The 2014-2015 campaign saw the Boston Celtics exceed every single, solitary expectation thrown their way. With an overachieving roster full of non-starters and a prodigal coach in Brad Stevens, the Celtics found ways to make room for some new blood at the playoff table. Sure, no one’s sitting in the TD Garden locker room popping champagne bottles.
But then again, we can probably count on one hand the amount of times a team has made the playoffs with their head coach as their biggest asset. Think about it. A team of role players was able to send a roster with Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic and Luol Deng to their postseason couches. Obviously, Stevens can only do so much as far as pushing the right buttons and playing to his roster’s strengths. For any type of success to occur, it was the young, impressionable players that needed to latch onto Stevens’s philosophy and run with it. Let’s take a look at the four of the most enigmatic players on the roster and what their futures may hold in Boston.
After sifting through Boston’s infantile roster, Bradley feels like an elder statesman of this group. Five seasons into his career, general manager Danny Ainge now knows the ins and outs of his game as if he has penned the scouting report himself. Bradley built his reputation on hounding on-ball defense, but he has slowly cultivated an offensive skill set that has allowed him to increase his playing time each season. Bradley was on the floor for 31.5 mpg in 77 games this season, a robust number after missing time in previous seasons with nagging shoulder issues.
Despite Bradley’s calling card as one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders, it’s his offense coupled with Coach Stevens’s pace-and-space style that have allowed him to take another step forward this season. He does a great job moving without the ball, more specifically by using high screens to get shots from his favorite mid-range spots. The dribble hand-off he uses right above the break is probably imprinted into every Boston fan’s brain. He finished this season right behind J.J. Redick for most field goals from those hand-offs with 65 makes, according to NBA.com.
Bradley has proven to be an above average mid-range shooter but just an average three-point threat, hitting on 35.2 percent of his attempts this season, which is more than enough to keep a defense from neglecting the shot altogether. Despite his increased efficiency as a shooter, Bradley still lacks the ball handling necessary for anything other than a straight-line dribble drive. This lack of ball handling prowess contributes to his sub-par playmaking abilities as Bradley has creeped over the two assists per game mark just once in his career. In the end, Avery figures to be one of the first guards off the bench for a contending team or used as a matchup nightmare on the defensive end on some nights.
Sullinger took Celtics fans on a roller coaster ride from hell this season. For all intents and purposes, this year was pegged as his breakout even prior to a minute of preseason basketball being played. The debilitating back injury was now in the past and he finally acknowledged the importance of refining his conditioning. The buzz about his new three-point shot was no longer faint, static background noise. His conditioning, however, serves as the sliver in the crumbling foundation. Sully made just over 35 percent of his three-point attempts over the first two months of the season, a mark that would prove to be fool’s gold to his season-long 28 percent from deep.
Despite his seemingly pedestrian shooting numbers, Sullinger was averaging 14.4 PPG and 8.1 RPG before he suffered a stress fracture of his left metatarsal. If sustained, this scoring average would have placed him third on the team behind Isaiah Thomas and just behind Avery Bradley. He may not move with the grace of, well, anyone besides Glen Davis, but he does possess adequate ball skills that allow him to use his frame in some unorthodox ways. He’s essentially the only player on the roster who can consistently fight for rebounds on the glass. Every other big, like Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk, have slight frames that aren’t adept for battling under the rim.
This was a glaring weakness for the Celtics all season long. Sullinger finished the season with the team’s highest rebounding rate, snagging 15.4 percent of the total rebounds available while on the floor. It has to be disconcerting to have multiple seven-footers being outrebounded by your 6’9” teammate. At 23 years old, Sullinger still has the tools and the time to boost his skill set, but I believe he’s on borrowed time in a Boston uniform.
Smart is who we thought he was. Sort of. Pundits everywhere have been echoing the sentiment of Smart’s defensive abilities since training camp. Smart isn’t the explosive first-step athlete that we currently see flooding the point-guard position, but he’s built like a bulldog on testosterone. He has strong, yet quick hands that allow him to stab at deflections in passing lanes and swipe while his opponent is driving. Smart even left LeBron dead in his tracks on a few drives during their short four-game playoff stint against the Cavaliers. Among rookies that played at least 50 games, he finished third in SPG, robbing at a clip of 1.5 per game. Smart also holds a defensive rating of 101.3, a mark that puts him in the top 10 among notable rookies and places him only behind Olynyk on his own team. Olynyk, you ask? Well, these metrics will never be the end all, be all.
Offensively, Smart sputtered along for the first two months of the season before picking it up in January. At this point in the season, he was using the three-point shot as the lone tool to shake himself out of his coma. His obsession with the long ball had reached extremes. Of Smart’s 477 shot attempts this season, 56.2 percent of them were from beyond the arc.
However, Smart’s willingness to take his lumps in the paint in March is an encouraging sign. As he works to improve the 31.8 percent clip from three, it’s imperative that he starts to incorporate moves that allow him to finish at the rim. Smart will never be a full-time starter as long as his offensive game holds him hostage, but he’ll most certainly be called upon for particular matchups.
Rondo who? The December trade between the Celtics and the Dallas Mavericks will now be affectionately known as The Crowder Trade. While Rondo was busy being annexed by Dallas, Crowder was undergoing his playoff baptism against LeBron and the Cavaliers. Take a quick look at the box score after each night, and it might be easy to yawn and skip over Crowder’s line, but it’s hard to place a value on the myriad contributions he made to the Boston roster.
Crowder can guard up to three positions, rebounds well with his 6’6” frame, and has just enough of an offensive game to keep the opponent at bay. Despite his poor three-point shooting (are you sensing a theme here yet?), the Celtics had a 105.0 offensive rating with him on the floor, a number that’s well above the league average.
According to the Boston Globe, the Celtics plan to extend a qualifying offer to Crowder, which will make him a restricted free agent and much harder for teams to pry him away after next year. He embodies the work ethic that Stevens is successfully instilling by bringing his lunch pail to the gym every day. Someone should let him know that he needs to pick a couple up for Olynyk and Evan Turner along the way.