Newport is an idyllic seaside city that’s home to beautiful colonial era architecture. It also enjoys a curious status as seemingly existing outside of time and place. Lucky for the Celtics, who traveled there, to begin the work of rebuilding their identity from the bottom up.
The electricity around the Celtics’ acquisitions has been tempered by a healthy dose of wet blankets. Prominent voices around the league have questioned whether the Celtics’ summer transactions will amount to rearranging deck chairs. The thrust of the argument is that the Celtics, in all their eagerness to get the most out of Horford and Hayward’s prime years, may have cost themselves the thing that once led them to overachieve. Will this infusion of stars lead to the Celtics being appreciably better?
What makes a team "tough?"
Grit has become a popular concept in the NBA. WIth teams seeking advantages beyond the court wherever they can find them, new theses seem to find a way to percolate through the league every season. Ryan Holiday’s book on the stoic mindset made the rounds in the NFL last year, and Angela Duckworth’s theory of grit spread before that. It’s one of the tattered books that you imagine Brad Stevens carrying around with him as he’s more than once talked about its influence on his “dope pedagogy”.
Basketball is essentially a tactical game of sets and actions designed to help you gain an advantage, even for a split second. Teams can do that by attacking before the defense is set (in transition, on scramble plays); stretching defenses by making quick reads and swinging the ball around; forcing switches that create mismatches; or imposing a style of play that dictates matchups through brute strength.
Conversely, we might look at grit as a requisite reserve of resilience needed to mitigate factors that threaten a team’s ability to mount a top defense. A successful team needs to build a roster that can defend against individual supernovas (lock down defenders); withstand adversity (experience, championship pedigree, character); and build collective elasticity (synchronicity, communication, depth of defense, switch-ability).
And if that’s not enough, all of that is bound up in the team’s beliefs, discipline and a DNA that starts with the coach, trickles down the team, and is mediated by a player coach -- without whom a coach’s edicts risk falling onto deaf ears, or be executed only selectively.
Taking stock of what the Celtics lost
Earlier this week, Stevens admitted that last year’s team “bucked the trend”; indeed, the Celtics came well short of fulfilling the promise of their defensive billing (they were only middle of the pack). Yet, they managed to surprise on offense.
The team’s grit, as it came to be projected around the league, was predicated on Crowder and Bradley's perimeter toughness. ESPN’s metrics (and outdated commentator sound bytes) have always had an RPM crush on Jae Crowder, but his lateral mobility has taken a plunge due to the platter of high ankle and knee sprains he’s had to bounce back from. He was largely stuck in quicksand, had difficulty keeping guys in front of him, and in the end, was more valued for his rugged leadership.
The Celtics will undoubtedly miss Bradley, who hounded John Wall into shooting 36% in the last 5 games of the Wizards-Series. But the Celtics’ defense always felt susceptible and flat following the initial action. You could sum up the Celtics defensive identity with “fierce one-on-one defense”. In the end, that wasn't enough to withstand the seams that Thomas’ mere presence created, and it also broke down in the playoffs when opposing offenses pounced on the Celtics weaknesses -- lack of size, athleticism and rebounding.
Auditing the Celtics’ less known pieces (i.e. everyone not named Al)
If last year’s Celtics were built for the regular season, this year’s roster is much more equipped to threaten in the playoffs. Let’s look at the collection of parts that Stevens has at his disposal to fashion a new look defense.
Marcus Morris: tough defender, switch-ability, bad dude, durability. Role: complement to Horford’s quiet defensive leadership in the same way Perk acted as KG’s enforcer.
Marcus Morris currently is not with the team, because, of, um, *previous engagements*. While that may not be the finest first impression a player can make, SVG was reluctant to part with him in the Avery Bradley trade. Why? Marcus Morris has in spades what no one else on the team possesses: Rasheed Wallace tinged Philadelphia grit. He’s a vocal presence in the huddle, has been known to get after his teammates and lead them back into games, and will be a nice alchemy jolt to what can sometimes be an introverted team. He has a combination of a strong base that provides resistance in the post, and can use his length against smaller players to make things just a bit more uncomfortable for them.
Marcus Smart: fearless, relentless, draws charges, improved perimeter defense and stamina.
Smart has a knack for the moment. He was also the Celtics most versatile and best all around defender last season. It’s rare that a player can defend the perimeter, the post and challenge shots in the restricted area. Smart does all three, and he’s poised to do more of it and more consistently this season. He also understands that he has to replace Bradley to a certain extent, and has positioned himself to be able to track quicker perimeter players down for longer stretches without petering out. One of my favorite anecdotes from training camp was that Smart now proudly flaunts his physique and regularly gets taunts from Ainge to put his shirt back on.
Semi Ojeleye: multi positional defense, instant 3 and D.
Semi is a defensive cyborg and the most exciting addition in terms of defensive upside. I was in Vegas when Semi (who’s name was mercilessly butchered by the game announcer) was switched onto Dennis Smith Jr. three times and stopped him dead in his tracks. His low center of gravity (and undoubtedly steel glutes), trunk wide stance and foot agility are astonishing given his girth. With his stroke looking more fluid by the game, it’s going to take a lot for Stevens not to give Semi some early burn. Picture a 6’7 Marcus Smart who can legitimately defend all 5 positions.
Gordon Hayward: anticipation, mobility, competitiveness
From Richard Jefferson encouraging Hayward to assume his talent, to seeking out Kobe’s offseason tutelage, to Millsap, who witnessed Hayward’s desire to always continue improving -- there is no shortage of testimony around the league to Hayward’s pressing dedication to upping his game. Remember that Gordon not only bore the brunt of carrying Utah offensively, but the he was also tasked with defending the other team’s top offensive wing. That’s no small feat. There’s a studiousness to Hayward’s defense; he knows guys’ tendencies, understands angles and positioning, and will provide some length to a Celtics defense that at times felt diminutive. He held opponents to 35% from 15ft out.
Aron Baynes: rebounding (hallelujah), coach surrogate, energy, bounciness, infectiousness.
“He’s our best communicator by far – not even close,” Van Gundy said. “And I don’t think anybody out here would say otherwise. He’s right on top of it. He talks early, he talks loudly. I think he helps other people play the game harder.” Baynes is more than a big body and a charismatic accent, meaning his size is not the only thing that benefits a defense. He’s an active defender in the pick and roll, whether he’s showing or dropping back. And he can clean the glass, which might earn him a few starts given that teams still insist on trotting out fairly traditional lineups to start out games. I suspect that Stevens might also use Morris and Baynes’ familiar bond to jumpstart the process of creating chemistry within lineups.
Daniel Theis: hustle, rebounding, junk yard dog.
Theis also brings something to the Celtics that they haven’t had since the aborted promise of Brandon Wright: an energetic, undersize 5. He’s a Birdman type hustle player who’s always bounding down the court with surprising range and a nose for the ball. He’ll likely overindex in pace, deflections, rebounds, tips and turning defense into offense. He also seems to have developed an early connection with Horford, whom his countrymate Schroeder introduced him to, and is coming off a successful Eurobasket campaign where he went to to toe with some of the league's best bigs.
Kyrie Irving: “something to prove”, competitive.
“There’s days where, when he’s highly motivated to do it, you realize he’s special [defensively],” Griffin said. “His hands are lightning quick, his feet are lightning quick. When he wants to, he can do whatever he wants. Fortunately for us, we’ve found that in the playoffs we tend to get the best of him.”
One of the big questions is what kind of upgrade the Celtics are getting at the defensive end by swapping IT for Kyrie. If Kyrie can be more engaged on defense -- he certainly has the ability to at the very least not be a liability -- he’ll surprise the league in more ways than one.
Terry Rozier: has all the tools, the swagger, and will now have the opportunity.
I think this year is the year that Rozier puts it all together. He’s been buried deep in the rotation in the past, with his role oscillating between off ball guard, and playmaker. This season should provide more consistent minutes and clearer expectations. He’s earned those minutes with surprising efficiency, uncanny rebounding and solid defense in limited playing time in the playoffs.
Jaylen Brown: athleticism, mental toughness.
A lot rests on Brown's development this year. Stevens has publicly challenged him to become a lockdown defender and Jaylen has the maturity to internalize that. What remains to be seen is Brown can show improved defensive awareness and focus off the ball, and limit rookie mistakes like biting on pump fakes.
Guerschon Yabusele: offensive rebounds, gravity defying agility.
Remember Big Baby? Bolt on a three point shot and you can see shades of the same player. Davis was a much better defender but if Yabusele harnesses his nimbleness and shows better discipline and economy of movement (without letting his physique slip), he could find a role on this team.
Stevens has shown startling adaptability with every roster and accompanying strengths and weaknesses he’s been dealt. He has an interesting decision on his hands with respect to who to start beside Kyrie, but an expanded palette of weapons to experiment with and grit to withstand the uncertainty of it all. Expect the Celtics to play a more distributed, switch-heavy and physical brand of defense. And with more athleticism, ball handling skills, and multi positional playmaking on the roster, the Celtics will also have an incentive to get their hands on more balls on the defensive so they can leak out on the break and press the issue a bit more than they did last season.
Don’t discount pride as one more spark that could motivate the Celtics to want to prove themselves worthy of the big names they acquired -- and the pivotal ones they had to sacrifice.