Monday, February 24, 2014

How to solve a problem like the Celtics?

As a Celtics fan, this season has been a grim awakening to the realities of the NBA. A team that took Miami to seven games in the 2012 playoffs now a shadow of its former self. There was chatter leading up to the trade deadline that Celtics stalwart Rajon Rondo would be traded, to better embrace a total rebuild.

However, the Celtics haven't been sitting idly by while their doom approached, and instead have stockpiled a number of draft picks, and young, talented players to surround their lone remaining star in Rondo. With the deadline passed and Rondo still in green, it begs the question, what now for the Celtics? Should they trade Rondo in the off-season, hope to land either Embiid, Wiggins or Parker in the draft and prepare for a few years of mediocrity? Or should they build around Rondo and their other pieces, using this draft to add pieces, not build a new foundation?

Before going into what they need to do, let's take a look at their roster as is, and what young pieces they have already.

First up is Jared Sullinger, a guy who was projected in the top-5 if he'd been healthy, but fell due to concerns about his back, allowing the Celtics to pick him up in the early 20's. Although healthy was an issue last season, Sully looks to have put his back problems more or less behind him and is having a solid sophomore year, exhibiting his shooting stroke, rebounding ability and high basketball IQ. However, he's average at best defensively, and is a far sight from the sort of rim protection the Celtics are accustomed to having from their big men. While I wasn't too high on Sullinger coming into the draft, I still believe he can be an excellent undersized 4-man in the mold of David West, but only if he improves his conditioning.

Backing up Sullinger was last year's draft pick Kelly "The Clinic" Olynyk, the Canadian 7-footer with a soft touch inside and out, and hair to make Bill Walton jealous. Like Sullinger, Olynyk gets by on his superior BBIQ and a solid shooting stroke from outside. However, Olynyk's T-Rex-like wingspan prevents him from protecting the rim effectively and playing the 5 alongside Sullinger; they would simply give up too much defensive ability to be a championship frontcourt.

In Avery Bradley, the Celtics have an undersized 2-guard with excellent defensive ability and an improving offensive game who excels at cutting off the ball to get easy baskets. Seemingly the ideal backcourt partner for Rondo, his shaky outside shot and a likely expensive extension to sign him long-term makes Bradley a question-mark for the future.

Jeff Green is another question-mark prospect for the Celtics, an inconsistent SF who has struggled to develop a left-hand or a more reliable jump-shot. He makes spectacular plays every other game, but is predictable with the ball in his hands, seemingly always driving to his right. While I was a big believer in Green as the heir apparent for Paul Pierce, given his age, he's a guy you could let go if he doesn't start delivering on a more consistent basis for a young Celtics team. That said, he's a solid perimeter defender and possesses the length and athleticism to worry the likes of Paul George, Lebron James and Kevin Durant.

Looking at that core group, and including Rondo (whose strengths and weaknesses are well-documented), there are a few glaring weaknesses in the roster; outside shooting, another shot creator and some interior defence.

If those needs are addressed with a likely top-5 pick and a mid-first round pick in this stacked draft, I strongly believe the Celtics can push for the playoffs with Rondo at the helm next season.

With their own pick, the Celtics should be desperately hoping they luck out in the lottery and have a chance at Joel Embiid. Getting Embiid would provide them immediate relief at the 5 spot as a rim-protector and low-post scorer who complements either Olynyk or Sullinger perfectly.

However, given Embiid's outrageously high draft stock there isn't much point planning for a no brainer. Similarly, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins will likely be off the board by the time the Celtics have their pick, so who do they choose?

With Embiid gone, there isn't a rim-protector worth taking in the 5-7 range in this draft, so taking a wing who can score and defend is the best idea.

While Australian Dante Exum has an aura of mystique and a lightning-quick first-step, his poor outside shooting and desire to have the ball in his hands makes him a bad fit. Instead, I think the Celtics should target another combo-guard in the form of Zach LaVine.

Like Exum, LaVine is extremely quick, has a good handle, size to play either guard and defends well. However, he possesses the excellent shooting touch and experience playing off the ball as a 6th man at UCLA. Although his scoring has dipped from the 16ppg he was averaging earling in the season, LaVine is still managing a respectable 10.6ppg on 47% from the field and, importantly, 43% from deep in about 25mpg.

Playing next to college superstar Kyle Anderson is hiding LaVine's immense potential as a scorer, not just a shooter. With Rondo giving him good looks while he finds his feet and already possessing solid defensive abilities, LaVine can be groomed to replace Avery Bradley as a starter while the Celtics make a playoff push next season.

Don't let a recent slump fool you, LaVine is the real deal and has the sort of body control and quickness that just can't be taught.

Assuming LaVine is taken, that still leaves the gaping hole at the 5 needing to be filled. 

Enter Meyers Leonard.

That's right, remember him?

Taken just after Andre Drummond in the 2012 draft, Leonard is a legit 7-feet tall with great length and athleticism, but a raw offensive game. While it might be too soon for Portland to give up on Leonard, Meyers has seen his minutes drop since the arrival of Robin Lopez, and might be available for the first-round pick the Celtics got from the Nets in the Pierce/Garnett trade.

I still believe in Leonard being a productive and capable NBA C, and he gives the Celtics the size they desperately need to pair alongside Sullinger/Olynyk, and an athletic finisher around the rim who runs the floor well in transition.

There simply aren't any big men available in the mid-first round who have higher upside or ability than Leonard. If Portland are willing to bite (Ainge could throw in an expiring contract like Bass to sweeten the deal), suddenly the Celtics' young core is well prepared for a playoff push in the short-tem, whilst retaining long-term upside.

The Celtics will be left with a backcourt of Rondo and LaVine, a big man rotation of Olynyk, Sullinger and Leonard, and Green settling into a role as defensive stopper and third-option scorer.

Could this team win a championship in a few years if these players reach their potential? I say yes.

Problem solved.