Andrew Sharp examined Boston's unexpected success in his recent column for Sports Illustrated, and it's a must-read for Celtics fans. Check it out. It discusses character and attitude that Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens target when evaluating players and the meteoric rise of Stevens' reputation as a player's coach.
The Celtics are winning despite being in the early stages of its rebuild with draft picks to either use or trade and cap space this summer to start attracting potential free agents. Ainge has made savvy moves in acquiring veterans Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Evan Turner as he looks to find a "transcendent" star to join them. Stevens has worked his magic with a young core of drafted Celtics (Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger, and Kelly Olynyk) by identifying their strengths:
"Every NBA player has an elite strength," Stevens explains. "Some of them have 10 of 'em, and those guys are the very best in the league, right? But every one of 'em is here for a reason. And there are times when you can really soar with that skill, and there are times when they may not be as effective."
It's this kind of accommodating coaching style that could make Stevens a draw for free agents this summer. Just like Popovich in San Antonio, he'll figure out the best way to utilize a player's talents and hide his weaknesses. He's already done that with his current roster. Here's Sharp's analysis of AB: "Bradley struggles creating his own shot, but he's the fastest player on the court and he can hit threes, so he's going to spend the possession running off screens like Reggie Miller, and he'll get his open looks that way."
It's not the best example of Bradley doing his best Hondo impression, running defenders ragged through back picks and down screens, but it does show you how Stevens knows his players and is a mastermind of pairing teammates to accentuate their strengths. With Turner keeping his dribble alive and Olynyk keeping his defender close to him because of his ability to shoot from outside, Bradley can quickly go back door for the easy lay up.
Here's Sharp on Jae: "Crowder won't scare teams in isolation, but if he's popping off a screen, he can knock down threes or get into the lane to create for everyone else."
Crowder is still nursing a high-ankle sprain and didn't play in Monday's win vs. Orlando, but it's just another example of Stevens' knowing his personnel. Crowder isn't particularly quick, but if you give him a hole to hit, he'll bulldoze his way to the rim. These quick ball rotations can catch players ball-watching, and Crowder is happy to take advantage of his strength while his defender is sleeping.
And check out Sullinger doing work in the paint in that second GIF (Olynyk less effectively in the first). It's absolutely by design that he's on the low block clearing out the lane for Crowder.
Monday night also marked the triumphant return of Kelly Olynyk. Officially, he returned a week ago, but it wasn't until the Magic game that the rust was finally knocked off KO enough that he could flex his versatility on the floor. The highlight of his stat line will be his 4-for-6 night from behind the arc, but it was an and-1 early in the game when I knew that Kelly was back.
Olynyk's not the strongest or quickest big on the floor, but his shot and point guard skills with the dribble open the entire floor for him. He'd already hit a pair of threes in the first quarter, but instead of launching another, he baited the more athletic Aaron Gordon with a pump fake and went straight to the rim for a layup and a foul. KO got the bucket, but he could have easily kicked it out for a corner AB three.
You'll see a lot of this with Olynyk on the floor: Kelly getting a swing pass after a driver like Thomas or Smart initially breaks down the defense and then having the option of taking the catch-and-shoot or driving the ball against a comprised defense. His versatility as a seven footer has been his calling card since he was the first player drafted under Stevens.
All this makes for a great story for a team of overachievers, but their success will be put to the test in the playoffs and maybe more importantly, in the off-season. Will this team have done enough to attract top flight talent in free agency, or will they have to continue to nurture what they have (including three rookies and a sophomore that have seen very little playing time this season) and what they could potentially draft this summer?