The Boston Celtics are one of the only teams in the NBA that does not have a clear-cut best player. People tend to vacillate between Isaiah Thomas, Jared Sullinger and sometimes Marcus Smart, and while all three of those guys are very talented young players, that is not exactly an embarrassment of riches.
There are other ballclubs that have this kind of debate, but the difference is that those squads are generally really, really good.
Take the San Antonio Spurs, for example. They have Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. All three of those players are stars, and it’s tough to distinguish who is best between them.
Many are beginning to favor the younger and sprier Leonard, but Duncan still has a very legitimate argument, and Aldridge can fill the role of “go-to guy.”
Thomas, Sullinger and Smart are not exactly Duncan, Leonard and Aldridge.
Still, we can break down each of the Celtics’ candidates and come to a conclusion as to whom Boston’s best player is.
Let’s examine each one.
Thomas seems to be the most popular choice, as he is the most dynamic scorer and usually has the ball in his hands in late-game situations.
The diminutive guard does numerous things well.
He has blazing speed and quickness, exhibiting the ability to get into the paint at will and draw fouls as a result. Thomas is averaging 5.6 free-throw attempts per game, 6.7 per 36 minutes.
He is also an outstanding finisher around the rim, shooting 61.7 percent on field goals 0-3 feet away from the basket (64.8 percent for his career).
Thomas is recording 20.8 points per game in 30.5 minutes, and if he maintains that level of production, it will mark the second time in his career that he has averaged 20 points (he did it in 2013-14 with the Sacramento Kings).
Plus, the Celtics’ offense functions better when the 26-year-old is on the floor, averaging 106.5 points per 100 possessions as opposed to 97 when he is on the bench.
Seems like a pretty open-and-shut case so far, right? Thomas must be Boston’s best player.
Not so fast. The 5’9″ guard certainly has his drawbacks.
First of all, Thomas is a liability defensively. While the C’s are considerably better with him offensively, they are also much worse with him defensively. The Celtics surrender 101 points per 100 possessions when Thomas is on the court. When is on the bench, they give up only 91.4.
Do the math. Thomas’ defensive deficiencies actually nullify his offensive prowess, giving him a -0.1 net rating overall per 100 possessions.
Also, as explosive of a scorer as Thomas can be, his inconsistent outside shot has been an issue.
Thomas is shooting just 30.6 percent from three-point range this season, and in 21 games with Boston last year, he shot 34.5 percent.
Overall, the University of Washington product is hitting on only 42.1 percent of his shot attempts in 2015-16. His ability to make free throws (85.5 percent) is his saving grace, allowing him to post a respectable true-shooting percentage of 54.5 percent.
There is also the matter of shot selection. Thomas is prone to “chucking” at times (hence the shoddy field-goal percentage), which can ultimately cost his team late in games.
So, while Thomas may appear to be the Celtics’ best player on the surface, he has enough warts in his game to make you think twice.
Remember early in the preseason when it looked like Sullinger was out of the Celtics’ rotation?
Those days are long gone, with Sullinger appearing to lock down a spot in Boston’s starting lineup.
He has certainly earned it, averaging 11.4 points and 9.2 rebounds in 24.4 minutes. Not only that, but Sullinger is hitting triples at a solid rate, burying 37 percent of his long-range tries.
What is the argument for Sullinger as Boston’s No. 1 guy?
Well, first and foremost, he cleans the glass like an algae eater in a freshwater aquarium.
Of the 9.2 rebounds Sullinger is tallying, 3.4 of those come on the offensive end. Per 36 minutes, the 6’9″ big man is averaging 13.4 boards per game. He also owns a total rebound rate of 20 percent.
Second, Sullinger is very versatile offensively, espe
cially if he can keep hitting the three-ball at the rate he has been going.
The 23-year-old can post up, shoot the jumper and create for his teammates. He is a terrific passer and is currently posting a career-high assist percentage of 16.1 percent. Sullinger is averaging 3.4 dimes per 36 minutes.
If anyone should be Boston’s go-to guy at the end of games, it should be Sullinger due to his ability to hurt opponents from all angles.
However, like Thomas, Sullinger has his caveats.
While he has certainly improved defensively and is a very solid one-on-one post defender due to his brute strength and good positioning, he is still not great overall on that end of the floor. The C’s are 6.6 points worse per 100 possessions defensively when Sullinger is in the game.
Another limitation in Sullinger’s performance this year–and this is a strange one–is his lack of free-throw attempts.
The fourth-year pro is taking only 0.9 free throws per game this season. He has never been one to live at the charity stripe, averaging just 2.2 free throws for his career, but this is especially low.
You would think that that would be an area he would improve upon thanks to his physicality on the block and his ability to put the ball on the floor from about 15 feet out, but for whatever reason, Sullinger isn’t getting to the line.
Still, because of Sullinger’s diversity on the offensive end and that he isn’t as big of a defensive liability as Thomas, he has the edge right now.
Smart makes a somewhat interesting case based on his impact away from the basketball.
The second-year guard is such a phenomenal defensive presence that he actually deserves some consideration for this spot. That right there tells you just how good he is on that end of the floor.
That being said, it’s hard to make a strong argument for Smart given his offensive struggles.
Smart is shooting only 32.9 percent so far this season, and while he has had a couple of strong performances, it’s tough to ignore the full sample size.
Your best player should be someone you can trust to do it on both ends, and Smart has been so inefficient that his incredible defense actually gets overshadowed.
There may be a time when Smart develops enough offensively to merit a convincing case in this conversation, but right now, people who say that Smart is the Celtics’ best player are letting the potential future cloud their judgment.
The Oklahoma State product is unquestionably vital to what Boston wants to do, but he is a ways away from being the team’s top guy.
As exciting as Thomas can be, the answer is Sullinger at the moment.
While Thomas only impacts the game in terms of scoring, Sullinger affects it in other ways. His ability to pull down rebounds and to defend low-post scorers makes him a bit more valuable than Thomas overall.
Again, this isn’t exactly a triumph of analysis, as Sullinger, while young and talented, should not be the best player on a contender. In fact, he probably shouldn’t even be the third-best player. Not right now, anyway. Maybe that changes a couple of years down the line, but at the current point in time, there is no question that Sullinger is just a very good role player.
That begs the question: can the Celtics seriously expect to do any damage in the playoffs as currently constructed?
The answer is no.
We have seen it a couple of times already this season. Boston is going to struggle in close games down the stretch due to its lack of a consistent No. 1 option. The Indiana Pacers have already beaten the C’s twice because they have Paul George while the Celtics have Thomas and Sullinger. The Dallas Mavericks topped them on Wednesday night for similar reasons.
The good news is that this Celtics roster is probably going to look very different next season.
Boston has a wealth of draft picks at its disposal, including a potential No. 1 selection via the Brooklyn Nets. Perhaps the C’s can land their “true” best player in the draft, or maybe they trade for an established star.
Whichever method they choose, they have to get it done. The Celtics are full of very good complementary pieces, but teams full of complementary pieces don’t win championships.
Detractors of that argument like to bring up the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons as their trump card, but people seem to forget that that starting lineup was full of All-Stars and guys who could take over games late.
The 2015-16 Boston Celtics are not the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons.
They need more, and they’ll probably get it relatively soon.