As Jae Crowder missed the potentially game-winning shot at the end of the fourth quarter and the Celtics fell 124-118 in a heartbreaking finish against the Cavaliers, one of the Celtics’ streaks stayed alive. Although they dropped this one and were out-rebounded 46-29, Boston remains undefeated when they win a rebounding battle against the opposing team.
As good as that sounds, it illustrates an underlying issue. In 33 games the Celtics have only won eight rebounding battles. That’s right, the Celtics are 8-0 when they out-rebound the opposing team, and it’s only happened in 24% of their games. They’re now 11-14 in contests where the opposing team hauls in more boards, though five (or 20%) of those games were decided by three rebounds or less.
It has been no secret that the Celts fall short on the boards. They have hovered around the bottom five in rebounding categories all season. Currently they’re -145 in rebounding differential; only the Pelicans, Pacers and Mavericks rank below them. They are also tied for fourth-most offensive rebounds allowed per game with Indiana at 11.5. Second-chance points are a killer, and the Celts are allowing over 11 extra possessions per game on average.
The Celts have certainly found ways to counteract this rebounding disparity, given their third-best record in the Eastern conference. Their initial defense is strong. Opposing teams are shooting only 44.5% from the field against them and 34% from three. Both of those figures put them in the top ten in those categories. However, they’re in the middle of the league when it comes to opposing scoring, which is what matters. Even though teams are taking more shots to score on them, they’re still getting points (104 per game, T-15th). That falls on second-chance points allowed.
Boston ranks T-25th in the NBA with 465 second-chance points allowed, an average of 14.1 per game. That’s an overwhelming amount of points to give up per game, though they are not too far behind the top teams in that category, like the Grizzlies, who give up 11.7 second-chance points per game. If the Celtics gave up 2.4 fewer points per game, they’d be tied for eighth in the league in total defense rather than tied for 15th.
Turnovers help, and the Celtics force 2.5 more turnovers per game than they commit—the third-best ratio in basketball. When the ball is taken away, there can’t be any offensive rebounding, but it hasn’t been enough to save the Celtics from ranking 18th in defensive rating at 105.
One of two things has to change to reverse this disastrous trend: The Celtics either need to limit the amount that they go extremely small or add a more capable rebounder from outside at a reasonable price. A third option would be to pull in a star-level player who also has rebounding impact, such as DeMarcus Cousins, who I spoke in favor of on my last podcast.
The NBA has trended in a smaller direction, but Boston has begun to sacrifice size to a fault. Their third most utilized lineup, the IT&D group, featuring Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Crowder and Al Horford, has played 61 minutes over 16 games. All three of those guards are able to impact the game in unique ways, making it tempting to play all three at once. However, they give up an enormous amount of size with this group. So far they’re a -4, shooting 46% from the field and 32% from three, while only pulling in 2.8 rebounds per game as a five-man group.
Comparatively the Celtics’ typical starting lineup with Amir Johnson on the floor instead of Smart has played 213 minutes over 18 games, averaging 10.2 rebounds per game as a unit. They’re a +15 and have shot 48% from the field and 40% from three. This should be the group the Cs have on the floor during the most important stretches of games if they’re going to stay with this roster.
If they decide to shake things up, there are plenty of intriguing options that could be had for a reasonable price that could fill an enormous hole.
Boston could probably obtain Tyson Chandler for an insignificant price from the hapless, rebuilding Suns. He’s still playing at an intense level, over 24 minutes per game, and is top ten in the NBA in rebounding, hauling in 11.3 per game. He’s a legitimate seven-footer who can run the floor. However, he would not come without red flags. His defensive rating is a career worst 108, and in his 15th season he’s signed through 2019, due to make over $13 million each of the next two seasons. That’s not ideal for a squad that wants to retain flexibility.
On the opposite end of the age spectrum there’s Nerlens Noel. Noel is 23 years old, still with room to grow, but a restricted free agent at the end of this season. For the time being Noel is out of the 76ers’ rotation, a sticky situation similar to the guard logjam in Phoenix that Danny Ainge pulled Thomas out of.
Noel is an incredible athlete whose career eight rebounds per game would be an instant upgrade over anyone on the Celtics’ roster. He’s also a talented defender with shot-blocking capabilities and a respectable 101 career defensive rating. At 6-foot-11 and 228 pounds, he can run the floor with ease, play above the rim, and would bring much-needed length to the front court.
The issue is whether or not he can be anything beyond that. Besides runs to the rim and pick-and-roll buckets, he’s shown little offensive prowess. That shouldn’t be a concern for a team that needs rebounding and defense, but it is one when he’s due a high payday similar to that which most free agents have received with the rising cap. If he’s one of the Celtics’ top earners past this season, there will be pressure to do more, especially in a three-point-heavy Brad Stevens system.
It’s a fine line, but I’m all for him. He’s been in a bad situation in Philadelphia his whole career, there’s still promise for improvement, and I don’t see another impact player who Boston could obtain as easily.
An outside-the-box option is Dallas’ Andrew Bogut. He brings defensive prestige with an elite 5.0+ defensive box plus-minus rating, is one of the best rebounders in basketball at 9.9 per game, and is on an expiring contract with the sinking Mavericks.
He isn’t without his concerns either, though. Through his career he’s been almost perennially injured, especially late in the season like his Finals knee injury this past spring. Also, he has made questionable race-related comments regarding other NBA players that could stir the pot in what has been a good locker room.
Alright, I know—Cousins could certainly break up the locker room in the same fashion, and I’m all for him. But there’s a significant difference in the talent that Cousins and Bogut bring to the table.
There’s others as well. Boston could acquire Marcin Gortat, Nikola Vucevic, Trevor Booker, or one of the Nuggets’ monster centers at the right price due to the situations their teams are in. All rank among the league’s top rebounders.
The Celtics have largely ignored their rebounding issue this season, and it has cost them games. They don’t need to get substantially better in that department, but they do have to be above where they are now.
The loss to the Cavaliers was a breaking point in their woes on the boards. How would you address the situation? It’s a fix that shouldn’t be too hard and should be a top priority for a team that looks comfortable trying to make a run in the east.