential to be a very solid player in the league, and combines a lot of the positive qualities that C's fans already love in Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Isaiah Thomas.  Kevin O'Connor wrote a great piece yesterday on the reasons why Boston fans should learn to embrace the young guard, and I strongly recommend reading it if you're still not sold on him as a prospect.  Damian Lillard also gave the rookie his stamp of approval.  Celtics fans may well fall in love with this kid by the end of Summer League.

More importantly, we should look at the draft in the context of the roster as a whole.  There are a lot of great pieces on the Celtics, and we did address some needs in the draft as well.  Maybe looking at how far we've come, and the things we have left to accomplish, will help us contextualize what happened on Thursday night.

To that end, I have created this checklist for championship contention.  There are a lot of pieces that need to be on a team before the proverbial 'puzzle' is complete.  As a quick disclaimer, I obviously do not consider myself the be-all-end-all of roster building - the following is just this writer's opinion.

Pieces a Championship Team usually has:

1. Great wing defenders: Andre Iguodala won the MVP in large part because of his defense.  Kawhi Leonard did the same thing last year.  Lebron James can guard at least three positions.  Realistically, the road to the championship will run through a dominant wing player, at some point.  Lebron James in the East and Kevin Durant in the West are the clearest examples, obviously, and perhaps the only examples necessary.

2. Rim protection: The Warriors showed the world that not every series has to be won with a big man, but proponents of small ball should keep in mind that Andrew Bogut was needed for Golden State to get to the finals.  Also keep in mind that that move was a gambit; if Mozgov was a better offensive player (both in terms of scoring and in terms of passing) and if the Cavaliers had shot the 3 more consistently, we might instead be talking about how important it is to have a big man through whom you can run an offense.  Additionally, even when the warriors went small, their defenders were still versatile and strong enough to protect the rim effectively.  Rim-protection may not have to come from the traditional center position, but it is important.

3. Great 3-point shooting: There is not a perfect historical precedent for this one, as three-point shooting is the strategy of the present, rather than that of the past.  The prolific rate at which the most successful teams shot the 3-pointer this past year provides an example of the direction in which the modern NBA is trending.  A team needs to have some very good 3-point shooters to both space the floor and improve the overall efficiency of their team's scoring.

4. Two players (at least) who can score outside of the flow of the offense: And yes, I do mean two.  Curry and Thompson; Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli; and James, Wade, and Bosh.  The easiest recent exception that I can think of is the Mavericks from 2011, but Jason Terry could potentially be used as a counter-argument.  Lebron James showed (in both stints in Cleveland) that a single player cannot be relied upon exclusively to score when the defense tightens up at the end of games.  Danny Ainge has made a particular note of this one, saying that he is targeting players who can score individually at the end of games.  I would like to add the caveat that this can be either a perimeter player or a post player.  While 3-point shooting, layups, and free throws are considered the pinnacle of the efficiency, this item on the list only refers to a player who is able to get a bucket on their own, without assistance, when the team needs one.

Bonus (4A) Players who can consistently perform in the clutch: Personally, I feel the notion of 'clutch' is a bit overblown, given it's tendency to focus mostly on reputation.  Perhaps the better way to say things would be this: players who don't consistently fall apart in the clutch.  You must have players who can be trusted to continue their production with the game on the line.

5. Tenacious perimeter defenders: This one is more a prediction than an observation of historical precedent.  With the increasing prevalence of the three-point shot, the need for defenders has become two fold.  While rim protection is still necessary, arc protection is becoming increasingly important.  Players who can chase shooter off of the arc, and force either well-defended shots or long twos, are going to become increasingly valuable.

6. Star Power: For the sake of objectivity, let's say that a star player is any player who can accomplish at least three of the above-mentioned tasks exceptionally well; meaning on a consistent basis, and at a high rate of both production and efficiency.  In this model, a player who is recognized as a top-ten perimeter defender in the league, shoots, say, 38% from beyond the arc (on four or more attempts per game), and can break down the defense at the end of the shot clock would be considered a star.  This is not a traditional definition, but should work for the sake of this model.

7. A good bench: While this final served to illustrate many things about team-building strategy, one of the most important things that it showed us was the importance of depth.  I mean this not only in the sense of how much depth the Warriors had, but also how little depth the Cavaliers had.  No one can get all the way through the playoffs on the backs of only 5 players.  The bench needs to be competent, at the very least.

8. A good (or great) coach: This one almost goes without saying.  All teams have talent at the end of the playoffs, but mismanagement of the team can be a contender's undoing.  Rather than name names, I will highlight that the winners of all recent championships have been led by coach's who were recognized as being at least good, even before they won.

9. A team that completely buys into its coach's strategy: This one is a clear tie-in to number 5; no matter how good a coach is, it's the players on the court that either get the job done, or don't.  If the team doesn't believe in its coach, and doesn't consistently execute his vision, then they will at best lack cohesion and at worst be lost.

10. A team that plays together: This refers to chemistry, as well as to ball movement.  In the modern NBA, a championship team needs to be greater than the sum of its parts.  The Warriors, Spurs, and even the Heat are all examples of this.

There are clearly more items that could go on this list, but this should do, to get the conversation going.

Now, where do the Celtics fit?  How many of these items can they cross off the list?  Well, let's go through things step-by-step.

1. Great wing defenders: Evan Turner was a serviceable defender, but not great.  Jerebko had his moments, but the jury is still out on whether or not he can be a 'great' defender with consistency.  Additionally, he'll be a free agent this year, and might not even end up on the roster.  The likeliest option is Jae Crowder.  He's also a free agent, but both he and the Celtics have expressed a desire for him to stay in Beantown.  I'd be very surprised if we didn't see him in a Celtics uniform again next year.  This would be a great fit, as Crowder is a very underrated defender; he held opposing small forwards to a per 48-minute PER of 11.3.  By the end of this season, if those numbers hold out, he could be classified as a great defender.  As for the draft, none of the players that the Celtics selected project as plus defenders on the wing.

Verdict: Maybe Addressed in the Draft: No

2. Rim Protection: Celtics fans are well aware of how poor Boston's rim protection was this past year.  They finished dead last in the league in rejections per game, with Jared Sullinger leading the team with .7 blocks per contest.  We had no rim protection this year.  However, we did draft the most prolific shot blocker in the NCAA.  Our third overall pick, Jordan Mickey, blocked 3.6 shots per game last year for LSU.  He held his own block party at the NBA Combine as well, notching 8 rejections in the first 5-on-5 scrimmage.  He is a power forward, which is an unorthodox position for a rim-protector, but there is definitely precedent.  If Mickey pans out, he could be an absolute steal, and help provide some of the defense around the cup that Boston has so desperately needed.

Verdict: No Addressed in the Draft: Yes

3. Great 3-point shooting: This past season, the Celtics finished 27th out of thirty teams in 3P%, at 32.7%.  There are some promising shooters on the roster; Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome both brought sharpshooting to Boston, Marcus Smart shot better than expected, and will likely continue to develop in that respect, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley have shown that they can be successful from long range, and Kelly Olynyk has great touch for a big man.  However, those are the only players that shot better than 33.3% from long range, and two of them are free agents this year.  Turner, Crowder, Pressey, Young and Sullinger all attempted at least one three-pointer per game, and all of them converted less than 30% of their long-range tries.  Fortunately, it appears help may be on the horizon, in two forms.  First, James Young is projected to be a very good shooter, and may simply need more time to develop.  Additionally, the Celtics used the 28th overall pick to select RJ Hunter from Georgia State University.  Hunter projects as a great long-range shooter, and could bring help to that aspect of Boston's roster, provided his defense is good enough for him to see the floor.

Verdict: No Addressed in the Draft: Yes

4. Two players (at least) who can score outside of the flow of the offense: The Celtics made a spectacular move at the trade deadline to bring in a player who can create their own shot, and convert it at a consistent rate.  Isaiah Thomas has been a balm for Boston's otherwise anemic offense, and was a primary reason for the Celtics late-season run to the playoffs.  He can create his own shot off the dribble, finish in traffic, and distribute to his teammates off of an isolation play (which amounts to much the same thing).  Interestingly enough, there are two other players who can create their own shot on the roster, now.  One of them played for the Celtics all year, and had a whole highlight reel full of late-game heroics.  Evan Turner was able to make moves into the paint, get separation, and get off open looks at the end of games all year.  He was able to score outside of the flow of the offense, and dragged our team through to the end of crunch time on more than one occasion..  Unfortunately, he was not able to convert his looks with sufficient accuracy or consistency.  We also addressed this need in the draft.  Terry Rozier, our first pick, was the primary shot creator for one of the worst shooting teams that Louisville has had in recent memory.  Despite having defenders stacked in the paint consistently, he was able to get to the rim on a regular basis.  It will be interesting to see if he can step into this role with the Celtics, or if the decision-making and finishing issues that plagued him in college will hamstring him at the next level.  Additionally, Marcus Smart may eventually evolve into this role, if he ever rediscovers the love he had for driving hard to the hoop while playing at Oklahoma State.

Verdict: Yes (but could improve) Addressed in the Draft: Yes

Bonus (4A) Players who can consistently perform in the clutch: This was Boston's biggest problem two years ago, but became an area of strength this past season.  Brad Stevens' young club stopped throwing away games in the last few minutes, and saw their fair share of buzzer-beater heroics, as well.  Most of the players on the team have shown that they can be successful in the clutch, with particularly good examples being Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Evan Turner, and Tyler Zeller (with advice from Datome).  Additionally, RJ Hunter already has a buzzer-beater of his own, to lead Georgia State past Baylor in the NCAA tournament.  This projects as a strength for Boston, moving forward.

Verdict: Yes Addressed in the Draft: Yes

5. Tenacious perimeter defenders: This might be Boston's biggest strength.  Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, and Jae Crowder are all very good defenders, and the Celtics as a team are very good at chasing their opponents off the arc.  Additionally, draft pick Terry Rozier figures to add to an already solid defensive backcourt.  Opposing guards should dread playing the Celtics this year.

Verdict: Yes Addressed in the Draft: Yes

6. Star Power: This was not a strength for the Celtics this year.  Putting aside their zero all-star selections, they didn't have any players who could play 3 or more of the roles previously discussed.  Marcus Smart may get there one day, but it seems clear that the Celtics do not have any stars on the roster, as it stands right now.  Given the flaws and limitations of the prospects who were selected by Boston, it seems unlikely that they picked up a player of this mold in this year's Draft.

Verdict: No Addressed in the Draft: No

7. A good bench: While the players who came off the bench changed throughout the year, the bench unit was consistently good, and often outplayed the opposing bench.  This was an area of strength for Boston last year, and will likely continue to be an area of strength, moving forward.  The team picked up several good pieces in the draft that will almost certainly come off the bench.  Additionally, any high-level players picked up in free agency would relegate existing starters to the bench, further improving that unit.  Boston's bench should be very good this year.

Verdict: Yes Addressed in the Draft: Yes

8. A good (or great) coach: The Celtics' greatest asset is Brad Stevens.  Perhaps it's just this writer's opinion, but it would be very surprising if he never won a Coach of the Year award.  He has maintained a positive attitude on the bench and in the locker room, and he has been a wizard with his out-of-bounds plays.  This one is an easy item to check off the list.

Verdict: Yes Addressed in the Draft: N/A

9. A team that completely buys into its coach's strategy: This is another mark of Brad Stevens' caliber.  Once Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green were traded, the team ran the way that its coach has been saying it would; pace and space became the name of the game.  The team ran their coach's strategy well, and without complaint or fuss.  It speaks wonders about a coach when all of their players have nothing but good things to say about them.  As for the incoming players, they should respond well to Stevens, given his reputation and past success.  Hunter, in particular, should have great chemistry with his new coach; he's known him for years.

Verdict: Yes Addressed in the Draft: Kind of?

10. A team that plays together: Again, once Rondo and Green were traded away, things seemed to make more sense for the Celtics (no disrespect intended to either player, I'll always love both of them for what they gave to the Celtics).  Ball movement was good, and there were no reported chemistry issues.  Everything seemed to run smoothly in the locker room, and on the court.  Boston had the fourth most assists of any team in the NBA this past year.  Every team is new every year, so it is impossible to predict team chemistry with certainty, but all signs point to this being another strength for the Celtics this year.

Verdict: Yes Addressed in the Draft: N/A (We'll see)

So, how did the Celtics do?  They can check 6 items off of the list (plus a bonus item) and are halfway through a check on a seventh.  In addition, two of the three items that are unchecked (rim protection and shooting) were addressed with picks in the draft (Mickey and Hunter).  For those of you who scoff at those two prospects filling our needs, keep in mind that we got them with the 33rd and 28th picks, and that they were the most prolific shot-blocker and one of the best shooters (respectively) in the NCAA this past season.

The only item that still seems to have eluded Boston (assuming their draft picks pan out) is star power.  On that front, Danny Ainge has a whole mountain of draft picks and a ton of cap space to pursue an established star, or a player who has shown that they are on the trajectory to reach stardom.

Boston has effectively positioned itself to continue to improve, and to continue to take steps towards title contention.  They have a boatload of assets that they can use to improve even more, and they have a GM who's willing to do just that.  They have a great coach, great fans, and 6.5 out of 10 items on a checklist to contention.

Say what you want to about drafting for need, the Celtics addressed a couple of important needs on draft night.  Even if they were not the selections that everyone was expecting, they will help Boston take it's next step on the road to Banner 18.

Now, on to free agency!  Sound off in the comments below; who do you think we can pick up to help check the rest of these items off of the list?

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