clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Is a Point-Forward the missing piece of the Celtics puzzle?

New, comments

The current Boston roster is a bit of an enigma, but is there a piece that makes more sense of the puzzle?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics roster, as it is currently constructed, has several quirks that make it unique.  If we are using the traditional lexicon, rather than Stevens's new classification, we have too many power forwards and too many combo guards.  We have too many high-quality and serviceable rotation players, but no real stars.  We have only one real center, and one pure point guard.  The solutions to all of these quirks are worthy of extensive breakdown and continued debate, but for today, I'd like to focus on the last one.  The lack of pure point guards in the rotation is something that Boston dealt with since the departure of Rajon Rondo, and it is something that Stevens may have already found a solution for - the point-forward.

First, let's back up.  There are several Celtics players that are currently identified as 'point guards'.  Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas, and Terry Rozier all share this distinction.  Unfortunately, this may be a misnomer, or an attempt to pigeonhole players into roles that we as fans or analysts would prefer they occupy.

Throughout college, Rozier was more of an undersized shooting guard than a floor general.  While he may grow into that mold eventually, that's not the type of player he has proven to be thus far.  He projects as a longer Avery Bradley, with a slightly worse shot and more aggression taking the ball to the rack.  Labeling him as a point guard, rather than a combo guard or even a shooting guard, is a prediction at best, and a disservice to his current skill set at worst.

Marcus Smart is a slightly more difficult case to consider.  We have labeled him a point guard since we drafted him.  He said that he spent an extra year at Oklahoma State so that he could learn to be a more effective point guard.  His status as a point guard helped fuel the rumors of an inevitable Rondo trade.  During this year's Summer League, he was almost always the ball handler when in the game.  All signs point towards his status as a lead guard, except his play on the court.

In this writer's opinion, throughout Smart's tenure in the league thus far, he has trouble escaping pressure with his handle, he has a tendency to be quick to make the first pass (laterally) to get the ball out of his hands as early as possible, and he has fallen in love with shooting the deep ball, often off the dribble, at the expense of the initiation of the offense.

He certainly looked much more comfortable during the summer, particularly in the pick-and-role.  However, through 5 games in Utah, he shot less than 30% from deep, but still attempted 7.8 3-pointers per game.  That decision-making leaves something to be desired; while aggression is good, it shouldn't come at the expense of efficiency and team distribution.

Additionally, even though he started for much of the back end of last season, Smart seldom initiated the offense.  I'm not saying that Smart can't become a good starting point guard, because I believe in the kid, and I don't think there's much he can't do with his drive and work ethic.  However, point guard might not be the position at which he can experience the greatest amount of success, given what his weaknesses on the offensive end have been thus far.  There is a great deal more time, and many more words that should go into this assertion, but that will be an article for another day.

Isaiah Thomas functions as a pure point guard.  He can handle the ball through pressure, he's been successful as a pure ball-handler and a dynamic scorer throughout his career.  He will continue to have success at the ball-handler position, and should not be considered as anything else.  However, this past season, he showed that his defense continues to be something of an issue.  He posted a Defensive Box-Score Plus-Minus of -3.9 while with the Celtics, and notched a 109 Defensive Rating during that same time frame.  His role as a microwave scorer is optimized when he comes off the bench against slightly weaker opposition.  That is the role he played last year, and although there is conjecture about what will happen in the future, that is the role he may well continue to play in the future.

This begs the question; who should be the starting ball-handler for the 'Celtics of the Future'?  While there are several possible answers to this question, we might have already seen a hint as to the answer

Toward the end of last season, the starting lineup (generally) consisted of Marcus Smart, Tyler Zeller, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, and Evan Turner.  Even though he was 'listed' as the starting point guard, Marcus Smart did not generally initiate the offense.  that task was usually left to 'small-forward' Evan Turner.

Turner started 57 games last year, and played as a 1, 2, or 3, depending on whom you ask.  In truth, once Rajon Rondo was traded, Evan Turner spent the vast majority of his time playing the role of point forward.  This helped both Turner and the Celtics as a team to put together an impressive string of successful and effective play after the all-star break.  The presence of a point forward allowed Marcus Smart to stay on the court, where he can make a huge positive difference with his defense on guards, without forcing him to run the offense.  Additionally, it allowed Isaiah Thomas to come off the bench against a slightly more vulnerable defense, which he consistently decimated to the tune of 19 points per game.

Thomas and Smart are generally considered to be the two most viable building blocks of Boston's future, so optimizing the roster around them (as much as that is possible/prudent) is certainly a route worthy of consideration.  As such, point forward is a role that absolutely must be considered in roster construction efforts moving forward.

Now, I'm not saying that Evan Turner ought to be the starting point forward of the Celtics for the next several years.  While I do like ET, his shooting is too inefficient, he is too turnover-prone, and his defense leaves something to be desired.  However, the fact that he was able to be such a positive difference-maker on the team is a testament to how well his point-forward role fit with the rest of the roster.

In fact, there is a point-forward who will almost certainly be available in the 2016 NBA draft, and is about to start his career at LSU.  Am I saying that Danny Ainge should consider trading a bushel of draft picks for a top pick in this year's draft to snag Ben Simmons, in order to add the player who might be the missing puzzle piece that optimizes the corner-stones of our current roster?  Not necessarily, but I'm also not saying he shouldn't.  It might be something that he and Stevens have already discussed.  How much time Evan Turner spends handling the ball throughout this season might speak volumes about what the Celtics' brass intend to do with the ball-handler position moving forward.

Who knows - the season might start with Marcus Smart smoothly distributing the ball, cleanly initiating the offense, making great decisions, and effortlessly escaping pressure with a quick and decisive handle.  Alternatively, Isaiah Thomas may start in place of Bradley, allowing Smart to play off the ball and giving Rozier the chance to run the second unit off the bench.  In either case, this argument would immediately become moot.

However, until one of those two scenarios unfolds, the Celtics have to consider the possibility that a commitment to the point-forward position is the best way to continue marching onward towards Banner 18.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com